Design is one of the most important aspects of any brand. This goes well beyond simply designing the products. It’s a fundamental understanding of what the brand is and what it aspires to become, not just for the shareholders but in the messages that are conveyed to the end-users, the brand’s customers. Designer Ray Ng outlines how creative collaboration redefined the Kia brand.
in·spi·ra·tion | \ ˌin(t)-spə-ˈrā-shən: the act of drawing in
- a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation
- the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions
- the act of influencing or suggesting opinions
Inspiration is more than physical touch; it’s a powerful, emotional shift. How does a brand present this positive energy so consumers feel (and recall) something? How does Kia inspire?
I believe it’s about creativity and consistency.
Remember the first time you saw a Kia? Who could forget the hip-hop hamsters driving the never-before-seen, boxy Kia Soul with that masterful Black Sheep track? If all of that got your attention, Kia did its job well.
Kia Hamster commercial 2010: A new way to roll with old school swagger. (YouTube)
The sleek, new Optima sedan made its presence known, with new Sportage and Sorento with their head-turning looks not far behind in 2010. Product after well-designed product rolled out, visually reinforcing Kia’s dedication and improvement. The first-ever, industry-leading 10-year warranty (in the US) didn’t hurt, either.
The creativity and consistency of design helped Kia to live up to their tagline: ‘The Power to Surprise’.
OK, so we surprised consumers. But how do we keep surprising them? How do we keep them smiling?
Famed design president – and my direct boss – Peter Schreyer and I have wrestled with that question for some time, and an even bigger one: If the product had improved, design had evolved, and market share steadily grew, why didn’t the Kia brand image and perception inspire consumers?
A logo that looks virtually unchanged for 25 years did not help.
We always referred to Kia as the ‘Youthful Challenger’, both the brand and the desired customer. Vibrant, optimistic, and ready to do things differently. Kia products were, therefore, a perfect manifestation of that character.
But brand loyalty requires consistent, positive service and builds over time. In a perfect world, we would continually possess the power to surprise consumers, they would share how Kia makes them feel, and they would return to the dealership to buy on a regular basis. It happens with other car brands, why not Kia?
As designers, we are architects of the future, but more often than not, many of our daring, inventive ideas remain on the drawing boards of the product design center.
For designers to become more strategic, they have to think beyond the shape of the vehicle. Design is not the decision-maker, but designers can influence through creativity, connecting the dots between brand and customer.
When I became a strategic design lead in 2016, I wanted to encourage that vision and empower the team to think and create with the same energy of the Soul launch.
Q: How might we take the creative vision that sparks design, then translate it to inspire the brand? A: Design is an integral part — and just the beginning.
The automotive industry typically operates in separate functions doing specific tasks. In Kia Motors Europe, design happens to be in the same building as the sales organization, it was through this proximity that I got to know the Kia marketing and planning teams over candid lunch conversations.
The future of the Kia brand presented a consistent topic: How do we keep ‘surprising’?
From there, we worked together to reframe new questions:
- Who should we be ‘surprising’?
- How do we break away from just being a brand that is known for being somewhat of a good value with a good warranty?
- How can Kia continue to distinguish itself from sister brand Hyundai? (which carries a similar public perception)
These intriguing conversations encouraged our planning and marketing teams to kickoff an effort to rethink Kia. Although this was a strategic initiative, the teams invited me to bring a valuable design lens.
The design function typically focuses on styling the cars, not strategy. As the voice of design, I had to articulate two POVs:
- Decide who you are and who you’re designing for.
- Design isn’t just the way the cars look, design is about the entire experience.
Through a series of global inter-disciplinary workshops, we redefined Kia and identified a more specific Kia customer — the digital native, a natural evolution of the youthful challenger persona. This gave us much more clarity to interpret, and for designers a great opportunity to imagine a new, comprehensive creative brand direction.
This was also a huge task: a massive, global brand with countless touchpoints and consumer preferences. Instead of a time-consuming (and expensive) full design system with multiple components, we created a consistent, coherent brand expression that centered on one philosophy.
Everything inside and outside the car was rethought. Digital and physical touchpoints had to be engaging and consistent with the new brand values. We experimented with imagining countless creative proposals, including a radical new logo design proposal.
A logo doesn’t ‘make’ a brand, but it can generate excitement and inspire innovation.
Redesigning a corporate identity is an understandably involved undertaking. There are so many implications; cost estimates of implementation alone are overwhelming. Example: Kia changed their entire product line three times, yet the corporate identity and logo have not evolved since 1994, despite multiple internal piecemeal attempts.
But this comprehensive effort was different. The logo, creative and brand strategy would all align.
The vehicle design teams also pushed the boundaries and incorporated the new logo proposal on concept vehicles to “test the waters”.
In the end, we delivered a different kind of design prototype. This time Peter Schreyer didn’t stand in front of a car model. Instead, he handed over a book and told a story to Chairman Chung. We illustrated a compelling glimpse of what a joyful, inspired Kia could look like which perfectly aligned with the new brand strategy the planning and marketing teams had developed.
Karim Habib, Head of Kia Global Design, explains the brand’s transformation
Needless to say, the effort was given the green light. On the design side, newly-appointed head of design, Karim Habib continues to infuse new inspiration in owning the vision.
Our successful proposal served as the creative foundation for product design, branding, space design and communications. The in-house designed logo was further sharpened and refined for implementation by renowned creative agency Blackspace.
Kia relaunched with a new strategy, logo, and branding in January 2021. As a designer who helped initiate the creative effort, this experience was particularly rewarding for me. Stepping outside the studio and collaborating helped to forge new partnerships with the rest of the organization and demonstrated the power and creativity of design. The effect of the partnership is unmistakable in the inspired, persona-driven and design-centric Kia rebranding story.
I consistently encourage designers to dream up more than just cars, to think beyond the job description of a car designer, and for design departments to collaborate with brand teams to ensure the brand output is a reflection of the design effort. I challenge them to keep imagining new ways to create ‘Movement that Inspires’.