South Korea's Hyundai creates a Modern Premium image

Wonhong Cho, the company's vice president in charge of branding, pitches 'available luxury' and the South Korean economic model on a visit to the emirate.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan 22, 2013 - Wonhong Cho Executive VP of Hyundai's Global Head of Marketing at Mina A' Salam Hotel. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )

In Glengarry Glen Ross, the David Mamet play, a Hyundai motor car is employed as the coup de grace in a ferocious exchange of insults between two cut-throat salesmen, Dave Moss and Blake.

Blake considers himself to be the better of the two. "You know why, mister? 'Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW," he tells Mr Moss.

That line was first spoken on stage in 1983. Last week, less than three decades later, Hyundai was in Dubai along with its entire global marketing team as the emirate, the company says, is to be considered in the same league as Hyundai in terms of brand identity.

That is to say, Hyundai has left the days of the cheap and cheerful compact car behind it as it seeks to rebrand as a "Modern Premium" offering - a maker of the type of car that should appeal to the residents of and visitors to Dubai.

Wonhong Cho, Hyundai Motor's executive vice president in charge of branding, was in town leading the company's annual branding conference.

"Mainstream customers have an expectation of a premium brand experience," he said. "And we meet that demand with Modern Premium."

"Dubai is the iconic city of the Modern Premium experience. It is all about new ideas and the strong execution of those new ideas. It is something we call available luxury. It is sometimes called affordable luxury - but we don't like that. We prefer available luxury."

Making that transition from cheap to premium in a crowded global marketplace has been a long and tough journey for Hyundai, but it is a journey the company planned more than a decade ago.

"It was not that easy, we had great difficulty telling the customer," Mr Cho says.

"A decade ago we came up with a very innovative product. We had the 10-year 100,000-mile warranty."

The auto industry thought Hyundai had no chance of success. "Industry people said we were crazy and thought we could bankrupt the company as this is a very, very big commitment," Mr Cho adds.

But because the quality of Hyundai cars was so good very few people ever had to use the warranty and as a result Hyundai did not go bankrupt as their detractors in Japan and the United States had perhaps hoped.

"So we proved ourselves in terms of quality and the product," Mr Cho says. "We achieved the global top-five brand."

And it is from this footing that the Modern Premium brand has been launched. "We are developing the new Modern Premium brand direction on that foundation of quality. Now we are spending a lot of money marketing this new brand to capitalise on those years of establishing our quality and reliability."

Hyundai's business plan of establishing a solid foundation of excellence to be exploited for generations to come follows a similar arc to the development of the broader Korean economy.

"Hyundai Motors growth is very similar to the growth of Korea itself. Now we are moving from basic manufacturing to a service- and luxury-based economy. And we still have the very important relationships we built since the 1980s with the countries of the Middle East," Mr Cho says.

Indeed, back in the 1980s Korean heavy engineers and developers helped countries of the Middle East and further afield to build world-class infrastructure. They do so still with Kepco building Abu Dhabi's first nuclear power plant.

What is more, the UAE can learn a lot from the way Korea has developed since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

"The Korean economic model can be followed by many countries. The Middle East countries can learn a lot from following Korea just as Korea can learn a lot from following the countries of the Middle East, like the UAE," Mr Cho says.

"The UAE has a lot of resources but they are limited; they are finite. So the country should focus on a prioritised agenda for the future of the economy. You need to choose industries to focus on. The Korean people have done this because they are very diligent, very committed and very well-educated. These are the important things to focus on."