Robert Sawatzky
Feb 12, 2018

Hyundai’s Olympic experience is dark. Extremely dark.

Built in a bid to change its brand perception, the Korean automaker’s striking pavilion in PyeongChang is turning heads.

Hyundai Motors is taking Olympic visitors to very dark place to show them a path to a brighter future. Its jet-black pavilion, now widely-described as 'the darkest building on earth’, set in contrast to the bright ice and snow of the Winter Games, is impossible not to notice. Sitting in an otherwise drab Olympic Plaza, it easily steals attention away from the uninspiring Olympic stadium next door in what some have described as a black hole, pulling bystanders in towards deepest space.

That’s no coincidence. Sprayed with Vantablack VBx 2, derived from the darkest pigment on earth, the nanotechnology-developed exterior absorbs 99% of the light that hits it (normal black paint absorbs 97%) as photons are channeled into microscopic cavities in the material until they dissipate. The structure’s massive concave walls, adorned with thousands of LED lights on multi-length rods give the impression of stars sitting deep in infinite space, especially at night time.

The effect, as described by its designer, superstar architect Asif Khan, is not merely a “window looking into the depths of outer space” from afar, but makes you feel on moving closer and entering the building “as though you are being absorbed into a cloud of blackness”.

Once inside, that feeling completely reverses as visitors enter the ‘water room’, a stark white chamber encapsulating an enormous marble water maze carved with hundreds of little channels that carry 25,000 water droplets sliding each minute toward a pool at the bottom.

So what does this have to do with Hyundai?

Quite a lot, actually, though aside from the few branded signs one might not notice. There are no Hyundai cars on display, though visitors can register at the entrance to test-drive the soon-to-be-released Nexo hydrogen fuel cell electric car.

“Normally a commercial brand builds a pavilion to exhibit their own products and services. But this time we don’t display any cars,” says Wonhong Cho, Hyundai executive vice-president and chief marketing officer. “We just want visitors to touch and feel what Hyundai’s brand represents and also what Hyundai wants to talk about.”

What Hyundai actually wants to talk about is the future of mobility and sustainabity as it promotes its fuel cell technology, though this could be lost on those bewildered visitors who opt out of the guided tours.

The pavilion’s outer space-like exterior represents the origins of hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe, while the interior water room with its droplets reflect the seeds of hydrogen on earth.  Each drop of water running through the marble channels is meant to represent a fuel cell vehicle, zipping down highways toward a sustainable future. The idea is that each individual fuel cell vehicle contributes to a much greater collective good, represented by the lake of water at the bottom. Visitors may place their hands over air holes to release more droplets to symbolise how each person has a hand in improving sustainability.

“People coming to a motor show know about the fuel cell electric vehicles, but Olympic visitors really feel estranged from this technology, so we tried to create a story using friendly metaphors like universe and water rather than focus on our product,” says Heekyung Kwon, creative strategy team manager at Hyundai’s Creative Works group.

If Khan’s greater design appears a bit abstract, Hyundai’s in-house creative works group attempted to drive the point home by designing four other small rooms that break down the hydrogen process:

  1. A solar room adorned with solar panels that produce electricity;
  2. An electrolysis room filled with bubbled mirrors representing the electrolysed water to extract hydrogen;
  3. A fuel cell room with thousands of LED lights on plastic rods to emulate a battery stack;
  4. An underwhelming final ‘clean water room’ representing the pure water emitted instead of exhaust.

“Asif Khan is a really good architect…he knows how to attract people.” Kwon said. “But we are the experts representing the vehicle,” she added, “So we really tried to combine the expertise between the two.”

Not everyone, of course, will get all the nuances or care about the hydrogen fuel process. But with its outer-space-like exterior that’s proving to be a press magnet, and its futuristic interior, it’s clear Hyundai wants the brand to appear forward-thinking, aligned with future technology.

“The ultimate goal is we need people to feel that this is the future that the Hyundai brand dreams of,” says Kwon.

“With this pavilion and this month-long activity we want to promote Hyundai as a brand that really cares for sustainability and also as a brand that cares for new mobility of the future,” says Cho.  “That’s what I want to achieve with this sponsorship.”

Olympic pride: Priceless?

Given the preoccupation with the future, and high-level brand perception, don’t bother asking Hyundai’s CMO about how many cars they’ll sell as an official domestic sponsor of the Olympics.

In fact, when it comes to these winter games, ROI is not even on the radar. “It cost a lot to make the pavilion,” Cho admits, declining to provide figures. “Rather than making additional investment to measure ROI we decided not to do that,” adding he’s confident in the value they’re getting.

In addition to the pavilion, Hyundai is providing thousands of vehicles to support the games and can display advertising and signage throughout PyeongChang and South Korea. While IOC rules dictate it must tread carefully with any international attention, given that Toyota is the official worldwide Olympic sponsor, Hyundai is clearly the one in the spotlight. Toyota has been barely visible in PyeongChang, essentially ceding the home market to Hyundai. Both Kia and Hyundai have also independently supported Korea’s bobsleigh team, speed skaters and other winter athletes. 

Cho says Hyundai wanted to sponsor the Olympics because its brand direction of providing a premium auto experience for everyday drivers fit well with the spirit of equality at the Games, where everyday athletes from all races and nationalities are able to compete.

More than that though, Cho notes Hyundai felt it wanted to step up as a matter of Korean pride.“ As one of the largest corporations here in Korea representing the Korean economy, it is an honour to support our Olympics,” Cho says.

With national pride on the line, even ROI can’t compete in the eyes of a CMO.

Campaign Asia

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