Joel Ewanick was not getting what he wanted. At the time, October 2008, the automotive industry was doing a Thelma & Louise dive off an economic Grand Canyon. And the focus group Ewanick was moderating just wouldn't cough up the answers he so desperately wanted.
"We kept saying, 'Why aren't you buying a car right now? You say you want to buy one, but you're not doing it!'" says Ewanick, the vp of marketing at Hyundai Motor America.
Ewanick notes that at the time car dealers were offering some of the best financing deals anyone had ever seen. "We pressed, and we pressed."
Finally, he hit pay dirt. "It turned out they were in a fearful state. And once you understand that fear, then you can come up with something like Assurance."
The Hyundai Assurance plan, ushered in with splashy Super Bowl commercials, makes a simple promise: If you finance or lease a new Hyundai, and then lose your job, you can return it. The company later upped the ante in Academy Award ads by offering to make loan payments for three months if consumers financed or leased a Hyundai before the end of April and subsequently lost their jobs. In July, Hyundai kicked into fifth gear with the Assurance Gas Lock offer, which promised that if the owner of certain new models pay more than $1.49 a gallon at the pump, Hyundai will pony up the difference for a year.
In a horrible year for car sales, the idea seems to have resonated. One measure of Assurance's success is the number of copycat programs from Sears and Hewlett-Packard, among others. Another is car sales. Between January and July 2009, Hyundai sold some 250,000 vehicles—only about 20,000 shy of results during the same period in 2008. Sure, that's about an 8 percent drop, but it's miles better than the 32 percent average decline that the overall market experienced during the same period, according to Autodata. Yet another measure is the fact that the carmaker is actually (get this!) profitable. In fact, according to Wesley Brown, a partner of Iceology, a brand-engagement consultancy that specializes in the auto business, HMA is probably the only U.S. unit of a major auto manufacturer that can make the profitability claim, with possibly the exception of Subaru of America. (The Subaru unit doesn't declare a profit, according to a rep there.) To top it off, only 100 Hyundai cars had been returned as of mid-August.
But to Ewanick, a purer way of judging the campaign is an in-house survey conducted in July, which put Hyundai at an all-time high in terms of brand opinion: Seven out of 10 respondents had either a positive or neutral perception of the brand—not bad considering that only about a decade ago the Hyundai name was little more than a punch line with U.S. consumers.
The hands-on relentlessness that characterized Ewanick's pursuit of focus-group answers is an indication of what makes him stand out from other marketers. Ewanick, the former director of planning at The Richards Group, only joined Hyundai in 2007. Clearly, his outsider status has worked to his advantage. Ewanick, who hoped to emulate General Motors' jump in market share during the Great Depression, wasn't hung up on what a CMO should or shouldn't do to achieve success. "To have an executive at that level moderate a focus group, at least in the automotive industry, is relatively unique," says Brown. "I wonder sometimes if Joel's running on nuclear fuel," says Jim Sanfilippo, evp and COO of Innocean Worldwide Americas, Hyundai's agency of record.
Perhaps Ewanick's greatest marketing effort was to Hyundai's board. After the pitch, "I swear, you could have heard a pin drop for the first 20 seconds," Ewanick says. "And once the guys picked their jaws up off the table, they started saying: 'Did you just say what I think you just said?'"
Once the executive team agreed, Ewanick moved quickly before they changed their minds; only 37 days passed between the time he first presented the idea and when the first Assurance ads appeared on the air during the Super Bowl.
Ewanick will have to continue that quick thinking. Over the next two years, his team will put a high-gloss shine on five new versions of existing brands and two entirely new car lines. With one newbie, already marketed in South Korea as the Equus, Hyundai will be directly competing with the world's most luxurious car brands for the first time.
Steering the brand into the luxe arena—one where Volkswagen, for one, has had a false start—will take the sort of agility that Ewanick employed this year. But if he could convince a spending-averse U.S. public to plunk down upwards of $20,000 on a new car, who knows what he can do next?
Photography by Brad Swonetz