What do you do when most people already see you as a commodity? How can you differentiate yourself? That is the challenge Hankook Tire America Corp., the Nashville-based subsidiary of Hankook & Company Co., Ltd. group of South Korea ($5.9 billion in revenues), is facing as it tries to grow sales in the United States. On its face, there is nothing distinctive about either the company or its tires. While the parent company is one of the world’s largest tire companies—it is now seventh globally—that in and of itself is not distinctive. (It means you are big, but you are not the biggest.)
And the company certainly does make good tires. But this sort of review is representative:
“Hankook is the second-most affordable tire brand among the top tire brands, and the company has good options for sedans and truck sizes,” reads a report from Top 10 Reviews, a digital publisher. “Hankook emerged [in our review of the entire United States tire industry] as an affordable tire brand with the best tread- life warranties available.”
Again, it is far from a pan, and “best tread-life warranties” is something you can point to, but it is not the sort of rave that makes your brand stand out.
The parent company proudly boasts of its 80-year history— founded in 1941, it was the first automobile tire company in Korea—but in reality, as you know, people don’t give you a lot of credit for your corporate history. It makes them feel better that you are probably going to be around if anything goes wrong, but other than that, it really isn’t a differentiator. (And even if it were, Hankook’s largest competitors have been around far longer. For example, Michelin was founded in 1889, Goodyear in 1898, and Bridgestone in 1931.)
So, how do you create relevance around a tire, especially when you are selling a Korean-branded tire in the United States, a market dominated by American brands?
How do you become relevant?
The question of relevance is of particular importance since Hankook is in the midst of trying to gain significant market share in the U.S. where it has around 4 percent of the U.S. replacement tire market (passenger and light truck). That puts Hankook among a half dozen or so brands with similar share competing to chip away at the big three–Goodyear, Michelin, and Bridgestone. So, where do you begin to create relevance?
It is a two-step approach:
- You start by figuring out which segment of the driving public to go after.
- Then you use the Relevance Egg as one of the ways to determine the best way to reach them.
The Target Market
Hankook decided to concentrate on men between 25 and 54 years old, which makes sense. Far and away, that age group as a whole buys the most cars and trucks (both of which need replacement tires), and within the cohort itself, the group skews male (57% to 43%), according to Hedges and Company, an Ohio- based marketing firm.
Once that decision was made, it was onto figuring out how to reach those men. And this is where the Relevance Egg proved valuable.
“I used to think of relevance almost in the same terms as brand awareness, but it’s so much more than that,” says Abby Campbell, Hankook Brand Communications Specialist. “After going through the relevance methodology and approach, I was able to understand the importance of forming a true connection with an audience in order to reach and retain them.
“It made perfect sense to me,” she adds, “because when I think about why I choose the brands that I choose, I always make my decision based not only on the quality of the product or the trustworthiness of the brand, but I have a tendency to lean towards brands that I relate to on a personal level. For example, if the brand is nostalgic for me—like something my mom used when I was a kid—it reminds me of my childhood and makes me feel happy and comfortable, and I’m more likely to buy it because of that nostalgic, personal connection. Or, if the brand has an ad that is relatable and makes me think ‘Oh, I do this too!’ or ‘I also have this problem!’ then I’m more likely to purchase the product.
“That’s why I think influencer marketing (a form of social media marketing involving endorsements and product placements from people and organizations who have an expert level of knowledge or are admired in their field) is so effective. Because people follow influencers that they relate to. And if an influencer is vouching for a brand, and I relate to that influencer, that must mean that I am also likely to enjoy the brand,” Campbell explains.
“I’ve always known that it’s important to resonate with your audience, but I think in the past, I would have placed brand aware- ness above relevance,” she adds. “I used to think it was more important to have your brand name heard than it was to relate to your audience. But I’ve come to realize that we can’t just throw out any message and expect it to achieve results. Because if a person does not perceive your message or your brand as relevant, it will fall on deaf ears.”
That, of course, has been our premise throughout.
But How Do You Reach Them
So, being relevant was going to be important. But how should Hankook try to reach the men it had decided would be their core audience?
When people begin looking for connections to relevance, they usually start with the rational—the “thinking” part of the Relevance Egg, which, of course, is fine. From Hankook’s perspective, the easiest way to do it would be to say its tires are of higher quality and safer. But there are two problems with that.
“First, it’s a legal issue,” says Campbell. “Since our tires haven’t been tested against every single brand, we can’t legally make the claim that our tires are safer or higher quality than others. We do speak about our quality because our tires are of top quality, but if that’s all we said, then we’d just be saying the same thing that our competitors are because they make high-quality tires, too.”
And indeed, Hankook’s previous approach to marketing had been the same as what every company was doing as well. The message could be boiled down to: “You want a safe tire to protect your family. That’s what we offer.” There was nothing wrong with that. But if your message is the same as everyone else’s, it doesn’t stand out, and if it doesn’t stand out, it is difficult to be heard.
As Campbell points out, something had to change.
“If we didn’t reevaluate our brand strategy, we would be at risk of falling behind our competitors, just as any other brand would,” she says. “I think it’s important for all brands to continuously re-search their audiences and evaluate their strategies to determine what is or isn’t working and make the necessary adjustments. In this age of information, things change rapidly, so it’s important for us to keep up if we want to gain and keep the attention of our audience.
“For us, our end goal is always to influence a purchase decision, so if we remain stagnant in our marketing efforts and don’t seek to understand our end-users, we won’t be able to effectively achieve that goal,” Campbell adds.
Specifically, through its marketing and advertising efforts, Hankook seeks to increase brand awareness, increase brand preference, and influence purchase intent.
“Over the past four to five years, our position in brand awareness and brand preference, compared to other brands, has remained virtually unchanged,” Campbell says. “And of course, our goal is to surpass our competitors, so while we didn’t slip in the rankings, we also didn’t climb.”
To improve, a new messaging approach was called for. In thinking about the best way to engage Hankook’s core audience, the company decided to employ two parts of the Relevance Egg: Use the rational approach and combine it with the sensory. The goal was to build on and extend the “driving emotion” tagline central to its advertising.
“Driving emotion is an expression that is very close to the heart for all of us at Hankook,” the company explains on its website. “It embodies everything that the company is about, and elaborately depicts what a driver deserves: a dynamic range of emotions that enable them to enjoy driving. Driving emotion stands for real driving pleasure which arises from the inseparable unit of driver, vehicle, and optimum tires.”
In creating that messaging, Hankook was playing back to its target audience what it was hearing from them.
“From what I have observed on social media and through social listening, it seems people are a fan of our tires because they are good quality and they’re mostly performance tires,” Campbell says. “Usually, the people who buy our tires are people who enjoy driving. Cars are a hobby for them. They don’t just want to go and pick up any tire. They want to make sure that it’s one that can add to their vehicle performance. They love to drive and are passionate about it.” It is interesting to note that the parent company expanded on that insight in its marketing in Europe and Latin America, creating the “Be One with It” campaign.
Here’s an excerpt from its messaging:
“We have realized it is very important to make an emotional connection,” Campbell says, adding that the company is trying numerous ways to do so.
“A main focus lately has been trying to reach end-users through social media, because that is where the younger audience is,” Campbell says. “While we utilize traditional media—we run TV commercials and digital ads, of course, and earned PR—but we’ve really been pushing social media to reach that younger audience.”
And the company is doing it through sponsorships as well.
“We’ve been reaching out to the baseball-loving audience to create that connection with them. If they love baseball, we hope that they can connect with us because we are a sponsor of professional baseball. That will drive awareness and, hopefully, sales. People often associate baseball with good memories and times with family and friends. Our hope is to have that association between good times, baseball, and the American pastime, extend to Hankook.”
And, of course, you can tie that emotional connection to social media campaigns. “We’ve looked at doing campaigns that follow families who are getting ready to go on a road trip to see a baseball game. We discussed the idea of doing a video series that follows the families and demonstrates how they prepare for the road trip, what they pack in their car, and document their journey. You have to be creative when showing that emotional connection between tires and baseball. But I think it can be done.”
And you can find other ways to connect as well. It can be as simple as price.
“In the past, younger audiences usually wanted to buy the cheapest tire in the store, but now I think that Millennials care more about the quality of the product. They want better quality,” Camp- bell says. “It’s not just about buying the cheapest thing anymore. That is working to our advantage because we’re a great option. We are below the price point of other top manufacturers, so we are in an attractive price point for that audience.”
Now for any of this to work, you have to remain authentic. Your message, or your influencers, can’t be a stretch because if you look superficial or too promotional, people will lose interest quickly.
“We see so many influencers today on social media that come across as obvious or inauthentic. Essentially, when you see it, you can tell that it’s an ad. You can tell they’re just doing it because they’re being paid for it, and that’s what we want to stay away from.” Campbell says. “When we are looking for influencers, we make sure they are fans of the brand already. People tag us in content all the time on Instagram, and a lot of them have tons of followers. If we see that someone’s already a fan, we can reach out to them and see if they want to be a partner. The answer is usually yes since they already have our tires and already like the tires. That keeps it authentic because it’s something they already like.”
- Increase brand awareness.
- Increase brand preference.
- Influence purchase intent.
“We not only want to be a well-known brand, but we want to be viewed and recognized as a top-tier, premium brand in the American market,” she says. “Since we opened our first U.S. plant in 2017, our immediate goal has been to increase the awareness that we are producing premium tires in America for American consumers. So, success there would mean that we are seeing more conversations around Hankook in the media as well as see increased brand awareness results in our bi-annual brand competitiveness study.
“Success in increased preference for our brand would mean that consumers are requesting our tires rather than relying on a dealer to recommend a brand for them. They would prefer Hankook over other brands. I think success here would also mean a higher following on social media. Consumers at this stage would be more invested in our brand and want to follow us.
“Finally, if we succeed in influencing purchase decisions, that would mean increased sales. Success at this stage would mean that we have increased our number of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partnerships while also selling more tires to end-users who specifically choose our brand over another.”
While the Hankook relevance campaign remains a work in progress, the initial responses have been promising.
“From a social media perspective, we have seen an increase in followers and have received great responses from our campaigns,” Campbell says. “While our social advertising budgets did not increase, our engagement rates have skyrocketed, nearly doubling, and I think it’s largely due to our creative storytelling and relatable campaigns. We’ve created campaigns that are of higher quality, highly engaging, and had relatable narratives. We don’t want to just talk about our products; we want to show people how our products can be used to enrich their lives.”
She provides two quick examples.
“We partnered with a local Tennessee band and gave them a set of tires for their tour bus and asked them to document their summer tour on Hankook tires. That really resonated with a different lifestyle audience that is a bit harder for us to reach. With our American headquarters being located in Tennessee, this also helped us draw a connection with our ‘hometown Tennessee’ audience and displayed our product in a lighthearted and inspiring way through the lens of a rock and roll band.
“We also built a campaign around the ‘Van Life’ movement, where we followed several individuals and families who travel to beautiful locations all over the country and live out of their (very ‘tricked out’) vans. It helped us tell an emotional brand story in a unique way while reaching an ‘adventure-loving’ and outdoors audience to market our new all-terrain product.
“You can see the payoff in the fact that Hankook gained followers on social media, which I think is evidence that brand awareness and preference is on the rise.”
“Being a tire company, it can be a stretch at times to keep things fresh and creative to hold the attention of our audience. It’s also challenging since there are so many competitors out there making the same product. That’s where I think relevance comes in. One of the main ways we can increase preference for our brand is to in- crease our relevance in the eyes of consumers so that they’ll go into their local tire shops and request our tires instead of our competitors.
“Yes, everybody needs tires, so what will make them choose ours? If we can find a way for our customers to identify with our brand on a deeper level, I think they’ll be more likely to keep choosing us in the future.”