Michael Sprague has overseen two of the auto industry’s most memorable marketing campaigns, first Mazda’s “Zoom-Zoom” and now, as U.S. executive vice president-marketing for Kia, that brand’s dancing hamsters.


For the past 4½ years, the dancing hamsters have been the face of Kia’s popular Soul subcompact box, consistently one of the brand’s best-selling vehicles in the U.S., regularly racking up a 6-figure annual volume.

Since the Soul debuted in the U.S. in the spring of 2009, the hamsters have taken on a life of their own via five separate ad campaigns. Commercials for the car are some of the most-watched automotive spots on YouTube.

The latest Soul commercial, in conjunction with the second-generation ’14 model and featuring the hamsters exercising to Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” is the second most-popular video on Kia Motors America’s YouTube page, with 2.046 million views since going up just a month ago. Previous Soul commercials uploaded by random YouTube users have as many or more views.

Sprague tells WardsAuto about the hamsters past and future, and how Kia measures the success of another high-profile marketing effort, its sponsorship of the National Basketball Assn.

I would never say (the hamsters will be) around forever. I would say that every time we’re getting ready to do a new campaign we go through the process of, “Should we do another campaign? Or have they lived beyond their usefulness or (ability to) connect with consumers?”

The fourth (Soul/hamsters commercial set in) the Vienna opera house, where we used the electronic music, did not have mass appeal. We were going very targeted in that one. The song wasn’t as catchy. And I think what we’ve learned from that was, we need to connect with consumers with a new, cool, catchy song.

The new spot has reinvigorated the hamsters, and our thoughts on using them in the future. It has been interesting to watch. On YouTube the comments are very favorable toward the slimmed-down hamsters. Really cool. On our Facebook page, the Soul Facebook page, it’s split. There are a lot of people that really like the hamsters in their original form.

So, from a social media standpoint, it opens up a great debate: which direction should the brand go in the future? Do the hamsters fall off the diet and exercise routine, and go back to their (heftier former selves) or continue down this path of exercise? Things like that. So I think there’s still some territory out there where we can have fun. And also, with the electric Soul coming (to the U.S. in 2014), the timing could marry up, so we could have fun there as well.

With social media, we can track how well we’re doing there and what people are thinking. In this day and age, everything is about the return on the investment and tracking. And there are so many things to track.

At the end of the day, our dealers really like (our sponsorship of the NBA). They think it’s a great investment and they’re telling us it is driving traffic. It’s also raising awareness for the brand and it’s helping us reach a more multicultural customer, as well, particularly with the Hispanic community – one of (the NBA’s) fastest-growing audiences.

In Orlando or in Miami, where we have in-vehicle arena experiences, people come by, give us email addresses and say, “I want to be contacted by the dealer,” and we’re able to track them.

A lot of (feedback is) anecdotal through our dealers, telling us customers are coming in saying they saw ads. We have data from the NBA. It came out probably in May or June. They did a survey with their fans and asked questions like, “Do you know who the official automotive partner is of the NBA?” And 84% of those respondents came back and said “Kia,” and the next-highest response was “don’t know.” So that told us. Then it broke it down further and said, what’s your opinion, and I forget the numbers (but a number of people) took some sort of action, either going online at Kia.com or visiting a dealer or purchasing a car.

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