Adventures in Branding: Kia EcoDynamics
By Charles Krome
Back in March of 2009, Kia execs announced plans for the automaker’s future green-focused products, and that included a tried-but-true industry tactic: Kia would differentiate its most fuel-efficient products, and those featuring new fuel-saving technologies, by sticking a new badge on them. The badging wouldn’t represent the birth of a new automotive brand—at least not in the standard sense of the term—but be more of a separate trim level.
At least that was my take.
But a recent news report from Wards.com puts a whole different spin on things, and it’s one that shows a surprising disconnect between Kia and U.S. buyers.
The bottom line is that Kia has decided not to use the EcoDynamics label—which is already showing up on its hybrids in Europe—here in the American market. The reasoning, as explained to Ward’s by Orth Hedrick, Kia Motor America’s director for product planning, is that “The issue is it’s yet another brand. And given the fact we’re trying to allocate our resources to other areas that make the most sense, does it make sense to introduce another brand out there?”
Now, as anyone who’s tried shopping for an Oldsmobile, Saturn, HUMMER, Pontiac, Plymouth or Mercury lately could tell you, this isn’t really a good time for an automaker to try adding new brands to its stable. But that’s not at all what the EcoDynamics business would have been about.
It would have been more akin to the way companies use unique designations to highlight their high-performance products. Add on a few magic letters—like SVT, M, V, AMG, SS, Si, STi, etc., etc.—and enough go-fast goodies to match, and voila!, you’ve got a marketing hook on which to hang more customers. As I hinted above, this is standard operating procedure in the industry, and that’s because, generally speaking, it works.
It costs nowhere near the amount of money it would take to truly launch a new brand of vehicles, it attracts that certain kind of customer who enjoys the caché of a designer label and it can provide a halo effect for an automaker’s entire lineup. And we’ve already seen a few tentative steps toward using this tactic on high-efficiency vehicles instead of just high-performance ones. Just to give a few more whacks to the deceased equine known as Saturn, that GM division had the “Green Line” label on its mild hybrids, and Chevrolet has been attaching the “XFE” designation to its high-mileage Cobalt for a few years now.
It’s true that none of these designators have caught on with the public to the same extent as Chevrolet’s “SS” or BMW’s “M,” but I say that primarily has to do with the mindset of the automakers. It’s something I’ve whined about in the past: If you want to get people to pay as much attention to mpg as they do to mph, you have to make the latter as “cool” as the former. That means you don’t hide your green vehicles under the same banner as the rest of your products, you make them stand out with exclusive badges and the like. You can call that cynicism, I call it marketing.
Just consider this: Years before Ford launched its EcoBoost engines, GM was using the same technology on the hi-po I4 engines in cars like the Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn SKY Red Line. But one company leveraged that tech into a brand name, and the other didn’t—and you can see how that turned out.