It opened more than a decade ago in the middle of a wave of foreign auto companies establishing manufacturing plants in North America, but Kia’s factory in West Point, Georgia, is hitting its own sweet spot these days. The plant is starting to build an important new SUV for the rising Korean brand – and over the weekend, it starred in a Super Bowl commercial.
“Made in America” has been a repeated theme in TV ads on Big Game day for years, getting homage by brands including Budweiser, Chrysler and WeatherTech. But the South Korean car company’s ad about its plant in West Point and its new Telluride three-row, eight-passenger SUV might have been the most pointed message about American manufacturing ever featured in the Super Bowl.
Kia’s 90-second Big Game advertisement on Sunday featured the former cotton-mill town that was down on its luck for years before Kia decided to open its first U.S plant there. Now the plant’s capacity is 360,000 vehicles a year as it begins turning out Telluride – designed in America and aimed at one of the most important segments in the U.S market – in addition to the Sorento SUV and Optima sedan.
Already, West Pointers have contributed to the quality and reliability of Kia vehicles that place it at the top of third-party evaluations of those criteria in the U.S market. And while Kia’s 2018 sales in the American market were flat with 2017 at about 590,000 units, during a year when nearly all of its competitors were also close to flat, Telluride has the potential to contribute key incremental volume for a brand that is still rounding out its lineup of utility vehicles.
Kia’s 90-second Big Game advertisement had a reverent tone akin to some of Fiat Chrysler’s best Super Bowl advertisements, emphasizing the “great unknowns” who build Telluride in contrast to celebrities in other Super Bowl ads.
“We’re just a small town of complete unknowns,” says a young boy in the ad, an actual West Point resident. “Not known for who we are, we hope to be known for what we do,” he continues against a backdrop of iconic scenes of small-town life shot in West Point, including a high-school football practice, a horse farm, a choir class and downtown.
“This thing we’ve assembled – it has a chance to be remembered. We are not famous, but we are incredible, and we make incredible things.”
Saad Chehab, vice president of marketing communications for Kia Motors America, told Chief Executive that one intention of the ad and its tone “is to take ourselves seriously and for what we’re building. We’re not just selling Souls any more,” he said, in a reference to the fun-loving little crossover that Kia previously advertised in a Super Bowl using animatronic hamsters.
“We’re trying to establish a dialogue with the customer, and that takes a pause, to talk about who we are, what we’ve done, what we build, what we offer – and give credit to the folks behind building the cars.”
Some in Georgia and on social media suggested that the ad actually insulted rural Georgians because it suggested that kids in little West Point would be happy to settle for life building cars in an assembly plant and not shoot higher. “Celebrating small-town America? Awesome,” said a critic for Adweek. “But Kia somehow managed to make its ad sound like a funeral dirge. They went for empowering and landed on depressing.”
But in a short documentary-style video that Kia also produced and released online, it’s pretty evident that West Pointians themselves remain thrilled with the economic revitalization brought by the Kia plant, the 14,000 or so jobs that it supports in the community, and its investments in the town and its people.
“It has changed a lot of lives,” one local resident says “You wonder if they hadn’t chosen this pace what we would be now. We didn’t have anything to keep us going but hope.”