Inquisition: Kia’s marketing maverick
Ford, Opel – Kia’s coming to get you! Marketing chief Artur Martins charts the Koreans’ transformation, from value brand to style-conscious – with a new focus on dynamics
WHO THE HELL does Kia think it is? With this autumn’s launch of the Stinger GT, a rear-wheeldrive, four-door coupe set to cost less than £30,000, plus a sleek sports wagon concept that presages a production car, the Korean car maker is on a mission to reshape its image. Artur Martins is the European marketing VP tasked with making Kia ‘cool’, a notion that not so long ago would have triggered more giggling than a nitrous oxide leak.
But thanks to some canny German recruits sprinkling fairy dust on an aggressive new model cycle, the brand continues to make inroads in Europe. This year has brought four all-new cars – the Picanto and Rio replacements, the Stonic baby crossover and ultimately the Stinger – plus Optima and Niro plug-in hybrids as Kia surfs the electrification wave too.
One man does not a car company make, but ex-VW designer Peter Schreyer was the first critical appointment, the equivalent of Zlatan going to Paris Saint Germain football club. ‘Ferdinand Piech said his biggest mistake was to let Peter go,’ Martins says conspiratorially. ‘We went from being a brand without any design aspiration to leading on design in some segments.’
Perhaps Kia now has its Neymar in ex-BMW M Division boss Albert Biermann. His remit is suspension and chassis tuning, plus high-performance models. ‘We always heard from the media and consumers: “Kia makes good looking cars that don’t drive the way they look.” Well, Biermann’s challenge is to make them drive like they look!’
Nonetheless Martins is pragmatic about the market share Kia’s 4-series Gran Coupe rival will take. ‘You can’t measure its success in sales. Success will be us doing a Mk2. It’s about the Stinger’s impact on the brand; we will use it as an inspiration for future models and the way we will position Kia.’
Does that mean Kia is no longer a value brand? ‘That was
basically the proposition when we started in Europe,’ explains Martins, ‘but the products then versus today’s, you cannot compare them! People don’t look at our products because they are cheaper; in a lot of countries we are more expensive than historical European makers.’
Aside from design, a seven-year warranty underpinned by decent reliability has been the backbone. While Kia and its sister brand Hyundai have had to recall 1.5m cars in Korea and the States, it’s ranking highly in European JD Power customer surveys. Martins says the group makes a high proportion of components in-house, driven by the fear that a big quality issue could prove exorbitant given the warranty.
The next Kia is the Stonic, another zeitgeisty baby-SUV. How will it stand nd out from rivals arriving concurrently? ‘Customers are running away from conventional hatches. We didn’t go for competitors making SUVs for the countryside. This is a bold crossover that’s dynamic, urban, cool.’ Martins says there’s clear differentiation from the Hyundai Kona, with the Stonic based on the Rio platform for a lower ride height, no 4x4 capability and a lighter, more efficient car.
Will the Stonic also trigger a cull of Kia’s other compact niche models, the Soul and Venga MPVs? ‘We are looking at how we reorganise,’ says Martins. ‘There’s some clash with the Soul but that’s driven by the US, where it’s a gigantic success. The Soul is polarising but it’s an iconic Kia, and we need the EV to meet our 2020 [emissions] targets.’ Martins’ defence of the Venga is less emphatic: it and the Carens look set for the MPV knacker’s yard.
Martins claims only Kia has grown in Europe for every one of the past eight years, and 2018’s new Ceed family aims to keep that up. The sport wagon and another crossover SUV are likely as the three-door Proceed hatch is phased out. Clearly these variants will command a higher price than the basic Ceeds: is this a premium push? ‘We cover 90 per cent of Europe’s segments, so the next step is products that help differentiate the brand.’ Concludes Martins: ‘We are a mainstream brand selling mainstream cars in mainstream segments – we want to keep being that, but reinforce our position and awareness.’ Looks like the Kia juggernaut won’t be coming to a halt just yet. PHIL McNAMARA @CARPhilMc
Shooting brake concept reinvents the Proceed hatch as sleek, pricier wagon