Kia at NAIAS 2018: 5 Questions With Master Brand Storyteller Saad Chehab


2019 Kia Forte vs Lamborghini Aventador

Our latest report from the 2018 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit:

In one of the standout promotional moments at press days for the 2018 North American International Auto Show, Kia took on Lamborghini—and won. With a cheeky video stunt, that is, which compared the new 2019 Kia Forte with the Lamborghini Aventador. More about that later.

Its bigger mission at NAIAS 2018—beyond eliciting chuckles from the crowd—is making an impact with a new version of its Forte compact sedan that is crucial for a brand that still relies heavily on providing affordable entry-level and mainstream-priced sedans.

The U.S. market has embraced crossovers and SUVs lately, and Kia has entries in those segments including Soul (and yes, the self-loving Soul Hamsters are at NAIAS), Sorento and the new Niro.

By introducing a redesigned version of its Forte compact sedan Monday at the Detroit auto show, the Korean automaker revealed a larger and more fuel-efficient 2019 model, one that takes design inspiration from the slick Stinger car.

Kia would love the 2019 Forte to be a hit. The model had its best sales year in 2017, which Michael Sprague, COO and EVP of Kia Motors America, said at 2018 NAIAS was “extraordinary for a vehicle in the last year of its life cycle.”

The new Forte, Sprague added, is “bold, strong and ready to rock the compact segment where Kia has been steadily gaining.”

Orth Hedrick, VP of Product Planning at Kia Motors America, said the third-generation Forte is “full of standard features and amenities—and styling, packaging and content to take the category to a new level.” Forte is “compact and nimble” yet taller, longer and wider than before, he said, featuring a longer hood and “a new take on Kia’s iconic tiger-nose grille.” Hedrick also mentioned the car’s “sleek and dynamic styling cues.”

Functionally, the new Forte offers high-beam assist headlights and “functional air curtains” on the outside, for instance, and “more soft-touch surfaces” on the inside as well as ventilated front seats and a 10-way driver’s power seat in one trim level. There’s “better egress and ingress” for passengers than in the current Forte, and “passenger room and cargo room are among the largest in the segment,” Hedrick said.

Which brings us back to Kia’s video that made a tongue-in-cheek comparison between the new Forte and a Lamborghini. When Kia announced at its Monday press conference that it would be comparing Forte to a Lamborghini, many in the assembled hundreds of journalists must have wondered whether the masterminds at the Korean-owned brand had gotten a little too inflated idea of how good the new Forte really is.

The video quickly revealed a tongue-in-cheek challenge with a race-track faceoff between the two models. The doors of the legendary two-door Italian sports car “go up,” the video said, for instance, while the four-door Forte’s “doors go out … like doors, real doors. And it has twice as many.”

Also, the new Forte boasts 15.1 cubic feet of trunk space while the Lamborghini has to fit an engine back there and provides only 5.3 cubic feet. That’s enough room “to fit a small bag—made of leather,” the video quipped.

Forte has an optional wireless-charging station, the video went on; the Lamborghini Aventador does not. Forte seats five, while the Lambo only has room for two “with standing room for three.” And its final swipe: “The Lamborghini does go faster, if you’re into that whole speed” thing. But for the $400,000 that is the price of Aventador, “You can buy a Forte—and a small villa—in Italy.”

Saad ChehabFor more insights we spoke at NAIAS with Saad Chehab, VP of Marketing Communications at Kia Motors America, about the new Forte and his overall Kia brand strategy. With more than 25 years of automotive industry experience, Chehab joined Kia as its U.S. marketing head in May from Maserati, where he was responsible for growing the brand globally as CMO.

Chehab is a proven master at brand storytelling. Prior to Maserati, he led the Chrysler brand for FCA with award-winning marketing campaigns that put Chrysler back on the map. In those roles, he can lay claim to two memorable Super Bowl spots: Chrysler’s 2011 “Imported From Detroit/Born of Fire” anthemic commercial featuring Eminem and the stunning 2014 Maserati Ghibli ad “Strike” featuring Oscar-nominated actress Quvenzhané Wallis.

Saad, what are consumers telling you about Forte’s segment these days and how does the new car meet those expectations?

It’s an exciting shape that they’re looking for. It has always been known for vehicles at an affordable price but not so much excitement. But we have the design capability to change that and bring excitement back to the segment. Also we have the roominess that people continue to look for. Why look at a smaller SUV versus a car like Forte? It has the room, practicality, safety and technology you need, and you don’t need a ladder to climb into it.

Kia is well represented across both SUV and CUV segments, and sedans. So how do you strategically approach the shift in the market?

You have to be relevant. That’s why we’ve introduced Niro, a new crossover plug-in hybrid. If you’re in the market at the right size with the right vehicle at the same time with the colorfulness of choices and tastes that exist in the marketplace, the majority want sedans.

Hatches are in too, and fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly sedans are hot. Practicality is in. We need to stay with as wide a portfolio as possible to attract folks looking for style in segments that have become a little bit soft in excitement. Forte comes in as a big answer in that big market that still has a lot of market share.

Kia has been ranking No. 1 in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study for the last two years, a huge accomplishment for the brand. What does that enable you to do marketing-wise?

For any brand who has achieved and invested in this, it’s a badge of pride that we have, as an engineering and manufacturing company, produced these great products to share with the world. It’s important for consumers to know that they can put their money into something that they know will be reliable, dependable and the best of the best at a similar price to any other product.

What’s going to be our differentiation? Styling, and a dependability award not given by some ad agency but by the customer. We’re proud of customers’ feedback and want to share it with other customers.

Where did the idea for the Lamborghini “challenge” video you brought to NAIAS come from?

We were filming a campaign for [Stinger, below] a few weeks ago at a track in California, and we were talking about the positioning of the brand as a young brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The director’s car was a Lamborghini Aventador, and we said, “Let’s do some fun comparisons between the two,” and it became something that we entertained as a way to explain the features of the new Forte by comparing it with a fun brand in a very ridiculous way.

The idea was to talk with people about our product in an entertaining way, a YouTube way, where people are saying, don’t just give me a list of specs, but tell me a story about the product. We said why not? It’s a little bit of reckless abandon.

How did Lamborghini react?

They came to us and wanted to find out what it was all about because they heard about it. It was all about being ridiculous as well as making a point. And our shots of the Lamborghini were really cool anyway.

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