"Queen of K-Pop" Builds Korean SUV Buzz With Bikini Tweet

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Ssangyong Motor Co., the struggling South Korean SUV maker, is getting some unexpected help selling its latest model from Korean pop star Lee Hyori.

Lee, who has been dubbed the “Queen of K-pop,” created a stir in social media last month after offering to endorse Ssangyong’s new Tivoli crossover by dancing in a bikini or appearing in its commercial if the automaker hired back the workers it retrenched in 2009 to cut costs. Ssangyong declined, saying the 35-year-old Lee did not fit the Tivoli’s target demographic of young, trendy consumers.

The ensuing publicity has boosted the profile of the Tivoli and its manufacturer Ssangyong, which hasn’t made a profit since being purchased by India’s Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. The Tivoli, with a starting price of 16.4 million won ($15,100), is the first Ssangyong model developed under Mahindra and will compete in the same market segment as Renault SA’s Captur and General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Trax.

“Depending on how well the model sells, Ssangyong will be able to expand its global market and could even turn to profit,” said Chae Yun Seok, an analyst at Yuhwa Securities Co. “There is definitely a lot of anticipation from consumers.”

Ssangyong, founded in 1954, has had three different owners since 1998 beginning with South Korea’s Daewoo Group. Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp. took over the automaker in 2004 after Daewoo’s collapse and sold it to Mahindra in 2011.

The automaker has declined 8.4 percent this month in Seoul trading, after gains of 23 percent last year and 42 percent in 2013. The benchmark Kospi Index has added 0.1 percent this year.

Star Attraction

Lee’s agency B2M Entertainment said that her comments, made through Twitter, were taken “out of context” and that Lee hadn’t officially offered to model for the vehicle. That hasn’t deterred Park Min Soo, 30, a fan of Lee who is now among those considering buying Ssangyong’s latest offering.

“I wasn’t really looking at Ssangyong vehicles until I saw blog posts about Lee’s offer to dance in a bikini,” said Park, 30, who was earlier considering buying either a used Kia Sportage SUV or a Hyundai Sorento. “I looked up the vehicle on the web, liked the design and its price tag, and before long, Tivoli was a strong candidate.”

At today’s event in Seoul marking the start of sales, Ssangyong aired two versions of a television advertisement one featuring an unknown young male and another a female model, against the backdrop of a city.

The company plans to sell 100,000 units a year of the new crossover, which it spent 350 billion won over 42 months developing, in regions including China and Europe, the company said in a statement.

For Park, the Lee Hyori fan, his wish for this year is to see more of his idol.

“I still think Ssangyong should have accepted Lee Hyori’s offer,” he said.

(Updates with description of advertisement in ninth paragraph.)
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