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Lost Soul: The Bones of the Hamsters

I was watching Hulu with my daughters when the new 2023 Kia Soul commercial, “Built for Whoever You Are,” came on. It features a trio of stylized skeletons that prompted my younger daughter to ask, “What are those? The bones of the Hamsters?”

“I’m pretty sure those skeletons are NFTs or something,” the older one told her. “I guess the car people figured the Hamsters weren’t cool enough anymore.”

“I’ve decided they are the Hamsters’ bones then,” the younger pushed back, “after the car people sacrificed them to look hip.”

I just bowed my head in a moment of silence for the poor Hamsters.

I’ve been using the 2010, “This or That”, Kia Soul Hamsters commercial as a case study of great storytelling for more than a decade now. Where many car commercials just show sexy footage of shiny vehicles driving around while a voice over shares information about mileage, features, awards, and sales, that Kia Soul commercial moved people. The original incarnation of the Hamsters as chubby, chillin’ rodents caught in the struggle of choosing between a washing-machine-appliance or a cardboard-box-with-flames-painted-on-the-sides for a car was spot on. The Hamsters struck a nerve because they played as a metaphor for entry-level car buyers, trying to hang on to a spirited sense of style while needing to make a sensible decision. It’s a conflict we all wrestle with when choosing a car—whether we’re buying at the entry level or not.

That’s why, when that spot first came out, it was transformational for the brand. Kia had people showing up at dealerships asking, unironically, to buy, “that hamster car.” They sold out of the Soul in 80% of their dealerships that year in an otherwise down market. While competitors’ sales were off by 11-13% across the board, Kia’s sales of the Soul were up 45%. The Hamsters were a phenomenon, and the brand was eager to try to capture that lightning in a bottle. But it seems clear the Kia brand team never really articulated the story they’d tapped into. Based on the subsequent work, it feels like the brand just said, “People really like those cool, dancing Hamsters! Let’s make ‘em even cooler!”

That kind of thinking is pretty common when it comes to advertising. A brand stumbles onto a piece of communication that resonates with its audience but doesn’t really understand why. Instead of articulating the story that’s driving the connection, they get distracted by the superficial elements of characterization and follow that path, usually further and further off track, until they’ve completely jumped the shark.

My main evidence for this in the case of the Hamsters is that the Kia team started messing with the characters in their very next appearance. In the follow-up spot, the hamsters were slimmed down, dressed up, and generally had their rough edges sanded off in order to make them more “aspirational” and “appealing.” By the end of the commercial, they’d been transformed from dumpy misfits enjoying their vibe into hip celebrities, walking the red carpet in tuxedos and shades before a crowd of adoring humans. The “This or That” Hamsters were a compelling metaphor for people—a metaphor that got very murky as soon as they were depicted sharing the world with actual humans. Worse, sexy-ing the Hamsters up accidentally undermined what made them feel relatable and real, turning them into glossy, expected brand mascots. To be honest, by the end of the spot, they looked more like mice than Hamsters.

Each new incarnation just took them further and further off story. Soon, they were literally working for the brand to engineer the cars. Eventually, they were rocking out as musical icons with Nathaniel Rateliff and drawing crowds to play music, dance, and celebrate the diversity of the human experience. At which point, everything was just happy coolness, there wasn’t any conflict left, and the story was essentially gone. In ten years they went from powerhouse brand icons to attractive but boring shills. A sad but all too common arc for so many brand characters whose story frameworks were never articulated.

Makes me think my daughter is right when she says that Kia’s new characters are the literal skeletons of the Hamsters. They’re all that’s left after the quirky charm, personality, and story were stripped away. Just shiny bones the brand moves around to a soundtrack of cool music in the hopes of looking hip and appealing to a new generation of car buyers.

If the comments on the YouTube video are any indicator, I don’t think it’s working. Last time I checked, there were almost 70 comments, and fully a third of them were devoted to people asking what happened to the Hamsters or asking to bring them back. I think the customers who feel engaged by the Soul may have a better sense of its true story than the brand does. Maybe I’m being too hard on the brand, but characters with this kind of traction don’t come along every day. 

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery