Kia CMO Saad Chehab sees power in brand’s youth

on Sep19

LOS ANGELES — Years after their Super Bowl airings, the gritty Fiat Chrysler commercials conceived by Saad Chehab are considered a high-water mark in auto advertising.

There was the Detroit-boosting “Born of Fire” spot featuring the Chrysler 200 and rapper Eminem, the recovery-themed “Halftime in America” commercial with Clint Eastwood and later Maserati’s bracing “Strike” spot.

After leaving FCA in 2015 for personal reasons, Chehab, 50, is back in the advertising game, this time as vice president of marketing communications for Kia Motors America.

He’ll have a lot on his plate: Kia is set to launch the all-new Stinger this year, a performance sedan that’s its biggest leap yet from its econobox heritage. There are also a variety of new electrified models rolling out between now and the end of the decade.

But it’s that kind of product-oriented, image-busting work that gets Chehab fired up. “Kia is — if you think about it — a product-driven brand,” he told Automotive News. “It’s a brand with product actions, I call it. And so, for a marketer like myself, it’s exciting to tell the world about the product and the accomplishments of this brand.”

The brand itself is having an off year, with sales down 8.4 percent through August, despite two consecutive first-place showings in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study.

Chehab discussed his plans for Kia with Staff Reporter David Undercoffler in August at Kia’s North American headquarters in Irvine, Calif.

Q: What drew you to Kia?

A:I’ve always envied this brand from a distance, especially on its product side. It’s shocking, in my opinion, the slew of products that it has introduced and continues to introduce every year. It’s shocking how it has grabbed and conquered market share from zero to what, just about 4 percent, 3.8 percent?

I like this brand’s youthfulness. It’s a new brand that started in 1994. And it acts like it. It doesn’t have anything to rely on as baggage or history. And look at the weather outside. It’s in California.

The Stinger is perhaps the greatest jump to date from Kia’s heritage as an econobox-maker. How do you handle that from a marketing perspective?

You’re talking about rear-wheel drive, twin-turbocharged, Brembo brakes, gran turismo styling, 0 to 60 faster than a Porsche Panamera [V-6], top speed braking faster than an Audi A7, looks that crush everything. When you look at this vehicle, you get the sense of the looks: the stance of Grace Kelly, the timeless elegance of a Sophia Loren and then the athletics of a gazelle.

When you have all that put together, heck, yeah, I’m excited about advertising a car like this. It gives me the chills about the attitude of this brand, that it can do anything, anytime for anyone. And you should expect even more from this brand.

How do you convince people that this is different than they’ve imagined Kia to be?

Tell the truth. Tell the truth about this brand and how it’s put together the best team, from designing to engineering such a vehicle. And telling the truth the story about what it is — not necessarily having to create any kind of image around something that doesn’t exist.

It’s already a brand that has demonstrated not only beautiful car introductions and a slew of car introductions year over year, it’s also delivering on quality.

And to me, that modernity of a brand, of the youthful thinking, that there is no limits to this brand because it has no history to really be tied up by, we can do anything. That attitude is an exciting attitude to be talking about from a delivery perspective, not just as an element of the personality of the brand.

And now they’re entering new segments they’ve never been into — with the Niro hybrid and electric and the Stinger — and already proving to be successful at it immediately. So to me, that combination gives you a lot to work with.

Your time at FCA and the ads that came out of that era were very impactful. What did you learn there that you will apply at Kia?

I always say that your best foot forward is carrying the accumulation of knowledge and experiences you had in your life and your career so far and applying that into who you have become today. It’s an important part of who you’ve become today. But at the same time, Kia has a new set of circumstances than at the time in my previous jobs.

Like I said, the Kia brand is on the rise since it started in 1994. It doesn’t have the baggage. It’s a brand-new brand in a way. It’s earned its share of the market because of what it delivered. The challenges that we have — as any other brand would have — is awareness because we introduce cars every year, brand-new cars that didn’t exist the year before.

Chrysler’s ‘Born of Fire’


Kia sales are down this year by 8.4 percent, despite consecutive J.D. Power IQS awards. How does Kia translate those awards into sales?

The accomplishments and product launches are so many that the focus now is to tell the consumer about it. Some of the consumers may not be aware of new products that just surfaced six months ago or new products to come. Similarly, some customers may not be aware of the superiority in quality for Kia over and above any other manufacturer. So it’s our job now to communicate that accomplishment and accolades as well as the products that are surfacing every year.

Is that something Kia is not doing now?

We just got the award a few months ago, and we’re already inserting the IQS awards in all the advertising that we do today. In fact, it was almost two days later that we started advertising that part of it, and you could see the tick-ups already in traffic on our websites. But it takes 90 days for that sale to take place between the time you know about something and the time you decide to buy a car. So you have to be patient with the process.

Does the Super Bowl play into your plans going forward?

This brand doesn’t lack advertising success in the Super Bowl. It’s more now, how do you continue this great work that they’ve already done and start introducing additional customers to your brand that have not yet considered it?

So far, we’re too busy this year to worry about what’s going on at the Super Bowl. We’re busy with finishing the year on a high note and preparing for launch of the new Rio in October.

Kia dealers have grumbled that a downside of lots of product launches is less Tier 1 spending. How do you negotiate this?

This is one of the main focus processes that our departments are going through now, working with the dealer council. There is a consensus on playing a role in different tiers of advertising. So Tier 1 would be letting people know about the new vehicles, let people know about the brand and the nameplates and then in a way delivering them down the funnel of marketing to Tier 2 and more details about the car and possibly features and benefits and accolades for building that consideration. And then delivering to a Tier 3-level consistency. So the consistency between Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 is a huge focus that is happening between ourselves as well as the dealers, the dealer group.

What is your approach to digital ad spending and lead generation?

I don’t have a specific mandate, but digital is obviously the most important consideration part of your marketing journey. In other words, you may see on a billboard, you may see a television commercial, you may see a banner somewhere about a product, but your decision and your consideration for a vehicle right after that is through searching and through digital understanding and digital communication. You start making your decisions in the digital world.​

But I believe in all the other methods on top of digital. I am bullish on every platform of marketing, because consumers are not in one place versus another. They are everywhere.

The latest study that I’ve seen on communication platform usability or consumption shows that television is still the highest medium. Even if it’s non-live TV, there are now ways and means to still — they call them household addressables — they can still deliver messages through there.

So television is just as important as digital, as print, as billboard methodology, as partnerships, as co-branding, as events and shows — every part is as important as the other in my view.

What it means in terms of distribution of budgets, you allocate the funding based on your return on investments: viewerships, memorability, recollection, engagement at [customer relationship management] levels versus another way.

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