The most rewarding aspect of my work as a communication expert is the opportunity to read about my clients nearly every day in a newspaper, magazine, or blog, and to see their products enhancing the quality of people’s lives around the world. On January 1, 2014, one of my former clients takes the helm of one of the world’s most admired automobile brands—Hyundai. On Friday, December 27th, Hyundai’s executive vice president of sales, Dave Zuchowski, was named president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, replacing John Krafcik. The announcement caught many in the auto industry by surprise, but as I look back on my notes from my first training with Zuchowski it should come as no surprise that he is now leading the automaker.
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Zuchowski has been instrumental in Hyundai’s growth, especially among its dealer network. He also graduated college with a major in communications and he knows how to tell a brand story. I first met Zuchowski in 2007 when I began to work with Hyundai spokespeople to help them tell the automaker’s story to the media and to a wider audience. At the time the company had a perception issue to overcome. The company had become fodder for late-night comedians in the 1990s as its quality and reliability suffered. By the time I met with company executives, the cars had improved markedly and sales were growing, but the company still suffered from low market share. In 2007 Hyundai’s U.S. market share was just under 3 percent. Within two years it soared to 5 percent as consumers discovered what I had learned from meeting with Zuchowski and the other executives – Hyundai was building cars that matched or exceeded the quality of far more expensive luxury models.
When I looked back at the notes from my training I found this notation: “Zuchowski = passion.” Zuchowski had recently joined the company after a long stint at Mazda and Ford. What impressed me was the fact that, despite having more than thirty years of experience in the auto industry, Zuchowski approached “spokesperson training” with an eager appreciation of how communication skills could help elevate the brand’s perception in the eyes of the average car buyer. Not surprisingly, the official Hyundai press release announcing the new CEO highlights Zuchowski’s “rare combination of passion, intelligence, creativity, and diligence.”
My meeting with Zuchowski reminded me that inspiring leaders and great communicators are passionate about their brand. Here’s the key – they are not as passionate about the product as much as they are enthusiastic about what the product means to their customers. Zuchowski and the executives I met at Hyundai were committed to building a car company that stood for more than a car company in the minds of its customers. I walked in expecting them to rattle off the features and specs of their new models and I left with a newfound appreciation for the people who are dedicated to making the safest, most reliable, highest quality cars in the industry, all at a more affordable price. We decided that consumers who bought a Hyundai weren’t just buying a car; they were making a ‘smart choice.’ Hyundai executives would turn out to be right. The first model I learned about was a concept car called “Genesis.” Two years later a panel of 50 automotive journalists named the Genesis the Car of the Year in North America.
Zuchowski didn’t strike me as a typical leader. I saw something different about him and the people who worked at Hyundai. When I asked a PR representative at the Hyundai manufacturing plant in Montgomery, Alabama, to send me a photograph of the cars that came off the assembly line, she sent me this picture instead because it captures the spirit of the company.
It became one of my favorite photographs because it reflects the excitement that I saw in Hyundai’s team members who were dedicated to making sure every detail of every car backed up the company’s ambitious 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty. My goal a s a communication coach was to help Hyundai capture this emotion and to encourage all of its spokespeople to passionately deliver the story.
Hyundai executives seemed to understand what many leaders fail to grasp–emotional storytelling was the key to connecting with customers. For example, in 2009, during the depths of the recession, Hyundai launched the “assurance program,” a one-year promise to buy back a new Hyundai should the customer lose their job. It humanized the automaker. The buyback program ended in 2011, but the “assurance” label stuck and now defines what the carmaker calls “America’s best warranty.” Zuchowski said it was risky to run an ad about losing one’s job, but they took the risk because they understood that it was important to create an emotional connection to their audience. “It struck a chord among the public,” Zuchowski said.
Every person who works for a brand represents it to the outside world. Every interaction is an opportunity to put a face to the brand—a face that must be wildly enthusiastic, energized, and engaged if you hope to win over your customers. Make sure everyone on your team shares your passion and, more important, encourage them to share that passion at every opportunity. Passion is not a bad word in business. It’s essential. We are attracted to passionate leaders. Their enthusiasm makes us feel better about the work we do for them and the products we buy from them. While passion alone is not sufficient, is an essential ingredient of inspiring leadership and absolutely necessary to creating an irresistible brand story.
Carmine Gallo is the communication coach for the world’s most admired brands. He is a popular keynote speaker and author of several books including The Apple Experience, Secrets To Building Insanely Great Customer Loyalty and the international bestseller The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Carmine’s upcoming book, Talk Like TED, reveals the 9 public-speaking secrets of the world’s top minds. Sign up for Carmine’s newsletter and follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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