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Kia, Opentable & Abacus – There is such a thing as a free dinner.


All too frequently, I see the execution of a marketing idea that makes me jealous. First, let me say that if you ever see “Tony Wright” and “event marketing” in the same sentence – know that someone is doing all the work and I’m sitting around drinking scotch somewhere. I HATE event marketing.

But, I’m also super egotistical. I get angry when someone comes up with a great marketing idea I’d never even thought of. It’s even worse when I realize that even if I did think of it, I’m not sure I could convince any of my clients to take a chance on an idea so innovative. And, then I go through all five stages of grief, eventually arriving at acceptance and knowledge that people besides me can think of great ideas. And, sometimes clients do take a chance. But, now I’m navel-gazing, and you don’t want to read about me. You want to read about this awesome event Kia put on at Abacus restaurant in Dallas and why it’s so awesome from a marketing perspective. It all started with an email from the folks at OpenTable. If you don’t know what OpenTable is, you probably aren’t a foodie. If you ever meet me in person, you’ll realize that I have worked hard to earn my status as a foodie – and my physique is a proud reflection of that work. My wife (who’s physique does NOT reflect her foodie acumen) and I both received this email, inviting us to a free dinner at Abacus – the Dallas mecca of haute cuisine run by world-famous (and Iron Chef winner – he beat Bobby Flay!) chef, Kent Rathbun. I was skeptical, but my wife said, “We can get a babysitter and go.” I didn’t read any fine print … the offer of a free dinner at Abacus had me willing to sit through a timeshare presentation if necessary. As the night came closer, I started thinking of the old adage about free lunches. I’m pretty sure that adage applies doubly to free dinners from world-famous chefs at pricey foodie restaurants. What were we getting into? I pulled out the email again and noticed it was put on by Kia Motorcars. OpenTable made it clear that this reservation would NOT appear in my OpenTable reservations. My thoughts immediately went to that time in Cancun when, for a free booze cruise, I had to endure three hours of mind-numbing, soul-sucking timeshare talk. We almost didn’t go. But we had a sitter, and when you have four young kids, having a sitter (thanks NaNa and PaPa) trumps timeshare skepticism.

We pulled up to the restaurant in our pimped out Honda Odyssey minivan (pimped out meaning equipped with four car seats, hidden goldfish crackers, various sports objects, and at least one vomit stain). We were immediately ushered into the restaurant to check-in.

I’ve never seen so many Samsung Galaxy tablets in my life. They were everywhere – and what the event team was using for everything – except the check-in. That was done off of a piece of paper that I think was from some sort of 80s dot-matrix printer. It appeared Kia had even thought to include a vintage touch to this modern shindig. Nice move, Kia!

We were quickly ushered outside to test drive the Kia Cadenza. It’s not a bad car … but it’s a Kia that costs $40,000. As my wife said, people in Dallas won’t buy a $40,000 Kia. They want to be seen in a Lexus or Infiniti – even if it’s a stripped-down Lexus or Infiniti. I agreed.

The car was nice. It drove well and had tons of bells and whistles. However, when we told the guy taking us on the test drive (picture a car dealership-style test drive with the valet from the fancy restaurant…that’s exactly what this was) that we had four kids, well, he stopped showing us the car. I don’t blame him. We are definitely not in the market for a car that can’t handle four car-seats – and it would have been a shame to sully the Cadenza with a vomit stain.

We got back to the restaurant and inside they wanted to take our picture … probably in case, we did something wrong. But, I immediately recognized Chef Rathbun sitting by the check-in table. I asked if we could get our picture with him. While I openly envied his prowess and probably drooled while asking for his recipe for lobster shooters (seriously, these things are addictive – like little lobster balls splashed with Tom Kha soup and sent down from heaven), the guy in front of us took our photo. Then, we saw the picture on the Samsung Tablet attached to his camera monopod. Then he asked us to TAG OURSELVES right there. My marketing head exploded. I immediately offered the photographer a job and then remembered that my wife is a professional photographer who sometimes works for me. I rescinded the offer before she rescinded the bed and made me sleep on the couch.

Rathbun was quiet but congenial. He didn’t give me any recipes and I didn’t pitch him on how we could totally improve his Yelp reviews… I showed restraint and so did he. We were ushered into the dining room for a set, three-course meal that included unlimited wine … but no lobster shooters. They brought us lobster shooters anyway – because we asked and we’re kind of annoying when we want lobster shooters.

We ate amazing food and people-watched, wondering how many other diners had four kids at home eating macaroni and cheese. My bet was at least half. Then, they brought us gift boxes that thanked us for coming. They contained some sort of brownie-cookie that blended nicely with the amalgam of crumbs already creating colonies on the floor of the minivan.

And, the evening was a success. Not just for my wife and me, but for Kia, as well. It’s pretty obvious from a marketing standpoint what Kia is trying to do. Shifting the perception of an established brand is, in my opinion, one of the hardest things to do in all of marketing. Especially trying to shift the perception of a brand to serve a more affluent audience. SEO won’t work for this. Social Media seems hollow (I imagine someone sending Tweets like: Hey, rich people, Kias aren’t just for hip-hop hamsters anymore!).

Using the data available from OpenTable – which is pretty much the high-end foodie’s compass – was a brilliant way to reach the desired audience and say “Hey, we’ve got more than pretty girls strutting to David Bowie songs and snarky, “The Underdog Wins” type copy”. The Cadenza Marketing team reached out in the right way to the right audience, and I’m betting the numbers are going to be phenomenal.

All the way home, my wife and I talked about which of our friends would like the Kia Cadenza. I can only imagine that we’ll be telling them about the car. I don’t exactly know how influential we are – with our sippy cups, pacifiers and car-seats galore – but the team definitely changed our image of Kia. And if our perceptions were changed, even though we probably won’t buy the car, I think Kia won.

Great job Kia and OpenTable. And thanks for dinner.

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