OPINION | Brand maturity shines through in Kia's cheeky billboards

08 February 2024 - 07:22
By Brenwin Naidu
Kia's playful brand campaign has sparked conversation.
Image: Supplied Kia's playful brand campaign has sparked conversation.

At what point can a carmaker lay claim to achieving true maturity in a given market? In South Africa, players such as BMW, Ford, Isuzu, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen make for good case studies as brands that have stood the test of time (and continue to).

Each has local manufacturing operations spanning decades and are top-10 sales mainstays; except for BMW and Mercedes-Benz, as the affordability pressures dampened the uptake of once-popular German premium brands.

These seven manufacturers are household names, with proven equity and well-established operations.

But as the likes of Suzuki and emerging firms Chery and Haval have proven, relatively new kids on the block can achieve acceptance fairly rapidly too, with the right mix of products and shrewd marketing strategies.

Different faces and expressions intended to represent national diversity.
Image: Supplied Different faces and expressions intended to represent national diversity.

There was a time when related South Korean brands Hyundai and Kia were newcomers trying to prove themselves in South Africa as fledglings in the '90s. And we all know how far they have come from a desirability perspective.

Two decades ago, buyers considered their products for reasons of cost-effectiveness. Nowadays, you look at cars like the Tucson or Sportage and wonder why other C-segment players look so bland.

Neither has fully fledged local manufacturing facilities (though Hyundai assembles the H-100 bakkie in Benoni). And while both rank strongly when it comes to the new car sales tallies (they are top-10 players in most months); it seems as though their ambitions are not towards that of outright volume.

Hyundai and Kia seem to have positioned themselves as premium-alternative players in certain categories. Both brands have prestigious World Car Awards titles in their trophy cabinets; Kia with the Telluride (2020); Hyundai with the Ioniq 5 and Ioniq 6 in 2022 and 2023.

But in terms of local messaging and awareness that resonates with our audience, it looks as if Kia has the upper hand. Forget the business of selling cars for a second — even if you have no interest in motoring, you have to concede that efforts like “Kia Tsamaya” got your fingers tapping, feet moving.

Recently, Kia deployed a salvo of cheeky billboards around the country,some of which drew on their achievements in the 2023 South African Car of the Year competition, where the Sorento and Sportage took honours in the Premium and Midsize categories respectively.

The Sorento was the 2023 SA Premium SUV of the Year.
Image: Supplied The Sorento was the 2023 SA Premium SUV of the Year.

Among the amusing catalogue of outdoor advertisements is a reminder that SA's Premium SUV of the Year isn't German.

In the far left of the frame is a close-up of a quizzical-looking, elderly bespectacled, grey-haired man who almost looks like he works in the engineering department of your favourite Teutonic carmaker.

The short, sharp copy is impactful, though the picture of the man did leave me wondering. Did I mention that the billboard is erected right next to a BMW dealership?

Christo Valentyn is the GM for marketing at Kia. He said that sometimes it is not as easy as using “beautiful photography and clever words” to convey a message.

Through the campaign, the manufacturer wanted to reinforce its brand virtues differently.

“We wanted to do it in a unique and highly impactful manner that wasn’t too serious and that would — hopefully — get people talking,” he said.

Valentyn said the response from Kia customers has been positive.

“Overall, there has been no backlash or criticism beyond the expected subjective ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ commentary.”

He believes that Kia's audience understands the position of the brand, its tone and the manner in which it communicates.

“They are South Africans, just like us — we are serious about the things that matter but we never let an opportunity for a good laugh pass us by,” according to Valentyn.

From an advertising community perspective, however, the feedback was more ambivalent.

“Few people are as opinionated as marketers, so unsurprisingly, reception has been mixed. Some outright believe the campaign is a wasted opportunity, primarily because there is no vehicle imagery involved anywhere, and because they do not understand the use of facial expressions to underpin each message.”

The Sportage was 2023's SA Midsize Vehicle of the Year.
Image: Supplied The Sportage was 2023's SA Midsize Vehicle of the Year.

“Some are big fans, and love the campaign for exactly the reasons others don’t like it: it’s unexpected and slightly cheeky for a car brand.”

According to Valentyn, the different billboard faces and their expressions serve a double purpose. “On one hand it is intended to represent a cross-section of SA consumers, yes, but simultaneously — and more intentionally — it's about facial expressions, subtly underscoring the delivery of the message.”

The billboards are erected across 31 sites in the country, in Johannesburg, Tshwane, KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town.

“We have a good balance between highway-positioned boards where mass awareness can be achieved, more urban placements where repetitive commutes allow for messaging to truly sink in, and strategic placements in proximity to our retail outlets that makes it easier for customers to immediately satisfy their curiosity.”

Valentyn is of the view that out-of-home advertising remains a powerful medium for brands.

“In pure brand power metrics, it’s a great tool for increased brand salience — being top of mind. Its power to drive other brand metrics like distinctiveness or differentiation and meaningfulness is severely underrated.”

The brand has come a long way since this era of products.
Image: Supplied The brand has come a long way since this era of products.

Versus digital billboards, Valentyn is more partial to static executions “Keep the design simple and uncluttered, stay true to what your brand’s positioning is and ensure your message delivers that one thing you want to land with a consumer.

“As brand custodians, we have the literal space to bring all of this to life in ways that are relevant and relatable to South Africans, like we did with 'Kia Tsamaya'.

“The next few years are exciting for the Kia brand, and we will continue to push the boundaries by doing the unexpected.”

Indeed, Kia has come of age in Mzansi; a brand with a respected identity and cachet, and assured enough to embrace the more playful side of life in its messaging.

In those days of the Shuma and Magentis, who could have imagined?