If you ask Kia if the automaker is selling well in the United States, the answer is ‘yes’. If you ask the company if they’re happy about the perception of their brand in the US consumer market, you may get a different answer.
Is Kia Plain and Cheap?
The plain truth is, Americans do buy a lot of Kia vehicles. Despite the total number of sales, though, Americans overall don’t seem to have a very high opinion of the automaker. Like the Yugo and Hyundai when it entered the American market, Kia is widely considered the car you buy when you can’t buy another brand. Sure, it’s affordable and easy on your wallet at the gas pump, but that’s about all most Americans can say good about the brand. When polled, Kia tends to be rated below average in metrics including dependability, looks, comfort and performance. The perception is that Kia is a plain, cheap car, without much else to offer. But is that really a fair assessment? It isn’t according to many automotive industry insiders.
Consumer Reports, which surveys owners rather than tire kickers, reports that customer satisfaction is very high with current Kia owners. Kia also scores well in both “performance” and “practicality.” But what about style? Well, some researchers peeled the labels off vehicles and asked consumer to choose the vehicles they liked the best. Surprise, surprise, Kia ranked among the top in looks as well.
So, what gives? Why is Kia seen in such a poor light if actual owners like the cars and average consumers think they look better than a lot of other cars on the street? Turns out, it really all is about reputation and perception. For instance, many people are shocked to learn that Kia’s lead designer once worked for both BMW and Audi. They take a second look and re-evaluate, but doubt still lingers.
Kia and the American Market
To learn the genesis of this doubt, you have to go all the way back to 1992, when Kia entered the American market. Those first models were not much to look at, and they were not much to drive. Those Kias set the standard for the American understanding of what Kia was all about, and the brand has been climbing that steep hill ever since.
Still, there is some silver lining to this cloud. Hyundai, Kia’s fellow Korean brand, had a similar rough go in the beginning of its foray into the American market. That company tried everything, including a 100,000-mile warranty to get consumers to take a shot on Hyundai. Many did. Those early adopters, along with steady upgrades in the quality of its product, has elevated Hyundai in the eyes of many Americans. Kia is hoping to follow the same trajectory.
The company could make a go of it. They need to find a way, besides price, to get enough people interested to start the snowball effect in the consumer mindset. If enough people say enough good things about Kia, they will begin to turn the tide. Until then, though, the company has to figure out a way to grab attention in a way that doesn’t say: “Hey, at least I’m inexpensive!”
Ronn Torossian is a leader in the public relations industry