[Brian's stuff]Can Hyundai make the leap from laughingstock to luxury level?

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[Brian's stuff]Can Hyundai make the leap from laughingstock to luxury level?


You must have heard them. For Koreans, they are humiliating. They are Hyundai car jokes.

If you have heard them, you’ve probably asked yourself, “What kind of person would buy a Hyundai?” “Who would buy a car that sheds a couple of thousand bucks the instant it’s driven out of the showroom?”

Not too long ago, there was a time when the words “made in Korea” didn’t cut it. Outside of the Korean Peninsula, they stood for cheap, lousy products produced on a mass scale.

But nowadays, at least in some sectors, the Korean label stands for quality. TVs and cell phones come to mind. These are goods that are on the high end of their markets.

Now, Hyundai is striving to differentiate its product lineup. I’ve been closely watching Hyundai Motor’s moves to enter the luxury car market. I know that I’m not alone. The whole industry is probably watching whether Hyundai can copy the success of the Japanese competition, which at times faced the same stigma but succeeded in entering the luxury market in force.

The move makes financial sense, as luxury segments are generally regarded as recession-proof. Encouraged by a growing reputation for quality cars in recent years that has come to rival that of Japanese automakers, Hyundai might have judged that its time has come.

But taking a look at one of the ads that ran during the last Super Bowl in February, I’m afraid that Hyundai has made a mistake in the positioning of its product.

Here is what a deep male voice said during the ad: “Ah yes, the Genesis. A brand-new luxury car. Spacious as the Mercedes S class, yet priced like a C class.”

Wrong approach. When you target the luxury market you don’t try to pitch your product as a bargain. Those who buy a luxury product look for status and quality.

Hyundai is expected to offer the base Genesis model at around $30,000. Consumers in the States should know that here the Genesis commands a price tag ranging from 40 million ($38,000) to close to 60 million won. (A 70 percent market share certainly helps.) They should know they are in for a bargain, but if Hyundai hopes to create its own Lexus-type reputation, it should focus on originality rather than a cheaper-than-the-rest sales strategy.

One interesting fact is that the Genesis coupe could end up in the fourth installment of “The Fast and the Furious” movie franchise. This was one of the venues where Hyundai jokes were made. How ironic.

I am curious to see what the actor’s lines will be when the Genesis coupe appears on screen. Hyundai should contact the script writers immediately.

The company has proven that it can build midsize cars that provide bang for the buck. Now it’s time to drive away its image as a cheap car maker.

So will we see an end to the Hyundai jokes? Only time will tell.

By Brian Lee Staff Reporter [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
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