Kia has been on a roll. The Telluride won Motor Trend’s 2020 SUV of the Year award, was the 2020 North American Utility of the Year, and appeared on Car and Driver’s 10Best list for 2020 and 2021. Kia’s overall sales increased in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, one of a select few manufacturers to see a sales bump, and the 586,105 units moved was the highest ever in the company’s history. Stylish, original designs paired with strong dynamics and incredible value have propelled the brand to the top of the field in many segments. Yet a recent rebranding initiative threatens to undo Kia’s momentum and alienate potential customers.

The rebranding campaign began in 2020 when the fifth-generation Optima adopted the name used in South Korea since 2010, “K5.” While the new K5 is a unique and snazzy-looking sedan, the name switch could spell trouble. In recent years, manufacturers like Lincoln, Cadillac and Infiniti have bewildered customers by using convoluted alphanumeric naming schemes. (Lincoln even reversed course in 2019, replacing the “MK” crossovers with the Nautilus, Aviator and Corsair.) Kia’s approach—”K” followed by a number, increasing with the size of the vehicle—is simpler than other companies’ attempts, but alphanumeric names still feel anonymous and devoid of character, especially on a car as striking as the new K5. Kia’s decision also means the new model cannot capitalize on the Optima’s name recognition, built up over the past decade after the third generation Optima launched the brand from a maker of cheap appliances to a producer of quality, value vehicles.

Kia then unveiled a revised logo in January 2021, but instead of using the opportunity to craft something truly riveting, the redesign was yet again just the word “Kia,” this time in a more stylized font with no oval surround. Confusingly, each letter in the logo merges with the next, making the “IA” look like a backwards “N.” While watching one of the recent ATP tournaments in Melbourne, it took me nearly half an hour to realize that it was Kia’s logo plastered across the tennis arena; I had instead assumed it was some foreign or niche brand I didn’t know.

And Kia shows no signs of stopping its revamp, confirming that all sedans in the future will be named “K” plus a number. This suggests that the Forte would assume the K3 name used in South Korea, although it’s not yet clear what future versions of the Rio and Stinger would be called. (The Cadenza and K900 have been discontinued in the U.S., but are already called the K7 and K9 in their home market.) Based on the U.S. Department of Energy’s fueleconomy.gov site, Kia’s Sedona minivan will become the Carnival when the next generation goes on sale here this year. While the new minivan is handsome and more SUV-like than ever before, using the global Carnival nameplate seems like a step backwards. “Sedona” conjures up images of road trips with family and exploring the wilderness, perfect for a family oriented vehicle aping off-roader design cues. Meanwhile, “Carnival” brings to mind less glamorous pictures of goofy (or freaky if you’re coulrophobic) clowns, exotic animals in cramped cages, and so-called “food” like circus peanuts and cotton candy.

Luckily, Kia stated that the names of its SUV lineup are safe for now, with the Soul, Sportage and Sorento having amassed credibility over the past several years and new models like the Telluride and Seltos being breakout hits. But Kia’s electric car offerings are set to be mind-numbingly dubbed the EV1 through EV9. Although Kia is expected to bring distinctive designs, improved dynamics, and strong quality with its upcoming products, the ambiguous new logo and bland alphanumeric names threaten to thwart the Korean brand’s progress and hamper the sales of vehicles deserving creative names to match their dazzling looks.

Photo credits: Kia

2 thoughts on “What’s In A Name: Examining Kia’s Misguided Re-branding Strategy

  1. Do you also believe VW’s use of “ID._” at the outset for their EV line of SUVs is not as effective as adopting a catch name for each of its EVs?

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    1. The ID names are a bit bland, but VW already has a very staid, corporate feel, so an alphanumeric name makes a bit more sense. Kia seems to want to be an exhilarating brand with bold designs, which just doesn’t fit with the boring K_ branding. VW is also establishing ID as an electric sub-brand, similar to Mercedes with EQ and Audi with e-tron, whereas Kia is rebranding existing gas vehicles, and it seems that the “EV_” names aren’t creating a sub-brand (and if they are, just naming your electric sub-brand “EV” is pretty unimaginative).

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