How do you start a brand?
It depends on the brand itself and the people behind it. You can start from the ground up, flushed with capital for a global debut with products, management, marketing programs and infrastructure in place. Or, you can utilize current resources – products in production, personnel and shared spaces for marketing and distribution – to debut a brand into the universe.
Either way offers advantages and drawbacks. The ultimate is the result to find a way to get consumers to buy into your vision of the product, support mechanism, and philosophy behind what you are doing. There can be two outcomes – success and failure.
In 1986, Hyundai debuted their front-drive Excel in the USA market. They did so by undercutting similar products by price while promoting their idea of "cars that make sense." Product quality had dogged their initial products and their bright beginning soon flamed out. By 1999, a new powertrain warranty debuts and the built quality of their vehicles improved. Their turnaround solidified their place not only in the USA market but has given them a larger stage worldwide as a go-to brand for mainstream automobiles.
Confident in the direction of the company, Hyundai debuted a new brand 30 years after their entry into the USA market. It would be a brand that would challenge the great luxury car nameplates – such as Cadillac, Lexus, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz. They would do so by elevating current products while developing new ones for their intended clientele.
To name the brand, they did go too far. They already had the name and the logo in place. It was simply breaking it out from the rest of the Hyundai lineup and giving it an identity that is uniquely based on its ambitions and goals.
That brand would be called Genesis.
Being the newest automotive brand, Genesis already had an established history. As Hyundai's rear-drive platform, Genesis was already seen as a sub-brand to distinguish itself from the rest of the lineup of cars and SUVs. Yet, there was even a further history before the first Genesis sedans and coupes were introduced.
In the Republic of Korea, their domestic automotive industry yielded their own luxury cars. They were mainly reserved for high government officials and the heads of corporate entities. If it sounds familiar, this was the case in Japan prior to Toyota developing Lexus and Nissan with Infiniti.
To accomplish building their first luxury cars, Hyundai utilized their join cooperation with Mitsubishi to do so. The company never went alone when establishing products for their market in the early years, starting with the Cortina in 1968. However, to establish a vehicle for a very discriminating customer, both companies looked at their assets – mainly a rear-drive platform that had sustained Hyundai since the first Pony in 1975 – and sought to create a large sedan that catered to their every need.
The result was the first Grandeur, introduced in 1986. In truth, the Grandeur was a rebadged Mitsubishi Debonair – one of the cars regularly used for the Japanese government and in business circles.
One could call the Grandeur a latecomer in its own right. Sometimes, it takes a while for companies to catch on to the needs of their customers. This was the motivation to ensure the Grandeur's place in Korean society.
The Grandeur did not possess a huge engine underneath its hood or aspirational design inside and out. It managed with a choice of four- and six-cylinder engines, boxy design that Mitsubishi provided and a list of amenities that were found on near-premium automobiles. Korean customers can actually choose between manual and automatic transmissions – a choice most luxury car manufacturers still offered at that time.
What the Grandeur did for Hyundai was to show that they can make cars for all budgets. It also arrived as soon as Hyundai was entering the USA market. The gap between the Excel and the Grandeur was huge, but it gave permission for the company to explore global products in the future. Mitsubishi would assist Hyundai through two generations of Grandeurs – all of them filling the void for a luxury car in the Republic of Korea.
In 1997, Hyundai decided to go on its own for the third iteration of the Grandeur. During the decade, Hyundai was involved with developing its own engineering and design with minimal collaboration. It was also shared with its new partner, Kia, for their luxury sedan – the Opirus.
Perhaps the biggest break from previous Grandeurs was the exportation to various markets worldwide. It was designed to be attractive to other customers in the near-luxury segment, pitting it with the likes of the Audi A6, Volvo S80, Buick Park Avenue and so forth. In North America, the Grandeur received the alpha-numeric designation of XG300.
The timing for the XG came when Hyundai introduced their 10-year warranty to American consumers. This act alone began to turn the tide for Hyundai after some quality setbacks that almost cost them their reputation. The Grandeur XG was more than just an added bonus. It showed commitment on the part of Hyundai that they were serious about becoming a leader in the automotive industry in terms of quality, engineering, and design.
The Grandeur was not enough to deepen Hyundai's commitment towards industry leadership. Mitsubishi joined with Hyundai again to develop a more luxurious car for the Korean market. This time, they took the lessons from the first two Grandeurs and took it further. This would not only be a product for Hyundai in Korea, but for Mitsubishi in Japan. The Equus became the flagship of the Korean auto industry.
The Equus stretched the previous Grandeur and its more luxurious brethren Dynasty further with a longer wheelbase, meaning more rear legroom for chauffeured-driven passengers. Some have derided its looks due to accusations of copying Mercedes-Benz and Lexus and some details. Yet, the Equus arrived as a flagship with plenty of the amenities found on more expensive Japanese, German, British, and American rivals.
In the meantime, the Grandeur became the Azera in North America. It, too, had its detractors regarding its design. Some said that it had a Jaguar look, but it truly was its own luxury car. Available in a V6 only, the Azera fit in the premium full-size sedan segment, but was never truly considered a luxury car in the eyes of premium buyers.
Having front-wheel drive and a transverse-mounted engine works well with production costs and continuity with the rest of the lineup. A luxury car consumer will tell you that a proper product should – rather, must – have rear-wheel drive. Unless you are Audi or Volvo, this is the standing rule.
Hyundai had an idea to introduce a new rear-wheel-drive platform into their lineup. To do so, they have to have superlative vehicles – better versions of what they offered before with the bar raised by their predecessors. Their further strategy was to give both of these cars – a sports coupe and a premium mid-sized four-door sedan – a name: Genesis.
The sports coupe found their intended enthusiast audience, which helped in encouraging a motorsports effort as seen on the drifting circuit and other sports car racing. It is the sedan that is the focus of this lineage towards a new brand. By consequence, the sports coupe never made it into the plans of the spin-off brand.
Yet, the sedan would help build a strategy towards elevating Genesis to brand status. The first sedan followed some design convention as a few Hyundai products. Yet, some would say their anonymous look did not distinguish it from its competitors.
The point has been missed for over a decade by its detractors. The first Genesis sedan and the second generation Equus sported Hyundai's Tau V8 engine. It provided the power you wanted in a premium car, which helped to bring in new buyers to Hyundai. However, initial sales went to the V6 version. Perhaps there were consumers that balked at the price – which was less than a comparable Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5-Series, and Lexus GS.
The first Genesis sedan proved that Hyundai can play in the premium car field on a global scale. The next generation Genesis would seal the deal. It carried a form of Hyundai's Fluid Sculpture design language – fleshed out for a mid-sized premium sedan. It seemed more squared off than before, but it had distinctive qualities that signified its brand lineage.
Much so, that it would spark the debut of a new brand.
Since September 2015, Hyundai's luxury car brand continued the notion that the Republic of Korea can make world-class luxury vehicles. Through this new brand, they have the leverage and freedom to market their products to the right customer anywhere in the world.
As the Hyundai Genesis became the G80, the third generation Equus would be badged as the brand's new flagship – the G90. The latter arrived just in time for the launch of the brand for the 2017 model year. Later this year, the G70 premium sports sedan will join the lineup. By 2020, Genesis should be introducing two SUVs and a sports coupe.
While Hyundai had an eye on the luxury market in its homeland, getting them to translate to global tastes took them through a journey of discovery. Once they hit the mark, they found a way to meet their potential customers with a brand that will offer a distinctive ownership experience that should match or exceed their rivals.
In the beginning, there was no Genesis. Sounds unbiblical, but it was true. And, now, here we are.
All photos by Randy Stern