Hyundai’s CMO, Angela Zepeda, is an industry veteran that radiates pure candidness and positivity as she discussed marketing challenges and rewards in an increasingly complex consumer landscape. 

AList chatted with her about how the Hyundai Super Bowl ad “Smaht Pahk” idea came to fruition, what it takes to build a successful brand and what path she took to become an expert in marketing, especially marketing to women.

What has changed about Super Bowl marketing over the years? Especially now, when the game is attracting a more diverse audience and more women?

I think, especially with the conversations I’ve been in with other industry professionals this season, everyone feels like Super Bowl advertising has gotten more thoughtful. It’s probably smarter, too. It’s no longer ok to do sophomoric humor or humor at someone’s expense. You have to think through it. When you do humor, which generally places a light on something or someone, you need to make sure that nobody’s feelings are hurt. 

This made all advertisers more sensitive to the current issues in our country and the intent is to bring people together on Super Bowl to not only enjoy a great football game but also, to see great advertising. I think the work, in general, has gotten a lot more sophisticated, thoughtful and in tune culturally and that’s a really good thing. 

Will we see more humor going forward as a way to talk about technical advances in the auto industry?

The reason why we went with humor again [in 2020] was that we had new product news that lined up well with the timing of Super Bowl. The technology on the Sonata, for the price and the class of the car that it is, is over the top. We wanted to surprise and delight viewers with this beautiful new car that is a mid-level size [sedan], that competes against the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and had a lot of fun with it. 

The actual technical word or name for that “backing in-and-out parking” is “remote smart parking assist,” which was just a terrible mouthful, so we shortened it to “smart-park.” And then somebody on the creative team at the agency, who’s been born and raised in Boston, and had a little bit of the accent left, kept saying “smaht pahk.” We thought it was funny. It just brought it to life in a way that we thought was memorable, simple and was able to make the star of the commercial. And, of course, we cast very good celebrities that came together as an awesome ensemble cast that makes the spot really fun. 

So could we do more fun with the technology? I’d say, probably, yes. I think that’s what it is all about–it makes driving easy, fun and delightful and humor seems to be the right emotion to go along with that kind of new advancement in car manufacturing.

What’s your goal as a marketer with this campaign and how will you measure its success?

For today’s marketers, it is not just about doing great creativity to build the brand. That’s only one part of it. I really run a business to pull Hyundai forward and we do have very aggressive goals to grow. The company is very much on the move–we had an incredible 2019; it’s the best year we’ve had since 2016. We have a new executive vice-chairman, Euisun Chung, who is investing heavily in new technology. [He is] very bullish on smart-mobility and making Hyundai the best and safest cars. We have to be very smart in the way we approach our business, not only to grow, but to be profitable, so we continue to invest in new technologies, which we then give back to people in the product. 

What we want to do now [with our full product lineup] is to help build a brand that endears people to Hyundai. I don’t want to be the value-based brand, where people buy us because of price. I want people to buy us because they love us and, by the way, you can probably get our car without killing your wallet. We have the confidence to talk to people in a way that we want them to love us as a brand because our philosophy is: if you are not making cars better for people, then who are you making them better for? 

I don’t think there is anything we don’t look at around the customer journey, but brand opinion is [what] we are focused on the most. Brand opinion is built on the back of people feeling very secure about the product that they are buying and their trust in the brand, and that’s on us to deliver that message and to have people have that confidence. That’s one of the biggest things we are looking at in 2020 and of course, all the other metrics that now go with our very complex 360-degree marketing go-to market plan. 

Does the Super Bowl ad fit into part of a larger, national strategy?

It does. We needed to build on the idea of what Hyundai is and what the brand stands for. My background is in brand building, so I want to crack the code on this. I want every single piece of communication that we do to level up to the same end-feeling or depiction of what Hyundai is as a brand. Squarely focusing on a singular feature, [we are] putting the car as the star and then wrapping it in some kind of human truth or scenario that’s relatable to consumers, whether it makes them laugh, or brings [a few] tears. 

What was the first thing you changed when you became CMO of Hyundai in October last year?

The overall strategy has remained very much the same. We started getting the new product into the offering. That was the first step–to get the right product to the marketplace. Brand building takes time and a lot of money. We emphasized our digital marketing efforts, which we are still continuing with today. It’s very sophisticated, in-market demand generation digital marketing and an overlay of the branded effort that helps us touch consumers wherever they are. 

What are the biggest issues that keep CMOs up at night? 

There are a few. What I do as a CMO is seen by everybody. There are plenty of executives and other senior people at Hyundai who do work that never sees the light of day outside the walls. But the work I do with the agencies is very public-facing and faces a lot of opinions. That’s one of the biggest challenges–to make sure that I have consensus and alignment across the organization. 

I also can’t spend money willy-nilly. When I started at the business, they were still saying, “50 percent of my advertising doesn’t work, I just don’t know which 50 percent.” Now, I better know which 50 percent works or doesn’t work. We are very data-driven and I’m given some latitude to try new things, so we work strongly with a lot of partnerships to help us be as smart as we can and be able to prove that we are spending our money is the best way, delivering on all our metrics. 

Sometimes, I think marketing gets a lot of credit when it goes great. But I also think it can be blamed too much or too quickly when things aren’t going well. I think that’s the biggest challenge for me to keep the vision going and stand strongly behind it. So my stands as a CMO and what I see as the future for marketing and advertising in the Hyundai brand, starts and stops with me and that’s probably the biggest thing that keeps me up at night. 

How did you become an expert at marketing to women?

This came up years ago, around 2005-2006, when I first landed at Lowe Campbell Ewald. I went there to run the Kaiser Permanente account and I later ended up running the office. 

One of the people that I worked with there was an executive creative director, Debbie Karnowsky. She embarked on building a cast-forced team and did proprietary research that the agency funded, to understand what women were seeking from brands when it came to marketing. Some of the guidelines, for example, were: “Don’t swap everything in pink,” or “Don’t talk down to women, women are pretty darn smart.” We used the research in a way that hasn’t been done in the past and ended up winning a lot of new business, working with clients that wanted to speak specifically to women.

One of those clients was Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. Advertising is a very commodity-based business, it’s very competitive and we came up with a way that helped Ghirardelli to break through. Here is another point–women have a fantasy life, they use their dreams and fantasies as a way to build their worlds. We used a lot of that in the advertising–just bringing out what women have in their heads when they are sitting back and eating chocolate. It’s not literally showing a piece of chocolate and telling them how great it is. It’s more about: “How does it make you feel?” 

I continued to focus on how women perceive advertising. To be honest, in many ways, they want to be spoken to just like everyone else. But there are some nuances that make women special and unique and they like to be talked to in that way when the time is right.