Kia's Michael Sprague on Challenging Consumers to Raise Awareness

By ANA Archives
Cover image for  article: Kia's Michael Sprague on Challenging Consumers to Raise Awareness

Having entered the U.S. market in 1994, Kia Motors is still considered a relatively unknown brand. But that perception is quickly changing. Through bold and inspiring marketing, innovative partnerships and a relentless focus on fostering cultural diversity within the workplace and across its global network of distributors and dealers, the company is attracting serious attention and making its competitors take notice. Kia reports that it has sold more than 6.3 million vehicles in America and is now the eighth largest car company in the U.S. by annual sales volume.  Its marketing efforts are meant to challenge what consumers think about the brand, raise awareness and increase perception and consideration, says Michael Sprague (pictured above), Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President at Kia Motors America. “We do this by telling our story across multiple platforms and in ways that stand out from the sea of sameness in the cluttered auto sector, forging partnerships with like-minded organizations and individuals who are not afraid to defy conventional thinking, and engaging with consumers in authentic manners that correlate with their daily lives,” says Sprague, who will speak at the ANA Multicultural Marketing and Diversity Conference, October 9-11 in Los Angeles, Calif.

In this interview, Sprague discusses Kia’s total marketing approach to advertising, the award-winning campaigns starring the iconic music-loving hamsters, and how the company is creating a culture of diversity to ensure long-term success.

Q. Kia has employed a total market approach since 2009. How did you build consensus for the approach across the business?

A. In late-2008 we were preparing to launch the Soul urban passenger vehicle, a new car that signaled the beginning of Kia’s design-led transformation. We knew we had something special on our hands, but the question we asked ourselves and our agencies and business partners was how do we stand out from the crowd? Ultimately, we determined that a more holistic and all-inclusive approach to marketing communications would help reposition the brand and allow us to move away from the “cheap and cheerful” image Kia had historically maintained and focus on presenting our company and products as a new alternative for confident individuals looking for something different. From that point, everybody, at all levels of our organization, bought in and invested themselves in the total market approach, and we have never looked back.

Q. What insight led to the development of the Hamster campaign? Why has the campaign resonated with targeted audiences?

A. When the Soul first launched in 2009, it was different from anything else on the road and people celebrated it because it was so unique. It was important that our advertising embrace that spirit of individuality and demonstrate that something exciting was happening at Kia -- and that’s where the hamsters came in. The original spots were a major departure from traditional automotive advertising, using a very literal take on the daily grind of commuting -- the proverbial hamster wheel -- to illustrate just how new and different the Soul was. Since then, in every campaign they are in, the hamsters always have fun and the message remains the same: bringing people together through music. The hamsters are all about inclusion, their optimism is contagious, and much like the Soul, they are instantly recognizable. You can’t see an image of one without instantly associating it with the other.

Q. Please talk about the ways you are uniting varied audiences around the Kia brand.

A. Our goal is to engage as wide and diverse an audience as possible in authentic and meaningful ways across four key pillars: sports, music, pop culture and connected life. This is reflected in our wide variety of partnerships with, among others, the NBA, the LPGA, FIFA, the Billboard Music Awards and Univision’s Neustra Belleza Latina. These partnerships were also the driving force behind the creation of our latest Soul campaign, which uses the power of music to unite people from around the globe at a time when there is so much negativity in the world. The latest spot is our most ambitious hamster production to date, bringing together 30 different musical instruments representing more than 20 cultures from around the world. To be as accurate and authentic as possible, we, along with our advertising agency of record, David&Goliath, consulted with ethnomusicologists, including Dr. Steven Loza, Chair of the UCLA Herb Albert School of Music’s Department of Ethnomusicology. The school helped us curate the globally inspired jam session and sound featuring musical instruments from around the world. From there we made sure the clothing was representative of the cultures featured, and the dance moves and gestures performed were also on point. The bringing together of so many different cultures, sounds, and looks helped us create an incredible spot that has generated more than 40 million online views.

Q. You oversee a network of 770 dealers. How do you ensure these dealers represent the diversity and culture you promote through your advertising?

A. In addition to working closely with the National Automobile Dealers Association and the National Association of Minority Auto Dealers on an ongoing basis to promote solution-based diversity education and help minority and women-owned dealerships succeed, in 2012 we hired Kia’s first head of corporate diversity initiatives in the U.S. In her role, Rhonda Bolton leads the development and implementation of policies aligned with the company’s philosophy of promoting inclusion within our workforce, dealer network, and customer and supplier bases, as well as within the communities we serve. She and her team have helped launch several new programs, including an initiative to increase minority representation in the company’s dealer network and promote an inclusive workplace through leadership training.

Q. You also manage the training and development of more than 380 personnel in your organization. Does diversity training play a big part in creating culture awareness?

A. As a global company with over 50,000 employees worldwide and a network of distributors and dealers spanning approximately 180 countries, Kia values diversity and is creating a corporate culture that encourages team members to build trust through mutual respect and acceptance of different opinions. Our management philosophy is guided by five core values that define who we are and teach us to offer opportunities for team members to share experiences and knowledge based on clear goals and open-mindedness in order to learn from one another each and every day.

The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of management or associated bloggers. 

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