Interview: Hyundai Brand Strategy Director Minsoo Kim on Hyundai’s rise and the Road Ahead

Hyundai Brand Strategy Director, Minsoo Kim, joined the company back in 1993 when it was barely a blip on the consumer radar screen. Since that time the South Korean carmaker has risen from a bargain-based brand to one of high regard on the global stage.

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Long positioned as the challenger, Hyundai has had to slug its way upwards against deeply entrenched competitors.


It’s this “fighting!” (화이팅) attitude and the strategy “to outdo ourselves”, as Kim puts it, that has led to the roadmapping ahead of a brand strategy that includes a line of eco-vehicles, a sub brand of high-performance cars, the much talked about Genesis luxury line and an altogether more “connected” user experience.

Branding in Asia Editor in Chief Bobby McGill recently talked with Minsoo Kim about Hyundai’s rise, where the brand is headed and the coming obsolescence of the industry’s car-ownership model.

As head of the brand strategy, what is your role and responsibilities?

My main responsibility is to shape people’s perception of the Hyundai brand in a way that aligns with what we truly stand for. The best way to do that is to always keep an eye on the consistency, authenticity and relevance of all our marketing efforts around the world.  


How did you develop an interest in cars and branding?

As a child, I used to play with cars all the time. I loved the fact that they were so beautiful and complex at the same time. I pretty much grew up with Hyundai so it wasn’t really a surprise to me when I joined the company in 1993. I discovered marketing for the first time when I was in college, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.

Hyundai has always been a challenger. It is in our DNA and what fuels our daily actions. We wouldn’t be where we are today…without such a mindset.

A few years ago, I was asked to lead Hyundai’s overseas marketing strategy. As part of my responsibilities, I had the chance to supervise sports marketing campaigns as well as our sponsorships with UEFA and FIFA. Finally, about two years ago, I joined the brand strategy department with a whole new challenge.

What are some memorable brand campaigns, other than Hyundai, that have resonated with you personally over the years?

Rather than a campaign, I have a lot of respect for what IKEA does as a brand. What strikes me every time I visit their stores, watch one of their ads or simply read about them is the clarity of their message. I once discovered a document called ‘The Testament of a Furniture Dealer’. In that document, one can read IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad writes about his desire to ‘make a better everyday life for the many’.

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To get there, he describes the way IKEA employees should behave and brings forward values that he encourages his people to live by – simplicity, responsibility, time management, reaching great results with small means or constantly reminding yourself ‘why’ you do what you do.

Today, anyone visiting one of their stores can see these words displayed on their walls. The IKEA spirit is present in whatever the company does. For any business around the world, having a strong manifesto such as this one can not only leverage internal engagement but also make your brand more relevant and consistent on the market. Maintaining the spirit and heritage of a brand the same way IKEA did it is, I believe, worth a lot more than any campaign.  

Over the years Hyundai has seen a remarkably successful rise in brand perception. What are some notable milestones for the brand you’ve seen over the years?

Back in 2006, Hyundai clinched the 1st spot in JD Power’s IQS study among volume brands. At a time when many people were still skeptical about the reliability of our cars, this achievement spoke volumes about how central quality is to our strategy. In 2009, the Genesis sedan was voted North-American Car Of The Year (NACOTY), and this I believe was another bold statement in the industry.

We’re focusing on four strategic areas: freedom from pollutants, from traffic congestion, and the freedom to move everywhere and always be connected.

A year after, Fortune Magazine published an article that depicted our brand spirit and the reasons for our success. The headline said: “Hyundai: The Toughest Car Company of Them All”. Hyundai has always been a challenger. It is in our DNA and what fuels our daily actions. We wouldn’t be where we are today – the 6th auto brand globally – without such a mindset. This desire to constantly outdo ourselves also explains why we recently made bold announcements in the marketplace.   

Hyundai brand is making some very big moves with an extensive line of eco-cars and a sub brand of high-performance cars. Can you talk about brand strategy for this ambitious road forward?

The fact that Hyundai re-entered the WRC championship after a 10-year hiatus shows our desire to assert our technological capability as a volume carmaker. Upon our first season in 2014, Hyundai ranked 4th out of 8 overall, then stepped on the podium last year. We are currently 2nd of the 2016 season.      

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This dynamic aspect of our brand, we also wanted to convey it through a separate product lineup. We named it ‘N’, for ‘Namyang’ – where our R&D center is located in South Korea – and ‘Nurburgring’, where all N models are honed. Since the official N unveiling in Frankfurt last year, we have been building up momentum with several concept cars like the RM15, RM16 or the striking 2025 Vision Gran Turismo.

We also recently took part in our first 24H of Nurburgring and proudly finished a race that 50% of participants never complete. As for product introduction, the first N model to be launched next year will be a Motorsports-inspired N version of the i30 hatchback.

Besides high-performance cars, Hyundai wants to consolidate its status as a pioneer in future mobility solutions. Back in 2013, with the introduction of our Tucson FCEV, we became the first brand to ever mass-produce a vehicle powered by hydrogen. This year, we launched the first car to ever host three electrified powertrains: Ioniq HEV, EV and PHEV. Our industry is undergoing a tremendous paradigm shift, and Hyundai wants to be at the forefront of the ‘next mobility’ movement.

Besides a dedicated product lineup, Hyundai’s ‘Project IONIQ’, which we unveiled this year at the Geneva Auto Show, is how we address this shift. Through this project, we are trying build tomorrow – as we envision it – today. With various studies pointing out that two thirds of the world’s population will live in megacities by 2030, one can expect our lives and the relationship we have with mobility to change significantly.

With that in mind, we decided to collaborate with various experts and futurists under Project Ioniq with the ultimate goal of delivering complete freedom in mobility. To get there, we’re focusing on four strategic areas: freedom from pollutants, from traffic congestion, and the freedom to move everywhere and always be connected.    

You had a great line at the AdStars festival about driverless cars and how people nowadays are saying, ‘Oh my God! There’s NOBODY driving that car!’ and in the future it will be, ‘Oh my God! There’s SOMEBODY driving that car!’ What are the challenges automobile brand managers will face considering the entire history of automobiles has been about the driving experience.

The car-ownership model as we’ve known it for over a century is about to become obsolete. While the focus has for a long time been on the product itself, the next epicenter of our industry will be information. With the rise of digital technology and the enthusiasm for the sharing economy, the challenge will be how we harvest information about our drivers’ emotions, preferences, schedule or driving patterns and use that data to provide tailor-made experiences. Clearly, the future for OEMs lies in connected cars, and our recent partnership with Cisco speaks for our desire to lead this movement.            

The Genesis brand is one built completely from scratch. Dave Zuchowski, CEO-Hyundai Motor America, recently remarked that, “Lexus is just a prototypical, Harvard-business-case study in how to launch a vehicle.” What are some ways that Genesis will differentiate itself as a luxury brand in the mind of consumers?

With Genesis becoming a stand-alone brand, our first priority was to reinforce Hyundai as a high-end generalist brand. Our brand philosophy, known internally as Modern Premium, is about enhancing our customers’ everyday lives via unexpected, class-above experiences. In terms of personality, we aim to make Hyundai a lifestyle companion for everyone – a brand that is warm, confident, optimistic, and which gives people an aspiration for a better life.

Genesis Sedan

Genesis Sedan

This clarification of our brand portfolio also means that Genesis is now in the fiercest spot of the industry and in competition with well-established brands. With a unique product offering centered on design and design quality, Genesis will seek to provide customers with a new experience in the world of fine automobiles. The recently-unveiled and acclaimed New-York concept certainly speaks volume for the brand’s ambition.

On a personal note, if you weren’t in the branding field, and you could have any other career, what would you like to do instead?

I’ve always had a soft spot for products. If there ever was a chance for me to go back in time, I might be tempted to opt for a Product Manager position at one point in my career. I think there is something admirable in knowing everything about a product, from how it is engineered to how you are going to sell it, what engines you will choose and what price you will set. Who knows, maybe I will have a chance to oversee product operations one day.  


Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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