Hyundai Taps ‘Inner Circle’

NEW YORK On Feb. 17, Hyundai North America president John Krafcik will speak with an invitation-only gathering of some of the brand’s most loyal customers. He won’t be meeting them in person, however, but via the brand’s new Web community, Hyundai Think Tank.

Set up late last year, the site gets together 1,000 people who either own Hyundai cars or have expressed interest in them at auto shows and other events.

This is the carmaker’s first attempt to use networking technologies for feedback on its marketing and product design. Think Tank taps the current vogue around “crowdsourcing.” This stems from the imperative for brands to bring customers into their marketing and development processes. Think Tank members, for instance, were polled before the rollout of Hyundai’s Assurance program, which lets a car owner return his or her car if they lose their job.

Hyundai is taking a different approach from well-known case studies from Dell and Starbucks, which both launched public communities. Namely, Think Tank is invitation only.

“It’s important to have people passionate about the brand provide the input,” said Eileen Mahdi, manager of consumer insights for Hyundai. “It’s that much richer input.”

Open communities like My Starbucks Idea and Dell’s IdeaStorm often devolve into customers asking for free things or airing complaints, said Stephen Howe, president of Passenger, which provides the networking platform for Hyundai. “I doubt those people are more likely to buy at Starbucks. This is an inner circle of trusted advisors.”

Hyundai is revamping its image to stand for affordable luxury for the savvy buyer versus its past association as being a cheap car brand. Unlike other carmakers, Hyundai’s sales were up 14 percent year-over-year last month.