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Behind the badge: Kia's new look and new approach

It's a new look and a new approach to customer service for the Korean brand. We visit Kia's flagship UK showroom to see how the ‘premium’ ethos works

Switch on the TV and you won’t have to wait too long to see an advert featuring a car that looks straight out of Blade Runner and a contemporary logo apparently comprising a ‘K’ and backwards ‘N’. Is this the latest EV arrival from China, or is it yet another hip American start-up? 

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Actually the latest marketing campaign is from Kia, a marque that’s currently undergoing one of the most comprehensive rebranding schemes we’ve seen in years.

Kia’s shift towards becoming a desirable and (dare we say it) premium brand has been gaining momentum recently, spearheaded by the launch of its ‘EV’ electric-car range. This is soon to be bolstered further by the EV5 family SUV and EV3 compact crossover – two exciting-looking models aiming to target popular, yet overlapping sectors of the market.

Many of these EV cars – especially the flagship EV9 seven-seater – are priced to compete with premium rivals from the likes of Audi, BMW and Tesla. Which may surprise some, given that Kia’s smallest model, the Picanto city car, is currently the cheapest new car you can buy in the UK.

So how can a brand servicing such a wide array of price points be considered premium? We posed the question to Kia’s UK CEO, Paul Philpott, who said there needs to be “commonality” between its impressive range of electric cars, as well as the buying and ownership experience.

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For more insight, we visited GWR Kia Brentford, the maker’s flagship showroom in the UK, which is undergoing some major refurbishment to reflect Kia’s renewed identity. Its four floors are overseen by managing director of Norton Way dealer group, Jason Craswick. “‘Premium’ isn’t price, it’s service,” he said. “The definition of premium is going above and beyond what the customer expects”. Kia is no newcomer to that game, with a seven-year warranty that has been industry leading since 2006. 

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 “If you look at the journey Kia has undertaken, it’s become a very desirable brand and that has generated it a premium position,” said Craswick. “But nowadays, ‘premium’ is accessible to anybody.” 

He also highlighted the priority of wanting to surprise customers; Kia’s latest dealership concept will certainly have a hand in that, especially if you’re used to the brand’s relatively low-key showrooms that have previously been adorned with flashes of ‘buy me now’ red. Coming to the GWR site later this year will be more muted tones, wooden floors and the ‘infinity loop’  – a glorified LED ring light that separates the car display and customer areas. It’s all part of the new brand-wide showroom standard, designed to create a more tangibly ‘premium’ environment.

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As you can expect, this all comes at a mammoth cost; neither Norton Way, nor Kia was too keen about going into details, but Jason assured us that this rebranding project was, by some margin, the largest the dealer group had ever undertaken – no doubt thanks in large part to the flashy EV9 display that was being installed on the top floor during our visit, for all passers-by to see from the neighbouring M4 motorway.

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‘Premium’ status isn’t awarded solely for some minimalist wooden furniture and flashes of ambient lighting, though. You needn’t spend too much time in some mainstream car showrooms before you’re pounced on by a salesperson trying to sign you up to a lucrative leasing deal.

Different approach to customer service

While we can’t attest for every one of Kia’s UK dealerships, the folks at Norton Way appear to be taking a different approach, employing people such as their senior product guru, Rey Janjua. While the job title may elicit some eye rolling from cynics, it’s accurate because he spends the majority of his time in the showroom answering questions and explaining all there is to know about Kia’s line-up. With a background in the tech industry, Janjua illustrated how he wants the showroom environment “to feel like a local shop, not some large cold corporation”. 

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Of course, general manager James Grimes admits the priority will “always be to sell cars” – GWR Kia alone sells roughly 4,000 cars per year and growing – but he did say that the brand’s growing popularity has enabled Norton Way, as well as other dealer groups, to reinvest in their staff.

So is it working? Well, CEO Philpott reckons so, claiming, “Of the last 5,000 Kia EV6 customers, the majority of them have come straight out of a BMW, Mercedes, Tesla, Jaguar or Land Rover product.”

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Furthermore, while you may expect this focus on the premium side of the market to limit Kia’s opportunity, it’s seemingly having the opposite effect; Kia recently recorded its best sales quarter ever, with more than 33,000 sales in the first three months of 2024 alone. The brand’s electrified fleet now makes up nearly half (49 per cent) of its UK car sales, yet Kia still appears committed to the rest of its line-up, with the Picanto, for example, recently being facelifted to tie it in with the far more expensive EV9. Other more affordable models, such as the Soul, are less lucky, with Philpott saying it’s “unlikely to remain in the range for the long term” as more modern (and probably more expensive) EV-badged models arrive over the next couple of years to fill the gap. It appears, then, that the Kia we used to know may become almost unrecognisable.

The dealer revamp is set to be complete by the end of the year, and this ‘new and improved’ Kia will continue to offer a number of products across a broad range of sectors, as well as aiming to offer a strong sense of value for money.

However, the brand’s focus on long kit lists and even longer warranties has now been joined by a third pillar of premium desirability. This is something the maker considers to be a key factor in its battle to stand out amid the predicted cascade of affordable EV arrivals from China.

What do you think of Kia's new approach? Have your say in the comments...

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Consumer reporter

Tom is Auto Express' Consumer reporter, meaning he spends his time investigating the stories that matter to all motorists - enthusiasts or otherwise. An ex-BBC journalist and Multimedia Journalism graduate, Tom previously wrote for partner sites Carbuyer and DrivingElectric and you may also spot him throwing away his dignity by filming videos for the Auto Express social media channels.

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