LeBron drives a KIA? Yea, right.

It’s pretty commonplace nowadays for companies to use social media platforms in their marketing strategies. Most large organisations are basic presences on Facebook or Twitter, telling us about their upcoming sales and events, general thoughts, and holiday reminders, with varying degrees of success/appropriateness. (We have all seen a few cases of corporate 9/11 posts in bad taste, so I will spare us the visual reminder).

Of course, one of the key strengths of these platforms is the ability for everyday users to connect to celebrities and larger entities, so companies that are a better social media presence will engage their customers more individually. Taco Bell has been a famous example of this, starting discussions with their followers to appear more human. Taking further advantage of Twitter’s nature as a “at this second” social media platform, companies in spaces such as the airline industry are using their Twitter accounts to handle customer service.  taco-bell-social-media

So obviously with its importance to marketing, social media has become a key component in advertising. Plenty of ad campaigns come with their own hashtag, or a call to action of “follow us on Twitter” or “find us on Facebook.” Companies trying to influence social media through advertising; pretty basic.

But how about the opposite process?

My blog today is about this concept, which happens to be exemplified in one of my favourite ad campaigns of late. LeBron James’ partnership with Kia to promote the K900.

Here is the original ad, which was a perfectly ordinary celebrity endorsement.

If you’re like me, your first thought after that ad was “Yeah sure, LeBron James, (who made $23 million in salary alone during the 2015 season when these ads ran) drives a Kia.” You might instead expect the NBA superstar to be driving Ferraris, Porsches, and Bentleys, and you would be correct. You might also think the only reasonable explanation of seeing LeBron James in a Kia would be if he was required by contract to do so, and again, you’d be right.

This sceptical public took to Twitter to voice their humorous opinions on the ludicrous notion that LeBron drives a Kia. “LeBron James drives a Kia like I fly a spaceship.” “What’s a bigger joke? The officiating in tonight’s game or that Lebron would ever drive a KIA?” “I’ll bet anyone $10,000,000 that LeBron doesn’t roll up to the games in a KIA.” Right?

The social media universe was criticising LeBron James, something which happens on a constant basis and is part of the reality of being a modern athlete. But more importantly, the social media universe was criticising Kia, which is a very serious problem. By rejecting the commercial, people were rejecting the Kia brand as one which would appeal to a professional athlete, or indeed anyone wealthy or popular. Instead of consumers seeing the vehicle on the road and thinking of style and class via LeBron James, people were likely to associate the car with opposite qualities due to its disconnect with the identity of LeBron. Laughter in a commercial is great for forging recall and brand recognition, but that isn’t very useful when the audience is laughing at your brand, not with it. Apart from mechanical issues such as safety and reliability, image and trust are two of the most important elements that factor into a car brand and choosing a vehicle. But the desired traits of sophistication and class weren’t aligning with public perception, and Kia had just committed a large sum of money to LeBron James to foster trust in the brand. “Deference to Authority” (one of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s “Weapons of Influence”) is the whole point of endorsements; the viewer sees someone they trust (or, through an unfortunate characteristic of human psychology, someone they find attractive), and they are more likely to believe what that person has to say. It’s why cosmetics ads put actors in white lab coats and have them list chemical formulas, and why any company hires a celebrity. But in this case, it was backfiring. And car companies don’t need to pay celebrities exorbitant amounts of money to build distrust, just ask Volkswagen.


But this is where the genius of Kia came in; they didn’t back away from the ad and move on, they doubled down. Kia and LeBron called out the Twitter trolls, who otherwise would be hidden in obscurity, in a series of advertisements:

This accomplished two goals.

  1. Brand image and trust were repaired. Instead of everyone talking about how unlikely it was for LeBron to drive a Kia, everyone was talking about how LeBron really did drive a Kia. Newspaper articles wrote about it. Teammates Snapchatted LeBron in his Kia. Lebron and Kia finally meshed.
  2. Kia engaged users on Twitter. By responding and taking part in the discussion on social media, the brand garnered favourable attention and generated further interest. They gave voices to the everyday individual, who could see an NBA superstar give a direct response to something they played a role in initiating. And nothing makes a Twitter user happier than feeling more connected with a celebrity.

I think that Kia and LeBron will serve as a great case study on how to react to or predict social media currents and plan a strategy accordingly. When I see a Kia K900 on the road, I sarcastically wonder if King James is driving by, and then I take note of how good the car looks in real life. And I’d call that a success for Kia.





  1. Nice post. I did not realize these commercials had aired, but what a great play by Kia! I am interested to know if you thought that Kia utilized Lebron to further their brand, or to more so reposition their image. I don’t typically associate Kia with luxury, and I don’t think the general public does either–hence the Twitter backlash. If they wanted to position the K900 as a luxury car, it would make sense that the brand identity shift would confuse or amuse the public at first. Either way, I think they handled the transition perfectly–it’s great to see a company confront the consumer perception that has become so widely available with social media platforms. They sure have come a long way from those Kia gerbils!

  2. Interesting stuff. I remember seeing KIA go all-in on its NBA sponsorship a few years ago, going as far as having an athlete jump one of its cars at the dunk competition, and thinking the firm was insane. It looks like there was a method to their madness, though they still have an uphill battle to establish a name synonymous with luxury. Maybe a “rich kids of Instagram” endorsement will be next?

  3. rohansuwarna · ·

    This is a great blog post! I really enjoyed reading this since I myself wondered if Lebron James would actually drive a Kia. This is certainly a dilemma many companies face. For example, Under Armour and Steph Curry also endured this scrutiny when Curry signed with the athletic wear company. A lot of people on Twitter and Facebook criticized Curry after the white “Curry Two – Low” dropped. However, this type of scrutiny is unavoidable for athletes in this country. Due to social media platforms, any action they take will be under the magnifying glass.

  4. skuchma215 · ·

    Interesting post. Sometimes companies can over-do their presence on social media, but when they do it right it can be really engaging. I personally started following Taco Bell and a lot of their tweets are quite funny (although I probably won’t start eating there). When companies can use humor to engage the market, I’m sure it has a significant effect. Obviously not all companies can do this, certain brands like Taco Bell can.

  5. That’s awesome! This one is new to me (which doesn’t happen that often). Great way to sieze on the viral nature and build on it to establish a good brand identity. It probably wouldn’t work for all products, but it seems well played in this instance.

  6. I think it’s awesome that both Kia and LeBron embraced all the tweets and backlash over the commercials. As you mentioned, this was definitely a strategic move for Kia. I feel like this disconnect between the product and the celebrity happens all the time. Sometimes it works like when celebrities endorse nonprofits that have significant meaning to them. But other times its kind of bizarre like how Jennifer Garner, Samuel L. Jackson, and Alec Baldwin all promote Capital One Venture cards.

  7. michaelahoff · ·

    This was cool, Austin. The transparency the second time around was a major differentiator for Kia, and it was a great way to break into the luxury car game — because rich people were probably thinking what everyone else was. But if it’s good enough for Lebron…

  8. Very cool post, I think that this advertisement is an example of a perfect response/interaction with the internet culture, something that hasn’t been done often. In a way, in my opinion, the key for the success is that they engaged the internet community with a type of discourse, and specially a type of humor, that is characteristic of the internet. To put it in different words, KIA trolled the trolls, an action that is very well seen in the internet community. This is in my opinion the reason why it was so successful. It is still unbelievable that Lebron drives that car, it is just the response what makes the advertisement great.

  9. ikechukwu_28 · ·

    Very interesting post. I remember when these Kia ads with LeBron first started airing, and I too was extremely skeptical that Bron actually drives a Kia. However, I had no idea about the second wave of commercials where he actually calls out the people that were chirping him. This was a great way, I think, to bridge the disconnect that individuals such as myself had with Kia and luxury cars.

  10. This was a fun post to read. The Lebron ads had me smiling and I love the idea that brands are becoming more and more playful as they interact with customers over social media. It gives character to a brand that would otherwise be just another car company or just another fast food company. This is obviously present in places like the superbowl where people can’t wait to watch the ads and hit social media to talk about them. And you know what, the whole Kia situation may have seemed like just another celebrity endorsement, but hey maybe Lebron does drive a kia.

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