I Can’t Get With That: Renaming the Kia Soul


This item was originally published on July 30th, 2010 at Fast Company.

I love those Kia hamsters. The first commercial showed a trio of hammies tooling around in their Kia Soul while the rest of the world ran in stationary wheels; it was cute and clever and made a nice statement about the cool factor of the car.

But the second one blew that right out of the water. The combination of CGI and Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours” is a whole new level of awesome. Now, these kinds of commercials are nothing new, but in this instance the match of the product name–Soul–and the theme of the commercial (rapping dudes on Hamsterdam Ave.) is just perfect. I know that they didn’t create this car name to appeal to hip hop hamsters, but man, it works.

Which is why the recent rumors about Kia dropping their car names in favor of alphanumerics puzzles me. Automotive News reports:

Kia’s lineup in South Korea and some other markets already is partially alphanumeric. In Korea, the mid-sized sedan based on what was known as the Optima is named the K5, a large sedan known as Cadenza in some markets–but not yet sold in the United States–is named the K7, and the Forte likely will become the K3.

Okay, I admit that “Cadenza” isn’t the greatest name; I know it’s a musical term, but for me it’s too close to “credenza“, and I don’t think anyone wants to be driving around a big wooden sideboard. But more to the point, what does Kia think they are accomplishing with the K names?

Typically, alphanumerics have been used by car companies who want to bestow some prestige on the brand; think BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. The letter usually indicates the class, and the number refers to model features like engine size. But this isn’t always the case, and that’s where the confusion comes. BMW and Audi, for example, use numbers for the product lines, with the letters signifying fuel injection, or “standard” vs. “sport”, or some other damn thing I can’t figure out–that is a problem.

Kia seems to feel that sequential numbering (where “K” presumably stands for Kia) is the answer. But what happens when they get into the double digits? And how to distinguish sedans from SUVs from sports cars? And don’t forget that alphanumerics are inherently less memorable and brand-y than names–especially when the market is flooded with them.

Which gets me back to the hammies. With the Kia Soul, the company found a perfect match of brand and brand image as exemplified in the TV ads. You couldn’t have done the same commercials with a car named Morning (another Kia model). The whole joke is that the Soul has so much soul that it’s the car of choice for people who aren’t part of the bland, boring, middle-aged go-nowhere American culture. I don’t know if Kia is specifically targeting African Americans, but they certainly are capitalizing on the marketability of gangsta culture to a young buying population, no matter their ethnicity.

It’s a triumph of naming and branding. And now they’re considering throwing it away for a bunch of letters and numbers? Kia, the choice is yours.


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