Kia picks Saad Chehab to lead marketing

on Apr28

Saad Chehab left FCA in late 2015 after six years at the automaker. Photo credit: Nathan Skid/Crain’s Detroit Business

UPDATED: 4/27/17 2:07 pm ET – adds details

Kia — on the cusp of launching its critical Stinger performance sedan — has hired former Chrysler advertising whiz Saad Chehab as its new marketing chief.

The move, effective May 8, brings to Kia the formidable marketing mind behind some of Fiat Chrysler’s most acclaimed advertising efforts, including the 2011 “Born of Fire” Super Bowl spot featuring Eminem.

“Saad Chehab is a recognized innovator with a proven track record of success,” Justin Sohn, CEO of Kia Motors America, said in a statement Thursday. “His wide range of experience will strengthen our efforts to raise awareness and improve perception of the Kia brand and increase demand for our world-class products.”

His arrival comes at a pivotal time for Kia. While the Korean automaker’s cousin Hyundai is making a high-profile luxury play with its nascent Genesis brand, Kia, too, has ambitions to move its brand upward.

Kia is hoping its Stinger, a new performance sedan with up to 365 turbocharged horsepower, can catapult the brand away from its econobox heritage and into global luxury legitimacy in a way its full-size K900 and front-drive Cadenza never have.

A large luxury SUV based on the Telluride concept from the 2016 Detroit Auto Show is widely expected to debut in 2018 to further solidify Kia’s ascent into the premium space.

The post of vice president of marketing communications was previously held by Tim Chaney, who left Kia in August 2016. During Chaney’s tenure in marketing at Kia, the brand became a regular Super Bowl advertiser and signed an endorsement deal with basketball star LeBron James, deepening its marketing partnership with the National Basketball Association.

Proven track record

Chehab has proven he can help a brand make a mark.

He came to Chrysler as its head of group advertising in 2009 after a stint at Ford. In 2011, Chrysler ran its now-famous two-minute-long “Born of Fire” ad spotlighting Detroit and the then-redesigned Chrysler 200.

It was also the debut of the “Imported from Detroit” tagline. The commercial — created in tandem with Chrysler’s agency at the time, Wieden+Kennedy — would go on to win an Emmy.

Later that year Chehab was named head of the Chrysler and Lancia brands.

Chehab and Chrysler followed up with the 2012 Super Bowl ad “It’s Halftime in America” featuring Clint Eastwood sounding themes of economic recovery.

Executive clash

But by late 2013, Chehab was clashing publicly and privately with Oliver Francois, then Fiat SpA’s global CMO, and moved to FCA’s Maserati brand.

A 2014 Super Bowl spot for Maserati’s Ghibli sedan followed. Called “Strike,” it too was widely acclaimed.

In late 2015, at age 48, Chehab left FCA, citing personal reasons.

At Kia, Chehab will have the title of vice president of marketing communications and report to Michael Sprague, COO of Kia Motors America.

Kia’s U.S. sales were up 3.5 percent in 2016 to 647,598 vehicles — a record for the brand. The first quarter of 2017 was much rougher, as sales dropped 13 percent to 127,728 vehicles.

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