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Kia Motors India witnessing shift towards revival from June 2020 onwards: Manohar Bhat

While COVID-19 has affected all businesses in the last few months, brands are seeing a revival as India Unlocks. The auto industry, especially passenger vehicle, is witnessing a month on month growth in bookings and retails, which is currently around 80-90 per cent of pre-COVID levels, as per industry data. Smaller towns are leading the growth in demand in the automobile sector as compared to the metros and Tier 1 cities.

In conversation with Adgully, Manohar Bhat, Vice President & Head - Marketing & Sales, Kia Motors India, speaks about revival of Kia Motors, their marketing strategy for the festive season, how they are bringing disruption in the space of automobile advertising and much more.

Also read:  Case Study: Meerkat, Johnny, Tiger & the making of Brand Kia Motors in India

While the auto industry has seen a slowdown due to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, what keeps Kia Motors upbeat during this period?

Due to COVID-19, various industries have been witnessing a slowdown in the last few months. However, we at Kia Motors India are witnessing a shift towards revival and recovery from June 2020 onwards. With an increase in sales and demand of our world-class products, we observed a steady month on month growth with our existing range of products.

Fortunately, we’ve had good momentum since few months and are moving towards a recovery in the industry. We resumed operations at our state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Anantapur on May 8, 2020, and are following a comprehensive regimen of safety measures to ensure a secure environment for all. In July, Kia became the fastest automaker in India to reach the historic milestone of 1 lakh sales with two products – Seltos and Carnival – in just 11 months since our first car debut last year. For the month of August, we registered sales of 10,845 units, also marking 1 Lakh unit sales of Seltos in less than a year’s time, establishing itself as one of the bestselling SUVs in the country.

With the launch of our third product for India – Sonet, we are sure that we will further entice customer and move forward to winning their hearts again.

Consumer sentiment is very low when it comes to buying a vehicle right now. How do you plan to nudge the prospective customer towards a buying decision?

For the low consumer sentiment, we experienced a slowdown in the initial months of the pandemic, but currently the market is on the path of recovery and our rising sales figures from May onwards are a proof. From selling just over 1,600 units in May 2020 to selling almost 11,000 units in August 2020 – we have come a long way, and not just us, many automakers have posted similar recovery figures in this time duration. There may be a delay, but as we move forward, people will try to own their personal vehicles owing to the risk involved while travelling in public transport. In India, there is always a demand for world-class products among consumers and we can say that with the record bookings we received for Kia Sonet on its first day.

Sonet is a high-volume segment for us, and the response has been encouraging, as seen by the overwhelming 30,000-plus bookings received in just one month of the pre-booking commencement. With Sonet, we recreated history with a record breaking 6,523 booking on the first day. We have observed that there is a lot of demand for the top of the line GTX+ variants amongst customers who have booked the Sonet. This proves that the prospective customers will not postpone their buying decision when you offer them with high quality products. Seltos was our first in India and it helped us find a place amongst the top five car manufacturers in the country. With Seltos, Kia was able to grow the mid SUV segment as it managed to attract more and more customers towards it due to the irresistible offering that it provided. Hence, we believe that there will always be demand in the market for innovative and feature loaded products.

Which are the markets in India that you are looking at to shore up Kia Motors’ growth?

Our passion is not only to build great cars, but also to set new benchmarks in car ownership experience through world-class vehicle maintenance and repair services. To meet the demands of consumers across the country, we have a robust network of 265 touchpoints in 160 cities, one of the largest networks by any new entrant in India.

To ensure maximum customer convenience and peace of mind, we are further increasing our network to 300 touchpoints by the end of the calendar year. We also have mobile service vans that help us reach customers in places where we do not have dealerships at present. Mobile service vans increase our reach and help us connect with more and more customers from all parts of the country.

Kia has always planned and designed all its products keeping the customers at the centre. We understand that our young-at-heart, dynamic customer base is also technology savvy and hence, we have focused on building a robust online as-well-as traditional approach to reach out to our customers and offer them with the best of our products and services. We have set up an end-to-end online sales process, which will further enable our consumers to check-out our products and new offerings. The process ensures all support for a consumer’s buying journey – from product details to variations to finance and insurance requirements, extending it to home delivery of the vehicle to provide a seamless and fine ownership experience. Post COVID-19 outbreaks, the online sales model is gradually picking up and customers are happy to opt for the online buying option, which gives them an option to customise their car within the comfort of their homes.

Buying of vehicles happens more during the festive season. Are you exploring any special and tactical marketing activity to leverage the festival season?

We are entering in the festive season phase, which is considered as the ‘thirteenth month’ of sales. The festive season has always been a very important time across industries, as the consumer sentiment during this time is generally very positive. Especially in the automotive industry, we witness a more-than-usual surge in demand during this time.

As far as we are concerned, Sonet is one of the biggest launches for us for this year, and we will continue to carry on with its launch campaign in full swing throughout the festive season. Apart from this, we are also looking at an activity with Seltos, which will be backed by a full thrust marketing plan.

With customers in India still going for the touch and feel approach, how is Kia Motors creating engagement in times of social distancing and when people are reluctant to move out of home? How are you leveraging digital to increase customer engagement?

At Kia Motors, we invested in digitising the process since our first product launch – Seltos, in India. It is an end-to-end process starting from choosing your vehicle to booking the test drive along with information on financing options, offering customers the utmost safety and convenience. The platform gradually started getting traction post COVID-19 outbreak, considering the social distancing aspect. Our customers are happy to opt for the online buying option, which gives them an ease to customise their car within the comfort of their home, and they are excited to receive their car at the desired location. However, car buying is a high involvement decision and is dependent on online as well as on-ground assessment. Hence, we are constantly innovating and evaluating potential opportunities in the market to offer the latest and most advanced options to our customers and will focus on the PHYGITAL approach to ensure a mix of both digital and physical service. We have started on-ground activations in select cities, keeping all the government COVID-19 SOPs in mind.

Even as India unlocks, the Auto industry continues to be under pressure. How long will it take for this industry to see some revival? What are the factors that can help in bringing growth back to the auto industry? Which markets do you see contributing the most to the growth?

The Indian automobile industry is already on its path of recovery and as per the current trends, the last few months have showcased the revival where we see more and more consumers are opting for feature-led and well-engineered cars. The Indian automotive industry is one of the growth engines in the country with its 7 per cent contribution to the GDP and we are proud to be a part of it.

While the government is taking all the corrective measures, we also feel that some conscious and concerted efforts are to be taken towards propelling demand simulation. One such measure which the government should look at can be reducing GST on the purchase of new vehicles for a limited period of time. Also, the government can incentivise car purchasing by giving income tax benefits, similar to how home loans work. The reduction in tax and income tax benefits will act as incentives for buyers and we can see a surge in the sale of passenger vehicles.

As far as Kia Motors India is concerned, we believe that we need to relook at how consumers view their cars today – they are no longer treated as just means of transportation – but reflect an individual’s personality and lifestyle. Kia Motors India offers aspirational, premium and innovative products, keeping consumer’s needs at the heart of every product planning. We think that the Indian customers are well abreast with global trends and are looking for feature-rich offerings. Despite a slowdown, we have seen that there has been an uptake of fresh, disruptive and feature-rich products in the market. Innovative and superior products along with customer centric initiatives which ensure customer’s safety at each step such as Kia Care, we are optimistic to witness further growth in coming months.

In what ways do Kia Motors’ approach to marketing differ from other auto companies in India?

Kia is the young challenger with different identity globally as well as in India. We are a young-at-heart brand and that reflects in our products in terms of design, features and more. Our communication is also different and so is our marketing strategy. Our marketing strategy is also designed keeping GenZ consumer in mind and so is our approach with our product. After entering India, we conducted a deep-rooted research for two years that helped in understanding the local market and customise the cars accordingly.

We entered India with the launch of our first brand campaign in India, which received an overwhelming response from the Indian audience. Based on Kia’s design philosophy, the campaign managed to create significant buzz on all digital media platforms crossing 250 million views in less than 40 days since its official launch. The film, ‘Magical Inspirations, Stunning Designs’, managed to create a big hype and the uniqueness of the campaign resulted in a lot of curiosity about the brand. The campaign triggered curiosity amongst viewers with teasers of an astronaut and a tiger around a Kia car while looping in magical elements like the Firefly, a slinky spring, a Hummingbird, a Ballerina, a Footballer, Felix the cat and the Tiger, forming the most magical inspiration set leading to a fantastic Kia car. The brand campaign took a unique approach to showcase Kia as an automotive major, and that’s what separated it from the rest of the campaigns, ensuring a lasting impression on the automobile customer of today.

Post that, we have come up with may disruptive campaigns such as #BadassByDesign for Seltos, #RewindKia to encourage people to stay home during the lockdown and recently, #WildByDesign for our recent offering – Sonet. All these campaigns are a success story on social media. All our campaigns have been supported by optimal usage of all aspects of marketing and public relations.

Kia Motors also believes that sports is the best way to connect with youth of the country and hence, some part of our global as well as Indian marketing strategy is designed around it. Kia has associated itself with many sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup, Europa Cup and Australian Open at a global level. Through the partnership with Australian Open Ballkids International Program, FIFA for OMBC (Official Match Ball Carrier) program and Bengaluru Football Club for Indian Super League, Kia has encouraged millions of sports enthusiasts in India and has created a unique fan base.

How is Kia Motors India bringing disruption in the space of automobile advertising?

When it comes to automobile industry marketing techniques, Kia has had an edge with the wide array of video campaigns via our full-fledged approach. We have been disrupting the automobile marketing space since we stepped into the country with our first launch, that is, Seltos, followed by the Carnival and now the much awaited Sonet. We successfully positioned Seltos as a badass by design via a 360-degree campaign, which established Kia as design leader in the country. We did a direct engagement with viewers via Meerkat. As stated above, our brand film earned the title of the most viewed ad on YouTube with over 250 million views in total.

Kia Carnival’s extravagance by design made the audiences realise the luxury offered by the car featuring Jim Sarbh. The recent Sonet Wild by Design campaign was launched to pique interest for Kia’s newest compact SUV. Under the theme, the campaign owed inspiration from Kia’s dynamic design DNA offering a bold and aggressive presence on the road. The TVC was further influenced by the urban legends that everyone has read about, but no one believes until witnessed. The campaign garnered a total of 333 million combined views with 96 per cent of average view duration of teaser films and 88 per cent of product film.

In addition, we have come up with relevant and topical advertising such as the #RewindKia campaign to encourage people to stay at home during pandemic. It was recognised as one of the Top10 PSA (Public Service Announcement) by YouTube with 25 million views and an average view duration of 96 per cent.

We launched a digital brand film in Hindi for Sonet on the occasion of Hindi Divas, keeping in mind that the language holds a special place in the consciousness of Indian people.

Recently, Kia Motors India tied up with comedian Aakash Gupta for a unique unboxing video of the newly launched Sonet, called 'Aakash vs Wild’. With such clutter breaking content, Kia Motors India is experimenting with innovative content and influencer engagement in a way consumers have never experienced before.

What has been the marketing strategy of Kia Motors India during these unprecedented times?

COVID-19 has impacted every brand, across categories, in the country and we are adapting to the new normal. During the lockdown, we came up with a campaign called #RewindKia, wherein we urged our fellow countrymen to Stay Home, wishing everyone to be safe. The campaign was recognised as one of the Top 10 PSA (Public Service Announcement) by YouTube, with 25 million views with average view duration of 96 per cent.

We also came up with the ‘Kia Care’ campaign that worked primarily across three checks – Vehicle Safety, Network Safety and Customer Safety. Kia has also extended the duration of the Free Service under the Protection policy by two months to take care of delays in servicing due to lockdown. It incorporated new hygiene checks and measures to ensure the health of our customers was not compromised across our service touchpoints in 160 cities.

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