Len Hunt, Kia Motors America's new chief operating officer, is delighted because he has just received his first e-mail from an enthusiastic Kia customer writing about his vehicle.
“I'll respond, and it will be the start a growing number of exchanges between me and Kia owners,” says Hunt.
That sort of thing happened when he headed Volkswagen of America before joining Kia in October. He would visit VW's interactive website and regularly communicate with customers by e-mail and phone.
One of the most heartfelt e-mails he received at VW was from a mother of a young man who died in an auto accident. She told Hunt how much her son loved his Jetta. At the accident scene, his friends had erected a roadside memorial that included a replicated VW logo.
Sad as it is, that is passion for the product. So, too, is when Harley-Davidson owners tattoo the motorcycle maker's logo on their arms even though “we're a few years from that,” Hunt says of Kia.
Yet, he is trying to move Kia in that direction as it expands its U.S. lineup and introduces new and redone vehicles touted as vastly superior to their predecessors.
The second-generation Sedona minivan is the latest such vehicle that Hunt says “leap-frogs” past its descendent, as did the all-new Sportage SUV and Rio subcompact last year.
Kia sales have increased every year since the South Korean auto maker first entered the U.S. market, from 12,163 units in 1994 to 275,851 last year.
But besides building vehicles, Hunt says Kia must build its brand. It has work to do there because many consumers still see Kias as cheap, entry-level vehicles despite an expanded 9-vehicle lineup with some models selling for more than $30,000.
A successful brand climbs from consumer confidence to buyer pride to owner passion. “Pride and passion lead to loyalty,” says Hunt. “You must constantly evaluate where people are on the ladder.”
He says he was surprised upon joining Kia to learn that more than half of its 650 dealers are exclusive to the brand. “I had no idea,” he says.
One of those retailers, George Glassman of Glassman Kia in Southfield, MI, says typical Kia buyers have changed over the years.
“Kia used to be an inexpensive new-car alternative to someone shopping for a used car,” says Glassman. “But I'm amazed at the clientele we are getting now. They are people from all walks of life including engineers, lawyers, doctors and business people.”
Cultivating buyer passions on the level of Porsche and Lexus ownership “takes a lot of time, but it is worth aspiring to,” says Glassman. “I'll tell you though, we have taken in some Lexuses as trades, which both surprises and delights me.”
To keep the momentum going, Kia will sharpen its individual model positioning and launch new vehicles, such as the '06 Sedona, on a larger scale, says Ian Beavis, Kia vice president-marketing.
“We are working with our dealer council and associations so that the advertising is alike and seamless, with the dealers' ads driving people into showrooms and our ads driving the brand,” says Beavis.
The Sedona launch will include 23 ride-and-drive events for consumers in 19 cities, with a special emphasis on strong Hispanic markets, says Beavis.
The pitch for the all-new vehicle is “a world-class minivan for world-class parents.”
That reflects minivans' family appeal. But Beavis says “active empty nesters” make up a secondary market Kia plans to pursue.
Those are 50-something people attracted to minivan functionality for “everything from transporting grandchildren to hauling large antique purchases,” he says.
The Sedona strategy is to offer comparable or more features than competitors, but at lower prices. An LX version starts at $22,995, a more upscale EX at $25,595, both with a $670 destination charge. A loaded EX can push past $30,500.
Selling minivans has its challenges. The overall segment is flat and not expected to grow. Stereotypical buyers are soccer moms and squares, a perception that turns off many image-conscious consumers.
But Beavis says minivans account for one million units in annual sales (6.5% of U.S. light-vehicle deliveries), a good reason for Kia to be a player in that segment.
“A lot of people like minivans,” he says. “And for those who don't, we have a lot of other products.”