KIA Insider

New head of Kia marketing faces familiar challenge

LOS ANGELES — Kia Motors America's decision to hire Russell Wager, Mazda's former North American marketing vice president, as director of marketing operations positions the Korean brand to accelerate its image transformation from a value-oriented choice for consumers to a more mature automaker with an expanded lineup to match that message.

Wager, who joins Kia after the recent departure of marketing vice president Saad Chehab, will be in charge of advertising, media, partnerships and other marketing activities. He reports to Kia Motors America COO Michael Cole.

In his new role, Wager will find some similarities to his last job, where he began shifting Mazda's brand positioning from a fun-to-drive ethos to more premium products with a higher price tag.

"I am thrilled to join the Kia team and bring my 25-plus years of passion and knowledge of the automotive business to this new position," said Wager in a statement last week. "I look forward to working with the creative and dedicated people at KMA and with the highly professional Kia dealer network nationwide to continue building brand momentum as we prepare for the next decade of growth."

Wager was brought aboard by Mazda in 2012 to help the small Japanese automaker stand out in a crowded field of mainstream auto brands with deep pockets. During his time there, Mazda traded its "Zoom Zoom" slogan for "Driving Matters," then began its "Feel Alive" campaign last year. It also became a sponsor of the sprawling South by Southwest arts festival in Texas, and the brand began a push to go upscale. From 2012 to 2018, Madza's U.S. sales rose 8.4 percent to 300,325 units.

"Hiring Wager is a good move for Kia, as he's intimately familiar with the challenge the brand faces as it tries to shake its value-focused image in favor of something a bit more upmarket," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analy sis at Edmunds. "Wager faced a somewhat similar situation at Mazda, and that experience will help him jump in and make things happen quickly."

Wager left Mazda in September after six years at the automaker, a year after Dino Bernacchi was brought in as chief marketing officer for U.S. operations. At the time, Mazda said Bernacchi was "absolutely not" hired to take over Wager's position.

Wager's departure means that his job transforming Mazda's image was incomplete.

"I wouldn't say he was a success or a failure at that," said Brian Moody, executive editor for Autotrader. "I don't think he had the time to do it. I think that's an ongoing, just-beginning process for Mazda."

At Kia, Wager will find an automaker whose product line is more in sync with the image shift it wants to make, having added the fast-selling Telluride three-row crossover this year. The Korean brand also has the luxurious Cadenza sedan, a new generation of the stylish Soul hatchback and the Stinger performance sedan.

"For Kia, I think they are in a much better place because the image and the marketing part of it is really the only thing they have to do," Moody said. "The products are already there."

Wager comes to Kia as the brand is riding some positive sales momentum. U.S. volume is up 3.8 percent in the first half of this year — outpacing a market that is down 2.4 percent.

Kia has a history of memorable, offbeat ads, including the Kia Soul dancing hamsters, Sock Monkey and pals hitting the road in a Sorento and partying in Vegas, sales kids promoting Kia as "America's best value," and actress Melissa McCarthy rescuing animals and the environment in a Niro.

However, Kia got serious during this year's Super Bowl. The commercial spotlighted West Point, Ga., where the new Telluride crossover is built — and site of the brand's sole U.S. manufacturing plant — and the people of the town. Chehab said in February the brand is proud of "being the working-class brand for the working-class folks."

Besides being a perennial Super Bowl advertiser, Kia has a longstanding partnership with the NBA.