Hyundai Motor Hitches A Ride On K-Pop Superstars BTS To Launch Ioniq EV Sub-Brand


Hyundai Motor could not have better-timed the announcement that it is turning its little-known trio of Ioniq cars into a sub-brand.

Why? Because the brand has partnered with K-pop superstar group BTS, which is basically the biggest thing in entertainment on the planet at this moment.

On September 1, BTS and Hyundai debuted a music video called, “Ioniq: I’m On It,” designed to promote the new sub-brand, which was launched in August. Song lyrics include: “Full energy/higher esteem/better focus on what’s charging me.” So far, it has nearly 1 million views. This may seem like a lot, but BTS does these kinds of numbers before breakfast.

Hyundai signed BTS to a promotional deal in 2018 and has used the band to roll out its full-size Palisade SUV and promote its hydrogen fuel-cell Nexo, with band members dressed in white delivering airy messages about sustainability.

Ioniq could be a tougher pitch. Hyundai introduced its three Ioniq vehicle variants – EV, hybrid and plug-in hybrid – in 2016, giving the automaker the distinction of being the first with three powertrain options in one vehicle. Sales have been middling. Through August of this year,  Hyundai has sold 8,143 Ioniqs in the U.S., the third-lowest model sales in Hyundai’s American lineup, after Veloster and Nexo, and year-to-date sales of Ioniq are off more than 4,000 compared to 2019. (As are all sales, per COVID.) The vehicle has done better in Europe, but not as well in Hyundai’s home market of South Korea, where buyers prefer the subcompact Kona EV.

But, under the leadership of Hyundai Motor Group Executive Vice Chairman Euisun Chung, the company is determined to become the global leader in EV sales. Ergo, the decision to spin off Ioniq into an all-electric sub-brand. The company promises a midsized Ioniq EV CUV next year, a sedan in 2022 and another vehicle after.

To do so, Hyundai is hoping to grab a handful of pop music fairy dust, something that automakers have been attempting since at least since “In My Merry Oldsmobile” fell into Olds’ lap in 1905. The automaker used the tune for decades, with one 1930s version sung by Bing Crosby.

But this pairing between Hyundai and BTS actually makes sense, beyond just an attention-getting device, and speaks a great deal to Hyundai’s increasing self-confidence as a Korean brand.

In 2013, after Hyundai announced it was re-entering WRC, it showed a spec of its i20 racer at the Geneva motor show. The non-Korean members of the team wanted to trick out the car in full Korean colors and livery. But that was nixed by the company’s Korean brass, which wanted to project a more European/global look. The bosses settled for letting the designers decorate some of the car in matte-black-on-black ancient Hangul(Korean alphabet) letters.

Today, by contract, Genesis touts what it calls “Korean luxury.” It’s a sign of how far the company, and country, have come from fast-follower looking to downplay its Koreanness to confident global leader, understanding that Koreanness is a selling point. It is no accident this coincides with recent cluster of Korean soft-power achievements, including the pop dominance of BTS, the Oscar wins of “Parasite,” the global acclaim at containing the coronavirus and even the earworm success of “Baby Shark.”

BTS, specifically, makes a good match for an all-EV car brand. The group are not empty shiny suits. They have social-justice credential, having addressed the United Nations on youth empowerment, and donating $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement (a sum that was matched within 24 hours by BTS fans). Sustainability and eco-friendliness synch up with BTS’ do-good image.

Stepping back, this is part of a larger push South Korea is making to tout its innovation chops. Already home to some of the world’s fastest internet, South Korea was the first nation to roll out commercial 5G service, is one of the world’s most roboticized countries and invented path-breaking ways to deal with the coronavirus, including drive-through testing.

The government of President Moon Jae-in is pushing for wider uptake of hydrogen power, and has made sustainability a core element of what he is calling a “New Deal” economic recovery plan to bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus. Rather than just spend its way back to the same pre-virus economy, Moon is seeking to reinvent it for a post-virus world. To burnish its innovator image, the country has engaged in public diplomacy. The South Korean embassy in Washington D.C. produced a short film on the history of Korean innovation, including the little-known fact that moveable metal type was invented in Korea, decades before the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. 

A car is the second-most-expensive purchase most people will make in their lives, after their house. These decisions are not made lightly, and a pop star’s endorsement probably won’t tip the balance as much as financing options. But it’s an undeniable way to raise brand awareness. And if you’re trying to launch a new car brand essentially from scratch, then BTS is the comet you want to hitch a ride on.

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