Hyundai's New Social Contract

Over the holiday break I saw this incredible -- well, truly unbelievable -- ad for Hyundai cars: If you experience involuntary loss of income, you can return your new car. Hyundai's move, I believe, represents the early signs of emergence of a new social contract in America. That's good news. Now, Detroit, where are you? Hyundai's tagline is, "We're all in this together and we'll get through it together." Your first reaction to this ad might be, "Right, show me the money!" Too many times companies try to snooker people with their slick commercials, and then add the fast-talking voice over at the end who reels off all the product’s restrictions and possible side effects.

But Hyundai puts their money where their mouth is. If you experience involuntary job loss, a physical disability, job transfer or other life-changing event within the first year of your purchase, Hyundai will take back your car. You can read the details at Hyundaiusa.com, and even I could understand them.

Sure, Hyundai wants to sell cars; after all, that's their business. But this approach goes well beyond business as usual. They clearly acknowledge in their ads the economic anxiety people are feeling these days. They get it. But they've gone well beyond listening well. They've imagined a new relationship with their customers. In doing so, they've outlined a new social contract which says "We are in this together," and where both parties make genuine commitments to one another.

When I think about Hyundai's move, I can't help but wonder about the bailout of the American auto companies. After receiving billions of dollars in assistance late last year, their response was to take out full page ads in major national newspapers to thank the American public for supporting them. Yes, ostensibly, they used the money we gave to them to thank us for helping them. I know such ads are the norms for these situations.

But where the hell is Detroit's vision for their future. Instead of the typical ads, why, after receiving all these U.S. tax dollars, didn't the heads of the big three automakers step up and say, "Thanks, and this is where we're headed." If they want such a close relationship with the American public, why didn't they propose, like Hyundai, a new relationship that would win back people's confidence? Why haven't they tried to change the very rules of their sector, as opposed to pursuing business as usual?

What Hyundai is doing is remaking the rules of game. That's welcomed news. It makes me feel like folks in their company really are listening to the American people, and that they want to be a part of our recovery as well as their own.

I remember when Hyundai first came to the U.S. and it was hard to pronounce their name. My wife and I would often laugh at our inept attempts. But look how far they have come. Detroit, I can only hope that you're not too far behind. The goal can't be simply to save your company; it's to help build a new social contract. Then, maybe people will see you as relevant.