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Hamsters Got Soul

Rodents are back, but Kia's not spinning its wheels

By Lawrence Ulrich Jun 21, 2010 11:26AM

The Kia Optima. (Photo courtesy of Kia.)So is it the cars, or the hamsters? Kia, as you may have heard, is one of just three car brands (along with Hyundai and Subaru) that made hay from the recession in 2009: Kia sales jumped nearly 10 percent, even as the industry at large slumped by 21 percent. But as much as I’d love to credit those adorable, anthropomorphic hamsters from the Kia ads, it was the product -- with better designs, improved quality and recession-ready pricing and warranties -- that did the trick. Now, with momentum -- and yes, the return of the hip-hop hamsters, in one of the most irresistible car ads I’ve seen in some time -- on its side, Kia will look to sustain the flow with a slew of products designed to offer more than just a low, low price.


At a media lunch with Michael Sprague, now Kia’s marketing VP after a long career at Ford and Mazda, Sprague gave a frank summary of what people thought of the Kia brand not too many years ago: “We were poor quality, cheap, not here for the long haul.”


That kind of reputation doesn’t change overnight, but it is changing. Kia has captured 2.9 percent of the car market, outselling such venerable brands as Mazda and Volkswagen.

Now Kia is out to create a family resemblance for its once-scattershot lineup, led by Kia’s design chief Peter Schreyer (formerly of Audi). The brand also hopes to differentiate itself from Hyundai by aiming for a slightly younger, sportier buyer.


From a design standpoint, the new Sportage compact crossover and Optima sedan -- both penned by Schreyer -- should also turn heads and change minds. The Optima is the sibling of the new Hyundai Sonata, and as sleek as the Sonata looks, the Optima is better: By the plain-Jane standards of most family sedans, the Optima is Penelope Cruz in comparison. Like the Hyundai, Kia will also up its technology game with a direct-injection, turbocharged Optima, along with a hybrid version. The standard and turbocharged Optimas go on sale in October, with the hybrid slated for early next year. (Pricing is not yet set for the Optima, but the Sonata starts at a fraction under $20,000 and you can expect a similarly attractive sticker for the Optima.)


Kia will also be rolling out its UVO (for ‘Your Voice”) system, developed with Microsoft (Editor's note: for disclosure reasons, we should remind everyone that this blog is owned by that company), that Sprague described as a more user-friendly, 2.0 version of the Ford Sync hands-free controller for phones, audio and navigation. (Microsoft’s exclusivity agreement with Ford is expiring, freeing it to apply its technology with other automakers.) Sprague called Sync a marketing masterstroke for Ford, which helped to change its public perception from “a technology laggard to a technology leader.”


And with the homegrown economy struggling, it can’t hurt Kia to remind people that its new Sorento crossover is built in America at a West Point, Georgia plant that drew 44,000 job applications in a single wave of recruiting. That plant now employs 2,500 people, and 7,500 when you count local supplier jobs.


Kia will play up the made-in-America angle in upcoming ads. But who cares about jobs when you can watch the urban hamsters bringing the Soul to the masses? Set to the old-school beat of the Black Sheep, the new ad cleverly positions the funky, under-$14,000 Soul as the hip alternative to dull appliances -- literally toasters, washing machines and even a cardboard box -- driven by other unfortunate rodents. The ad is filled with great details -- my favorites being the “Hamsterdam” street sign, the cheerleaders and the way the hamster paint-bucket drummer looks as totally stoned as any hip-hop timekeeper. (Hey, go easy on those pellets, fella.) Kia even has a "Hamstar" clothing line, which means a hamster-fragrance isn't far behind.


Coincidentally, when I joined the masses at the brilliant “Toy Story 3” on its opening day, there they were: The hip-hop hamsters, doing their swaggering best to pimp the Kia Soul during the trailers. Who knew Kia had this much marketing cash, anyway?

[Photo courtesy of Kia.]

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