Analysis: Hyundai’s Digital MPG Mea Culpa

Bad things happen to the best of companies. In the auto world, there are recalls and errors, a long litany of potential pitfalls that can easily occur in the work of building, marketing and selling cars. In the case of Hyundai, it was something only seen twice in recent memory: inaccurate fuel economy estimates. What was once touted as best-in-class and 40 mpg became a sales-guzzling, negative sentiment albatross — all in a matter of days.

Sure – it wasn’t a recall. But in a way the news that their mileage estimates were inflated was worse because consumers were misinformed — about a shocking 13 Hyundai and Kia models. Adding to the damage was that the issue began as far back as July, when the organization Consumer Watchdog filed a lawsuit and began telling consumers that mileage numbers on the Elantra could not be trusted. Then, Hyundai fought back, hard, refuting the claim. In a statement the automaker said that “Hyundai Motor America believes this case has no merit, as our advertising is accurate and in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations.”

Today the automaker’s tone has obviously changed. In another statement four months later, Dr. W. C. Yang, chief technology officer of Hyundai/Kia research and development, apologized “to all affected Hyundai and Kia customers, and I regret these errors occurred. Following up on the EPA’s audit results, we have taken immediate action to make the necessary rating changes and process corrections.” The consequence of that sort of public about face is one of the reasons why Hyundai and Kia are facing an avalanche of bad press. In order to “make things right,” the automaker will need to pay up to $100 million to consumers who purchased 13 models since 2010, and battle through at least three known court cases — including one recently filed by 23 vehicle owners for $775 million.

Perhaps most damaging, however, is what the reduction will mean to brand names rebuilt on the ideals of value, protection and trust. After more than 10 years spent convincing consumers that Hyundai/Kia was a smart choice and a sexy alternative to the competition, they are now faced with the possibility of going back to the drawing board to reclaim much of that hard-earned brand equity.

Trust. Once gained, it’s hard to lose — and virtually impossible to earn back. And here’s the thing: the loss of trust and the alienation of car buyers won’t happen solely because the mileage was wrong. We all make mistakes in judgement or errors in process and procedure. What matters is what happens afterward, when the world is staring and your actions reveal intent. Do you mean what you say? Are you committed to getting the word out? Are you taking steps to be transparent, accessible and, most of all, human? The campaign to prove that their actions match their intent begins on digital channels, and for the past week we’ve watched as Hyundai has toed the line between attempting to control access and spin to acting in an open and transparent way. The result is a mixed bag, at best, and an interesting case study on the dos and don’ts of digital communication during the worst of times.


Hyundai didn’t seem to shift much of their paid search to key terms regarding the mpg news, and as a result were being conquested by Mazda. When I typed in “Elantra,” for example, my return netted the typical paid search links, and — surprise — a link to Mazda offering up their fuel efficient cars. Typing in “Kia Soul mpg” got me links to dealerships and the brand site, with nary a mention of the reduction.




Talk all you want on social, and put tiles wherever you can plaster ‘em on your sites — none of that is as effective as getting your message on search engines. Indeed, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, search is among the first places people go to learn about a topic, and is among the most trusted sources. With 13 models requiring a restatement of their mileage claim, Hyundai and Kia would do well to ensure that their message is the one found at the top of the SERP page.

Brand Sites

Hyundai and Kia wasted little time in posting tiles toward the top on their home pages, and in launching a comprehensive minisite to inform owners. The site provides a good look into the issue, gives information about how the false MPG claim was registered, and gives people a way to check their VINs. By centering their message on sites designed primarily for prospective buyers, the automaker can happily check the box on communicating the issue.  But those are the basics. That’s digital 101. And even then, it’s better to play bad news straight. Hyundai’s “We’ve got your Back” headline made the fuel economy mea culpa almost seem like a service event. Kia, on the other hand, kept it pretty direct, and on their mobile site, placed a bright red tile about the reduction in first position. Other than that mobile example, the muted approach to placement makes it seem that leads are more important than the communication of a story with national implications — one that impacts owners AND potential owners.



Tier 2 and Tier 3 Sites

Hyundai’s ability to marshal its internal groups and vendors to publish across brand and retail channels was impressive. Go to a brand-endorsed dealer site and you’ll find a tile that takes you to the mpg landing page. And while — as with the brand site — it’s well below the fold, the message is there and accessible. Unfortunately, non-endorsed dealer sites mostly didn’t get the same treatment, and one wonders why: did dealerships not receive artwork to add to their independent sites? Many of these sites had little to anything online about the mileage reduction.

Placement is also the issue on Hyundai’s Tier 2 sites: instead of leveraging the top banner spot on the page, Hyundai chose to add a lower tile, below the fold. That location doesn’t communicate the urgency of issue, but it does place the message where consumers will find it.  Overall, broadcasting across the complexities of an automaker’s website real estate is sound marketing communications and good planning. Burying the story below the fold, however, damages the ideal of being open and transparent.

Social Media

By announcing the reduced rating on its Facebook page and using Twitter to communicate the news — and especially by using a Tweet from CEO John Krafcik — Hyundai connected with a significant segment of owners and fans. The social media team also took the time to respond to relevant queries. But the answer always seemed to be the same: go to the site. Even when one member of the community, clearly frustrated with the registration tool, reached out for help, she was only given a link to a contact page. Perhaps a better plan would have been to actually help by creating a case number and connecting her to customer service? As for Kia’s American Facebook page, the moderator took the time to address many complaints and explain the situation – even if at the end the information was the same. That sort of transparency and hand holding makes people feel better.

So — good but not really transparent or engaged on a channel where engagement in a personal way means everything.  Treat Facebook as what it is — a social network — and share the content from the minisite directly on the page. Maybe even go so far as to publish a page on Facebook with the VIN look up included, or do a live chat with the CEO. All in all, actively communicating on Facebook means talking about the message directly to the owners on that page, not just referring them to the minisite.

Ultimately, this will fade and people will turn back Suzuki’s bankruptcy, or whatever the next crisis happens to be. But when they do, it behooves Hyundai and Kia that they turn away feeling satisfied that the automaker is, indeed, doing what’s right — including telling its story in the right way, on the right channels and with the right amount of candor.
—Brian Chee

Note: Hyundai did not wish to comment on its digital approach at this time


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