Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

The relentless pursuit of premium and why it's a waste of time


I read an interesting post the other day on the Orange Envelopes Blog about the importance of consistency, authenticity and history in the creation of premium brands.

When I think about John Heaney’s argument applied to the automotive industry, there’s fertile ground for ripping certain brands to shreds. The market is littered with the humourously devalued remains of cars that have tried to punch well above their weight (VW Phaeton anyone?) yet still product teams chase the top end of the market in the head-long rush for fatter margins.

The most recent budget upstart wanting their slice of the premium pie is Hyundai with the unbelievably priced Equus. The 70-odd thousand Euro saloon is designed to sit atop the Huyundai range and consolidate the company’s upmarket ambitions (remembering that Hyundai has the critically acclaimed Genesis sitting just beneath).

But we can’t talk about the Equus and Genesis without taking a brief wander through the other vehicles in Hyundai’s range.

From the i20 up there’s not a single model that would sell on an authentically premium message. The closest you get – and it’s a long way off – is the Grandeur. The only person that this baroque monstrosity will tempt out of their German exec is Reg, the mini-cab driver who’s looking to offload his 20 year old, 6 owner E-Class.

I’m not saying that brands can’t create a more high-value proposition by appealing to the market’s more sybaritic side, but there is a limit to how far you can go. For me the Equus is writing premium cheques that the Hyundai brand can’t cash.

Let’s not forget that this is the company that made it’s name on the back of the Pony, Excel and Accent. These were cars that majored on dirt-cheap, reliable and thoroughly uninspired transport for those that didn’t care about what they drove, as long as it got them where they were going. It’s hardly the basis on which to quickly build a premium car empire. Surely the long, bloody wars fought by Acura, Lexus and Inifniti should be warning enough as to how long and hard the road to luxury superstardom will be.

The frustrating thing for me, as a design strategist, is that Hyundai has produced some fabulous concepts over the years that were focussed on creating a unique, innovation-led image that was much more in tune with the brand’s Korean heritage. Call it creating the K-Factor if you will (you heard it here first…).

When you think of Korea and Korean products, you don’t think of traditional luxury, you think of the amazing array of exceptional, high-tech product design from companies like LG and Samsung. The Qarmaq, Helion and Veloster translated some of this Korean cool into automotive form and gave a taster of what the brand’s designers could achieve given the freedom. The Equus shows what happens when the board wants a new limo, to horrifying effect.

In looking back to Heaney’s argument, Hyundai has neither the history, consistency or authenticity to make the Equus work outside of Korea.

It’s funny to think that the Korean brand to watch over the next couple of years is Hyundai’s budget sidekick, Kia. By being left out of the premium party they are free to develop their own, unique product identity that’s true to it’s affordable, Korean roots. If they can keep the creative juices that lead to the Soul flowing, Kia could well emerge as the cheaper Volkswagen, offering high-value, design-led products at a price point that’s completely in tune with the brand’s history.

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Category: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Car

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  1. Massimo says:

    who is that crazy man who is going to spend that kind of money (in this kind of economy), in those kind of s***…
    I mean have they studied the competition that they are up..have they done some research on a USP luxury car.
    THIS flat, boring, anachronistic, car fails anywhere…everywhere….

    Why everybody wants to go premium, i have only two ideas: or 1st) rich people are consider stupid (and in the current economy situation you would wonder) or 2nd) they expect the all world to become rich “premium”.
    {None of these appear to me real}!!!!

    But let’s put it in this way: in 2, maybe 3 year times we will have a s*** manufacturer less in the industry. Well done Hyunday, go way to kill yourself.

    let me conclude about the K factor, it will never really exists…if you do an analysis, you will discover that culturally, historically and technically the K factor is too similar too the J (japan) factor.

    Before the K factor will be establish in any kind of way, they will have to beat the Japanese which they are still far ahead in anything about automotive…more and i am sorry to say up until they do these crap it will take even longer…it will take forever…
    it will take never….

  2. drewpasmith says:

    As always Max, your piercing insight nails the issue in one. Why are they bothering to even consider this car for western markets?

    Are you so sure about K-Factor though? In my mind I see the difference lying in discipline of form with J-Factor being much more about rigourous geometry and a shielding of technology. J-Factor to me is about a, I hate to say it, Zen-like presentation of function.

    K-Factor seems to be more organic, with a bit more “flow and show” about it.

    Perhaps to the not-so-anal observer, the differences are minimal. I still think, however, that Hyundai could do a lot worse than work WITH their national cultural identity rather than stealing and mashing everybody else’s to horrific effect.

  3. David I. says:

    In the defense of Korean luxury, I would like to point out that the slogan for this car is:

    “The Successful man’s back is the story behind him”

    Yeah. Much clearer now, I hope. Especially with the capital ‘S’.

    Product planning at Hyundai has reached a near Confucian-level of awesomeness. Either that or they pulled their product strategy out of a fortune cookie. Either way, count me in.

  4. MTBlog says:

    Not simply a sign of how long it takes for attitudes to change in the industry? Isn’t H simply looking at the Japanese premiums, shrugging its shoulders and saying ‘well, that’s what they did’?

    By the way I love the description of the Grandeur as a ‘baroque monstrosity’.

  5. Massimo says:

    Look, we can take it from any side, but this is a bad executed car as market strategy, as per content and as per strategy aesthetic. I don’t want to go on on things i have already mentioned, we will see how and if the Korean industry survive.

    Let’s talk about design then, yes design, style, aesthetic…something then in this car completely lack.

    It is so clear that this car is a COPY AND PAST of a Lexus LS in terms of proportion. LOOK at the way the front bumper raises in hood, replace with an LS, and you will see exactly the same lines.

    Then if we move on the side, the only things we see is a fairly done shoulder line and that’s basically it. NOTHING More nothing at all just a boring 2,5 meter of metal. Mind you a per the LS they have a chrome at the bottom.

    and the we go at the rear since the car is a such of a “SPORTY” car so “agile” and so “powerful” that they have decide to put a rear muscle that can envy a Bentley…IN PURE CONTRAST with the FLAT body side and fairly plain hood.

    Then do we want to talk about the details, the lamps looks they are coming from the 70’s, when today the trend is sleek LED, and new technology are out there just to be try, what do they do…put something so big and un-sleek to make you scream…And So on with the Grill, the fog lamps, 10 times bigger than the one in an AUDI, and the super boring lower air-intake design on the front bumper…

    Ultimately have a look how the DLO at the back lose completely tension, they have taken the 3rd light of the DLO directly from the ACCENT!!

    As said this car lack in everything, and thanks good we have not even drive it..because if what we judgefrom the outside is just half as bad in the INSIDE, this must be a very terrible car to drive…

    I remember when they launched the Genesis, they were claiming BLABLABLA, with BMW, we compete with MERC, we can beat LEXUS, and it was a disappointment..

    As such and as much it will be this one…in any sense…

  6. Casey says:

    Hi Drew, just dropped by to have a read at your blog. Excellent writing and some real sharp & insightful comments(but dude~ some of it hurts ;).

    And why no coverage on i30? (Just joking…LOL)

    Just to make you feel a bit better, you’ll have plenty to talk about this up coming August…

    Take care, and really, really looking forward to catching up with you~ hpoe you can make it~

  7. drewpasmith says:

    Hey Casey,

    Great to see you here and to have your input as it’s always respected and greatly appreciated! Feel free to chime in with your reactions to anything you read!

    I’m looking forward to August and coming to see you as soon as I can!

    All the best,


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