By Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)
The name Kia still has a stigma.
By definition, that word might seem kind of harsh, but the reality is that the common person who doesn't follow the auto industry or hasn't been in the market for a new car doesn't know how fundamentally different this brand is from the early 2000s. I recently asked fellow Complex colleagues and friends of mine what the first thing they thought of was in relation to Kia. The majority of them answered, "cheap." It wasn't just cheap price either, they were talking quality. That's not all that hard to understand. If you step back, you'll realize it's only been eight years since the Korean company was making cars that looked like this:
They're not exactly ugly (maybe some were), but they're definitely not attractive. They're just kind of there. You would never walk by and have any strong feeling toward these cars, and this brand has always been a brand for budget cars. It was in 2006, though, that a man by the name of Peter Schreyer took control of the design at Kia and put it on the path to renaissance (he had previously designed the Audi TT). Along the lines of our description, Schreyer said that he was neutral about the brand. He wanted to give it an identity, a "face" that made the cars recognizably Kias. That face was named the "Tiger Nose" and first showed up on the Kee concept at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show. That nose is currently across an entirely redesigned, beautiful lineup of vehicles in one form or another.
Okay, so the cars look nice now. But are they actually nice, and do people know that they're all-around very solid packages (as Marshawn Lynch would say, nothin' is better than solid)?
The short answer to the first question is "yes." We've been in these cars, and it's pretty shocking (again, enter the pre-conceived notions) what kind of car you're getting for the low price (all but three of the company's current cars start at less than $25,000). The styling is unique and youthful, the technology is right on par with or better than competitors, the rides are comfortable and smooth, and for the most part, the engine options are good.
The short answer to the second question is "select circles do, a lot still don't." The change for this company is remarkable, but the effects of this change still have a long way to go. The success story of Cadillac is proof that it can take more than a decade and a lot of investment for a plan to fully hit stride. Even after, there are still going to be doubters that have yet to be reached. The circles who know the new Kia are auto journalists, the enthusiasts who read car blogs, and people who have actually had to do research for buying a new car recently. Maybe you have a some people who have heard by word of mouth from their relatives or neighbors, but a large majority outside those circles are still in the dark.
In this year's Consumer Reports brand perception survey, Kia's name showed up only one time. For seven key factors (quality, safety, performance, value, fuel economy, design/style, technology/innovation), CS named the Top 5 brands. Kia was on one Top 5: value. In the overall listing of best and worst perception, Kia was neither in the Top 10, nor was it in the Bottom 10. It was somewhere in the unlisted middle.
The middle isn't a bad place to be. Obviously, people are starting to know the brand enough not to have negative feelings. That's partially in part due to natural correlation with the brand bettering itself, it's partially in part due to very successful marketing campaigns (hamsters anyone?) and excellently chosen sponsorships (hello NBA and Blake Griffin dunking over an Optima!), and it's largely due to the tremendously attractive 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. But middle of the pack is neutral, which is exactly what Schreyer specifically said he doesn't want the company to be.
The reality of many people in my generation is that we're brand whores.
Now, being highly regarded for value is a great start. If it's a good value, that means a large number of people will be considering buying your car, because of their limited funds and the rising average price of a car these days (it was recently reported that the average cost of a car in August 2013 was $31,232). Seriously, to repeat, what you're getting for a $25,000 Kia is hard to beat. But now that the brand has established itself in that regard, it's trying to conquer other areas, which is why it recently released the $35,000 Cadenza and its first real flagship sedan, the rear-wheel-drive, high-luxury K900, which starts at a $60,000.
"Wait, a $60,000 KIA!?!?!?! Who the hell would pay that much for a Kia?"
... said most of my friends and colleagues who I talked to about Kia's recent K900 Super Bowl commercial (the Matrix one with Morpheus). The very evident reality of many people in my generation is that we're brand whores. To some, it doesn't matter how good a car actually is, they still aren't going to consider it simply because of that badge up front. Obviously, there are exceptions, but younger adults and kids can often be snobby about what they're eating, wearing, and driving. Kia isn't exactly a reputable or prestigious brand.
The slogan for Kia is "The Power to Surprise." The company has mastered that. That ad, according to Edmunds, created a 7,100 percent increase in search traffic for the K900. That's huge! But the point I've been making is that people are still like, "oh, but it's a Kia." So, while the company is obviously trying to build brand recognition and surprise people, maybe it's time to step back and sort of hide the fact that its cars are indeed Kias. Maybe not hide, but at least divert initial thoughts.
My simple proposal that I think would make a huge difference: MAKE A NEW LOGO. To me, this just seems like a logical next step to continue the brand's transformation. Here are a few of the company's past and current efforts:
The logo that appears on today's cars is basically a black and chrome version of the top left variation, and the one on the bottom left is what's all over the company's websites. Maybe this is only my mind, but my immediate link to that plain red and white logo is the Little Tikes logo. That's not exactly a good thing when you're trying to up your quality appearance. By changing the logo, I think the company could wash away some of the immediate "oh, but it's a Kia" reactions, or at least postpone them until the consumer shows more dedicated interest.
Who wants to drive a car that they assume other people look down on?
One obvious retort to this is that people wouldn't be able to tell what kind of car it is at all, thus losing any chance of future inquiry and losing the brand loyalty that the company has already developed. Which is true, but think about the second angle of people's perception of Kia: If they think it's cheaper, they assume other people probably think the same thing. Who wants to drive a car that they assume other people look down on? With a different logo, there's not that straight recognition, hence people might find more pride in driving the car and wouldn't be ashamed. And as far as loyalty goes, the people who already like Kia aren't going to stray away because the company got a cool new badge.
A second response might be that they'd find out that it's a Kia anyway. Well, okay, yes, but it also would require a more in-depth look, which could end up turning a doubter into a believer. And that's what it's all about, right? Getting people to pay closer attention? The hardest part is drawing a person in. The brand has a huge advantage in that department with its attractive vehicles, but that blatant Kia badging might turn some customers off. They need to be able to keep those who show slight interest.
If they think a total brand rebadging is too much, then it should at least be done for the K900. Kia's sister company Hyundai already made this exact change with its high-priced sedans, the Equus and the Genesis. It only makes sense for Kia to do the same. The biggest car commercial of the Super Bowl was the Maserati spot, which was also advertising a luxury sedan, sort of similar to the K900 (just with a much sportier edge). If you didn't know, the Ghibli is Maserati's effort to reach a lower customer base, pricing at around $67,000. Considering that's well within the $60K K900 price range, which car would you be more likely to buy, if you were choosing strictly on the logo? The one with the awesome trident? Or the one with Kia surrounded by an oval?