Q&A: Kia Marketing Chief Russell Wager — Going Electric

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“New York, New York,” goes the old song, if you can make it there you “can make it anywhere.” Or so Kia seems to believe. Earlier this month, the South Korean carmaker took over Times Square to stage the launch of its new, all-electric EV6 SUV. In a jaw-dropping stunt, Kia took over 20 of the flashing billboards surrounding the iconic meeting place to provide a video backdrop.

The EV6 is the vehicle leading Kia’s charge into electrification.

The EV6 is the first of a family of dedicated battery-electric vehicles that will be based on the E-GMP, a skateboard-like platform Kia will share with its sibling brands Hyundai and Genesis. And it comes to market at a point many are calling the tipping point, the moment when BEVs go from being eccentric oddities to part of the mainstream.

But there are still plenty of skeptics and, even among those open to EVs, plenty of confusion about their benefits and trade-offs, says Russell Wagers. Kia’s vice president of marketing, he spent time with TheDetroitBureau, along with marketing exec Michael McHale, to discuss Kia’s long-range EV plans, the changing politics of electrification, and how the EV6 can help owners watch movies and make popcorn when they take it camping.

TheDetroitBureau: There’s a lot going on at Kia, it seems. You’ve changed the company’s name and you’ve launched your new EV6 battery-electric vehicle. What does this all signify?

Russell Wager: The transformation we’re going through is a shift to sustainable mobility. Electrification is a portion of it. Purpose-built vehicles make up another portion. The first proof point is the EV6. We (went to Times Square) to show people we are serious about the transformation. EV6 is the vehicle that kicks off the transformation, but it’s not the end point. We’ll have 11 (electrified) vehicles globally by 2026, a combination of BEVs, plug-ins and hybrids. Six of them will be specific for the U.S. This is the start of our path.

TDB: And sales targets?

Michael McHale: We’re being sensible here. Start with 10,000 (in 2021). Next year it will be 30,000 and the year after 45,000. So you see, we’re growing on a curve. We’re not ramming these (vehicles) down people’s throats. We want to increase supply very carefully.

Longer term goals

TDB: Okay, so EV6 is the start. Longer-term, what is Kia looking at?

Wager: By 2030, we fully expect electrified vehicles will make up 60% of our sales. Half of that will be BEVs.

TDB: Those numbers include other models?

Wager: Right now it will include the (current Kia EV model, the) Niro. There’s another part that will determine where sales go that’s out of our control today: the administration’s infrastructure plan and changes to federal (EV) incentives.

TDB: Talk about the distinctive design of the EV6?

Wager: The rear of it looks like an SUV, the front like a performance vehicle. So, it’s the best of what is a true crossover.

Generating faith in EVs

TDB: One of the challenges of marketing EVs is to get folks to understand just what they are. Traditionally, there’ve been a lot of trade-offs. But to win consumers over, my sense is that they’ll have to see more benefits.

Wager: You’re hitting the nail on the head. Early on, battery costs were getting expensive. But prices are coming down as the technology gets better. In the beginning, 100-mile range scared people — even though the average person uses their vehicle only 50 miles a day.

More than 70% of EV buyers are buying one for the first time. It’s an education thing to consumers. Many think they’ll disrupt their lives. But EV6 smoothly fits with their lifestyle. With the EV6 we have to explain to them they won’t have to worry about your normal commute and errands or having to charge more than once with a 300-mile range.

You want to go on a camping trip? There’s a front and rear trunk, plenty of space. And if you do have to charge it, say to go to Southern California to Napa, 18 minutes, get the coffee, send a couple e-mails and continue on. We don’t disrupt their lives. That will help convert considerers to purchasers.

TDB: It’s more than taking away the limitations people think of when you talk EVs. There are some real pluses to EVs, which could surprise performance fans.

Wager: Our 0-to-60 time is 3.5 seconds on the 576-horsepower GT version.  And it has all-wheel-drive. It has decent ground clearance. It won’t scale Moab but it can do decent things (off-road). And we have bidirectional charging. So, go on a camping trip and you can plug in your extension cord and power a movie projector and a popcorn maker.

The fate of gas-powered engines

TDB: Some brands are looking to entirely abandon gasoline technology. GM wants to sell only BEVs starting in 2035.

Wager: We still sell gasoline engines and we will still sell gasoline engines (going forward). We believe customers should have a choice. Let them choose. But when you look at the (Biden) administration’s plan, by 2030, if they carry that to fruition, there’s will be as many charging stations as there are gas stations today. Then it just becomes a customer choice versus a customer trade-off.

TDB: There’ve been some recent studies finding more support for EVs and for developing the infrastructure than the politics seen in Congress would suggest.

Wager: Because of that, I think Washington is seeing that this is good for America and the American people. I think that will change this so it’s not to be a political discussion.

TDB: Doesn’t it help to see a lot of new product coming to market, whatever the manufacturer?

Wager: There are lots of new EV offerings coming from our competitors every month. The conversation (though) has changed dramatically. You have to have somewhere between 250 and 300 miles range. Now the conversation has moved to charging times.

TDB: You need to take that out of the equation.

Wager: It has to be just like going to the gas pump. In five minutes you’re out of there. Yeah. For those who have a home and can have a home charger, you don’t even have to go to the gas station. Not everyone does, but apartments are starting to gear up.

Technological wizardry

TDB: We see more new BEVs coming with over-to-air software update capabilities. Going forward, as you move into this new “electrified” space, how does that change things?

Wager: We’re going to make it possible for you to pay for some services, like ordering a Domino’s pizza, right through the car. We’re working on other agreements. The convenience for the customer is important. Everyone now does everything from their phones. The idea is to make it so you won’t have t’ worry about your phone. The car will do it for you. We’re dipping our toe into this with the EV6. Increasing revenues is part of it. But it’s also about building up a long-term relationship with the customer.

TDB: Before we wrap up, can you talk about what’s next, after the EV6?

Wager: I can’t. EV6 pre-sale begins on June 3 and it will be priced under $60,000 before any federal or local tax credits.  Then we’ll have a conversation about the rest of our line-up. We want to have a regular cadence (of product launches). If you’re at the New York Auto Show I might be to tell you something then.

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