By Hyunjoo Jin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean carmaker Hyundai Motor Co <005380.KS> hopes a touch of Hermes will make its priciest sedan as desirable as the French retailer's exclusive handbags and catapult its cachet into the same league as luxury European rivals.
Hyundai Motor Group ranks fifth among the world's top-selling cars, but the company wants to shed its value-for-money image and start charging premium prices to counter growing competition at home from BMW <BMWG.DE>, Audi <NSUG.DE> and Mercedes <DAIGn.DE> as well as mid-range models by rivals such as Ford Motor Co <F.N>.
Hermes <HRMS.PA>, makers of the coveted Birkin and Kelly handbags that start at around $9,000 (5,935.50 pounds), remade the interior of three, not-for-sale Equus models that will be showcased at the Seoul motor show from Thursday. The tie-up comes two years after an attempt to sell Prada-designed cars failed to draw customers.
"The model is aimed at improving brand image," Cho Won-hong, Hyundai's chief marketing officer, told reporters. Luxury group LVMH <LVMH.PA> owns a stake in Hermes, which used its signature leather and equestrian-inspired logo in the Equus, named after the Latin word for horse.
Hyundai and affiliate Kia Motors Co <000270.KS> are fighting to maintain market share after the government implemented free-trade agreements with Europe and the United States. Imports accounted for 10.1 percent of car sales in South Korea in 2012, about 10 times more than a decade ago.
LUXURY BY ASSOCIATION
In 2011, Hyundai commissioned Italian luxury fashion house Prada SpA <1913.HK> to co-design a limited-edition line of Genesis sedans intended to compete with Mercedes and BMW in its affluent home market.
The initiative flopped. Hyundai sold just a third of the 1,200 cars it had initially targeted, highlighting the depth of what the company itself calls an image problem.
Hyundai's own research shows that even more consumers would flock to buy popular models like the i30 hatchback if only it were made by a different carmaker.
"The Hyundai brand does not have a prestige perception," said Jack Trout, head of global marketing strategy firm Trout & Partners. "Adding Hermes and Prada to their cars doesn't solve this basic problem."
Hyundai may be able to fix its branding issues by parcelling out premium offerings in a similar fashion to what Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> has done with its Lexus brand, Trout said.
Japan's Nissan Motor Co Ltd <7201.T> and Honda Motor Co <7267.T> have also tried to do the same with up-market brands.
Hyundai has however, rejected this approach, saying premium brands created by mass market automakers fail to replicate the success of traditional luxury brands.
"We have concluded that we can do it with only Hyundai brand," said Cho.
In addition to courting established luxury labels, Hyundai's rebranding initiative, led by heir apparent and Vice Chairman Chung Eui-sun, includes a plan to double advertising in Europe to an estimated 630 million euros ($821 million) and a revamp of its showroom in Gangnam, the affluent Seoul neighbourhood.
The tie-up with Prada "significantly" helped to raise Hyundai's brand image, Cho said. Analysts are more sceptical.
"You cannot offer upmarket prestige with a downmarket brand no matter how fancy you make it," Trout said.
(Editing by David Chance and Miral Fahmy)