Hyundai’s Moment

When 90 million Americans tuned into the Super Bowl in February, they were looking for an escape in more ways than just watching the game and downing a few beers. In January, employers had slashed 598,000 workers from their payrolls, wages were sinking, unemployment had hit 7.6 percent and people — everywhere — were suddenly afraid to participate in the most American of activities: shopping. So it was probably no wonder that most of the ads that fans would watch during the big game kept things light and took the humorous route. People had heard enough bad news. Most brands elected to either skirt the subject of the recession, or ignore it completely.

A rare, 30-second exception opened with footage of a teeming interstate and a contemplative-looking young woman at the wheel of her car. “Whenever you buy a new car, you have to sign a contract,” intoned actor Jeff Bridges. “But what about the company selling it to you?” A few shots of highways and dashboards later came the kicker: “Finance or lease any new Hyundai, and if you lose your income in the next year, you can return it with no impact on your credit. Sound too good to be true? Come and see us and we’ll put it in writing for you.”

As Super Bowl ads go, the spot wasn’t much to look at-no celebrity endorsers, no computer-generated effects, no big-budget action sequences. It felt more like an ad for an insurance company. In terms of its marketing ambitions, however, Hyundai’s “Assurance” spot was part of something very big. In the world of the auto industry, in fact, it was earthshaking.

It was the sound of a once-obscure brand jockeying for the big time.

Hyundai Motor America, whose parent corporation is headquartered in South Korea, had already made significant headway in turning around the perception that its cars were inferior to Japanese brands. It had risen to become the fifth largest auto manufacturer in the world. Heck, it had even managed to teach a large share of Americans to pronounce its name (rhymes with “Sunday,” as its ads once said, even though some Christian groups took offense at the usage). But as the North American unit and its creative agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, watched the beginnings of economic catastrophe and the deteriorating fortunes of automotive rivals, they sensed an opportunity.

With Detroit’s Big Three on the ropes and even some Japanese nameplates suffering, millions of would-be car buyers were suddenly brand-less. Hyundai saw no reason why it should not be their new brand.

“The last time a company like Hyundai could build brand and steal market share was almost 40 years ago,” says Joel Ewanick, vp of marketing for Hyundai Motor America. “And before that, you had to go back to 1930, when General Motors stole the leadership position away from Ford.” The Hyundai Assurance Program — the subject of the Super Bowl spot — would be the company’s first attempt at that steal. It would follow the effort soon after with Hyundai Assurance Plus.

Now, four months into its ambitious plans, Hyundai is just beginning to find out exactly how effective it’s all been. Not that Assurance is the sum total of Hyundai’s efforts to load up the trunk with more market share. At a time when industry watchers are predicting that General Motors (assuming it survives) will have to pare down to a mere handful of models, Hyundai will introduce three new car models in 2010 and seven in 2011.

There’s also another important positioning change for the company: the new Genesis nameplate is a clear bid for presence in the luxury category. “We’re well poised with hybrids, all new models, really fresh and aggressive styling,” says Ewanick, whose team is working with a new creative agency, World Marketing Group, on a comprehensive marketing plan to build momentum behind the new wheels.