BEVERLY HILLS, CA – Hyundai Motor America will return to a familiar playbook as it launches marketing for the new-for-’10 Hyundai Tucson cross/utility vehicle by closely cultivating social media space and using big events such as the Super Bowl to drum up additional brand awareness.

The Tucson, one of seven new products coming from the South Korean auto maker in the next 24 months, started trickling into U.S. dealers from parent Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.’s Ulsan plant in December.

The CUV has been reworked extensively to more effectively go toe-to-toe with well-established competitors such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue. But the second-generation Tucson lacks the awareness of those Japanese nameplates, as well as the deep marketing pockets of their parent companies.

Sales of the current-generation Tucson reflect its relative anonymity. According to Ward’s data, Tucson U.S. deliveries totaled 14,508 units through November.

That’s good enough for a 7.5% share of the 193,452 small-CUV segment. But bump the Tucson up to the 1.3 million-unit middle-luxury segment and its share plummets to 1.1%.

HMA CEO John Krafcik readily admits the Tucson carries “pretty low awareness” compared with its competition. He says the launch of the first-generation model suffered from “radio silence” after a big marketing push in the first few months.

“Small company, relatively small brand, generating decent revenue. But when you look at our marketing spend as a percentage of revenue, there’s a certain limit,” Krafcik tells Ward’s during a recent media preview of the CUV here.

In short, Hyundai has limited resources and, comparatively speaking, a lot of mouths to feed. With a 4.3% share of the U.S. market, it sells 10 models across as many product segments.

So while the Tucson and upcoming ’11 Sonata midsize car will receive significant marketing backing from the auto maker, it will be just a fraction of the $300 million a Big Six auto maker might spend on the launch of a key product.

Therefore, Hyundai is turning to social media, where the resources go much further. Krafcik does not reveal details of that push, saying only it’s “too early to talk about,” but “no question” it is a key element of the Tucson marketing strategy.

At the Tucson preview here, Hyundai fans tuned in over the Internet for a glimpse of the CUV after the auto maker drummed up interest through postings on its Facebook page.

Krafcik says he hopes to drive those people to a new micro-website launched for the Tucson that is geared to the social-media crowd.

Among the elements of the site is a 360-degree view of the CUV, with pop-ups highlighting its best features, as well as the unveiling of the Tucson in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The Internet plays a key role in raising awareness of the Hyundai brand more generally, Krafcik says, noting a recent third-party study shows Hyundai ranks tops in Internet consumer searches.

“You really don’t have to explain an Accord or a Camry, but you might have to explain a Sonata,” he says, underscoring Hyundai’s current marketing dilemma in balancing targeted advertising with brand-building efforts.

Expect the auto maker to tout its new U.S. models this year through big television events such as the Super Bowl, Academy Awards and high-profile venues such as New York City’s Time Square.

Ironically, Hyundai’s affection for U.S. football’s biggest game comes as more established brands ditch the event for the first time in many years, most notably PepsiCo Inc. After spending more than $100 million over some 23 years, the soft-drink maker will instead invest some $20 million in social media next year to rebuild slumping sales.

Longtime Super Bowl advertiser FedEx Corp. also will be absent from the game on Feb. 2, citing cost containments. The 30-second spots can cost up to $3 million apiece.

The former General Motors Corp. withdrew its advertising from the 2009 Super Bowl after reportedly spending more than $77 million on the event over the previous 15 years. The move was a result of significant cost-cutting.

The auto maker declared bankruptcy later in the year, and the new General Motors Co. is not expected to resume Super Bowl spending of that magnitude in the foreseeable future.

However, Krafcik considers events such as the Super Bowl an excellent way to communicate to consumers that “100 million other Americans” know about Hyundai, too.

“We can get that with the Super Bowl,” he adds. “It seems to be one of our more efficient spots and why we’ll be back again this year.”

jamend@wardsauto.com