It’s hard to argue with Hyundai’s recent track record. It defied a depressed U.S. auto market to advertise in a Super Bowl last February that most auto makers had abandoned. And then its ground-breaking “Assurance” program – picking up car payments for buyers who subsequently lost their jobs – launched Hyundai on a spectacular arc through 2009 that saw it actually increase sales by 4% for the year-to-date through October.
But now comes the hard part: leveraging these accomplishments for the Hyundai brand into longer-term success in the U.S. Hyundai has always aspired to be the Korean version of Toyota, and now is its best opportunity to kick that can down the road a bit.
In this pursuit, Hyundai has decided to do one very expensive, but probably very smart thing: up its presence in the Super Bowl. While U.S. auto sales are expected to be anemic for months to come, Hyundai has committed to purchasing five spots in the next Super Bowl, February 7 – as well as an Academy Awards presence that used to be the strict purview of only the biggest automakers.
Unfortunately, there might be a problem with what Hyundai actually wants to do with its Super Bowl advertising time. Instead of coming up with the next iconoclastic big wrinkle that consumers might actually care about, such as “Assurance,” Hyundai apparently plans to waste its $10-to-$15-million investment in Super Bowl TV advertising on “greenwashing” itself – yes, like every other auto maker.
Hyundai USA CMO Joel Ewanick told MediaPost that Hyundai’s new research has identified its core buyers as “modern expressives” who want their auto companies to practice corporate, social and environmental responsibility.
“Assurance,” he said, “was less about job loss and more about a company that understands us socially, that gets the bigger picture. We started seeing the idea about Assurance as more about a brand proposition.”
Yes, Assurance has been a huge part of the wildly successful buildout of the Hyundai brand proposition. But is it possible that Ewanick and company are misinterpreting what the core of that brand proposition is, despite what surely must have been the outlay of millions of dollars on this new market research?
Hyundai is aiming its Super Bowl spots squarely at that perceived target, and plans to talk about things like carbon-offset programs for buyers of its Genesis near-luxury sedan.
Yet isn’t donning the green mantle, and trying to persuade Americans that it fits well, exactly what every other car manufacturer is doing these days – and has been for years? How can Hyundai possibly hope to differentiate itself on an environmental basis from the rest, and do it to such an extent that it will actually make a difference to U.S. consumers?
Hyundai may not be learning the right lesson from the success of Assurance. Instead of what they believe they’ve learned, it’s possible that consumers really liked the radical new marketing idea not because they welcomed some sort of new social contract that Hyundai was trying to create with them but, simply, because it was a great opportunity to buy a good vehicle during a crappy economy with much of the risk removed.
If you believe that, then Hyundai would be much better served during the Super Bowl by introducing something else unexpected that will absolutely rivet the attention of the buying public and the industry – not rolling out another “me-too” paean to its environmental sensibilities.