Kia Soul Advertising Aimed at Would-Be Nonconformists

Last Updated Mar 16, 2009 11:19 AM EDT

MIAMI -- Kia is the latest in a line of automotive brands to pitch its products to young, aspiring non-conformists.

Kia's upcoming ad campaign for the all-new Kia Soul features hamsters running in an exercise wheel, to symbolize the unfortunate people who don't drive a Kia Soul. Computer-generated images show streets and interstate highways lined with hamsters running in their wheels.

Then up pulls a Kia Soul, a small, attractively styled cross between a station wagon and an SUV. The hamsters inside are bobbing their heads in unison, in time with the pulsing music. The "cool" hamsters "stand out in a sea of sameness," said Michael Sprague, marketing vice president for Kia Motors America, Irvine, Calif.

Kia and its ad agency, David&Goliath, El Segundo, Calif., employ the same concept with a school of fish, with chess pawns, with sheep and with robots. The multimedia ad campaign includes TV, outdoor, print, direct mail, in-person events, sports marketing and a big online component. The TV ads will start April 1.

Surprisingly for a brand that built its reputation on inexpensive, entry-level cars, the average Kia buyer is 52 years old. That's only slightly younger than the U.S. industry average of 53, Sprague said, at a press introduction for the Kia Soul here last week. Some less-expensive Kia models, like the Rio and the Spectra, average younger. Several more-expensive models, like the Sedona, Rondo and Borrego, average older, he said.

Therefore, Kia is on a drive to attract younger buyers. The Kia Soul is the leading edge of that effort. But it's a fine line in advertising, between a message that says, "Be a nonconformist," versus images that say, "Join the in-crowd and be like us."

The Mini brand from BMW does a good job of striking this balance. Mini's tagline is, "Let's Motor," with text and images explaining how quote-unquote "motoring" is different from plain old driving. In a similar vein, Kia's tagline for the Kia Soul is, "Soul, A New Way to Roll."

Saab is another brand that tried a similar appeal. Saab had ad campaigns in the 1990s around the theme, "Find Your Own Road." Animated characters performed small acts of rebellion, like not shaving. In my opinion, the ads made existing Saab owners feel good about themselves. That's a perfectly valid thing for advertising to do. However, the ads didn't do enough to inspire people to try Saab for the first time.

In Kia's case, the hope is that the "hamster" ads will make people want to be a "cool" hamster, or fish, or pawn, or robot, or sheep. The risk is that some viewers will react by saying, "Are you calling me a sheep?"