As PR director for Kia Motors America, Kim Custer has been able to reconnect with his longtime passion for cars, and position the Korean automaker as a sporty and youthful alternative.
There's a poetic justice to Kim Custer doing PR for Korean cars in the US.
Custer, PR director for Kia Motors America, once dreamed of traveling the world with the US State Department. He even passed the foreign service exam, only to have a government hiring freeze back in the Carter administration put an end to his plans to go overseas.
Instead, he's seen the world in other ways. After six years of working for then Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton in Washington, Custer became director of corporate relations for Youth for Understanding, an organization that oversees student exchange programs between the US and 20 other countries. He also had a stint with recruiter Korn/ Ferry International as VP of global marketing and communications.
Along this winding career path, Custer has been able to reconnect with a passion from his youth - cars.
When he was growing up on an Indiana farm, Custer recalls, "I knew every car on the road before I could read."
By the time he was a teenager, Custer was working 40 acres of Hoosier farmland to raise money to buy his first car in 1966 - a 1964 Chevy Impala. "Once in a while, I'll have a dream about that car," says the 55-year-old Custer.
While at California agency Bob Thomas & Associates, Custer worked on Nissan's account. He left in 1988 to head public affairs and corporate communications for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America and, three years ago, he joined Kia's US operations.
When he came to Kia, there was only one other person in his department. Today, Custer has a staff of five and works with the Zeno Group as his outside agency. In his time at Kia, he's started a community relations function, improved corporate communications, and worked on both internal and dealer communications.
The brand has been a bit of the forgotten kid brother among Korean imports. Big brother Hyundai has grabbed major US media attention as it offered a 10-year warranty to convince buyers it had improved the quality of its cars.
Hyundai and Kia are owned by the same Korean parent, a fact that until recently also made it a challenge for Kia to stake out a unique brand identity. That's changed in the past six months as Hyundai and Kia have created different brand statements and attributes that they're now talking to consumers and the media about.
While Hyundai is playing off the key terms "refined" and "confident," Kia is using "exciting" and "enabling" as buzzwords to explain its product line. It's also created a new brand slogan, "The Power to Surprise."
Custer's job is to get the US media and consumers to notice several new Kias coming to market - at the same time that almost every automaker is flooding this market with new models.
"Both Kia and Hyundai have had explosive growth, but it's a dog-eat-dog world out there and Kim has to keep the momentum going," says Jason Vines, VP of Chrysler Group communications and an old friend of Custer's.
The two got to know each other when Custer was handling public affairs for Mitsubishi. Chrysler had a business relationship with Mitsubishi at the time that had the companies working closely together.
"I'm a huge fan. He's a consummate professional," Vines says of Custer. "He has one thing a PR person has to have - complete honesty."
Others who have dealt with Custer echo that sentiment. "He's a straight shooter," says Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheCarConnection.com, which operates out of Detroit. "He strikes a balance between his two clients: the one who pays the bills - Kia - and the other who justifies his job - the media."
Al Vinikour, a longtime Detroit PR man and auto enthusiast, says of Custer: "He won't call brown tan. If something is brown, with him it's brown."
Of his professional philosophy, Custer says, "I've always felt very strongly about the integrity of marketing and PR in terms of the messages we get out to our various audiences."
The message he's currently trying to get out revolves around Kia's new image. "We are trying to move toward a more sporty, youthful image," he notes. "We want Kia to become a 'young at heart' brand."
He's getting that message out not only to the traditional auto press, but to newspaper auto writers around the US. "Not everybody reads Car & Driver or Road & Track, but they read columns in their local papers," he reasons.
He strives to treat every auto writer, no matter the publication, with equal attention. "I try to be very egalitarian," he says. "They are all people I want to know and keep in touch with."
Custer also sees part of his job as explaining the American media and how it functions to his company's Korean owners, who are accustomed to a different type of press.
"We make sure our Korean colleagues understand that we have a much different relationship with the media here," he says. "We don't expect every review to be 100% positive. That's not the way the US media operates."
Custer sees Kia getting increased coverage, but knows he won't be able to change perceptions overnight. "This will take a while to accomplish," he says.
Others might tire of such a challenge and flee for a larger automaker with more PR resources and higher brand recognition, but Custer says he has no intention of doing that.
He loves living in California - Kia is based in Irvine - and can't see moving back to the chilly Midwest for a job in Detroit. "I've shoveled enough snow in my life," he jokes.
His hobbies of distance running, biking, and tennis also are better suited to the warm climate of California.
Besides not leaving the West Coast, Custer also can't imagine leaving the auto business. "I think I'll always do this," he says. "I like it. I guess from a professional standpoint, I don't want to grow up. I figure the guy with the most car magazines before he dies wins."
PR director, Kia Motors America
January 2001-April 2002
VP, global marketing and communications, Korn/Ferry International
August 1988-January 2001
Director, public affairs and corporate comms, Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America
January 1988-August 1988
Director, automotive group, Bob Thomas & Associates
January 1983-January 1988
Director, state government relations, American Medical International
March 1982-January 1983
SAE, Hannaford & Company
January 1977-March 1982
Director of corporate relations, Youth for Understanding
January 1971-January 1977
Executive assistant/press assistant, congressman Lee Hamilton