What Drives Her: Mitsubishi’s Kimberley Gardiner Navigates the Auto World to Spark Change

A Girls Guide To Cars | What Drives Her: Mitsubishi'S Kimberley Gardiner Navigates The Auto World To Spark Change - Kg Mitsu 1
Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Mitsubishi Motors North America

Good things often come in small batches.

Don’t ask Kimberley Gardiner about marketing to women. 

Even on a phone call you can see her expression turn steely. The light and energy of the conversation we’ve been having dissipates. 

“I don’t pretend to represent what women will think about something,” she said. “I try to balance out the conversation, target the buyer, their interests and needs. It’s OK to talk about things that appeal to both men and women,” she said. And that is the magic of marketing to women — appealing to their sense of what matters, not the fact that they are female. “‘Marketing to women’ may be old thinking,” she said. Messages that are “too female may put off men.” And she wants to reach everyone who may be interested in a car’s features or the lifestyle it enables. 

It’s that agnostic point of view that has driven Kimberley’s career in automotive and led to her most recent role as chief marketing officer for Mitsubishi North America.

Editor’s Note: When we first spoke to Kimberley, she was chief marketing officer for Mitsubishi North America. She has now moved into a position as head of marketing at Volkswagen.

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Mission-Driven To Build the Right Career, and Automotive Just Happened to Be the Place

Kimberley didn’t start out with the goal of a career in the automotive business, first in the marketing department at Toyota then Lexus, Kia and now, as chief marketing officer of Mitsubishi. She wanted to be an agent of change, to help drive businesses to that sweet spot between the brand’s mission and what the customer wants and needs. 

After working in the environmental field she paused to pursue a Masters of Business Administration at Indiana University. “My decision journey came from the environmental field,” she says. But after getting her MBA “I knew my next career step had to be meaningful,” she said. “When I looked at other opportunities that combined my talents, I saw automotive as a combination of all those things.” 

The result? “I was able to work on the first generation [Toyota] Prius launch.”

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Breaking the Mold with a Totally New Type of Car

And that may be the hardest job in the world— to market a brand new type of vehicle in a market and industry that was not comfortable with change.

“I just came from business school where we looked at models of how to adapt technology, the adoption curve, how to understand how to talk about it and who to talk to. So I was able to use what I learned,” she said. “People who are on the left-hand side of the curve recognize the benefit and [Prius] resonated with them.”

And it worked. Prius not only set the bar for fuel efficiency for all automotive, but established Toyota as the leader in innovation. The process also worked to help Toyota roll out fuel cell cars. “[Toyota] Mirai customers show this same engagement” she noted.

The Small Batch Advantage

Kimberley’s first task upon arrival at Mitsubishi was to set the focus on the automaker’s vehicles. Under her direction a new campaign called “Small Batch” focused on the automakers diminutive lineup: Mitsubishi sells just 5 models in North America through a network of 367 dealers. Compared to Toyota’s 33 models sold through 1,200 dealers and Kia’s 19 models sold through 630 dealerships, it was a bit of a change. But she’d learned to appreciate working in a smaller organization after navigating a large company like Toyota. Smaller “brands can think in nimble, creative ways and navigate to awareness,” Kimberley said. 

This is something she first got a taste of at Lexus. With Prius “I was able to move around the company, and I loved that,” she said. But “at Lexus I wore many hats, [worked on] a lot of marketing strategies for every new vehicle.” She was part of the team that put strategy in motion during a busy time, including introducing the IS, the SC, the futuristic LF and the RX hybrid, all of which took pages from Prius insights. The challenge was to show this was “not just a rational decision but also luxury, and we were pioneers” in that.

The smaller scope of Lexus also allowed her to “move around the company; I loved that. Lexus is small enough you can see that impact quickly. It’s a great way to learn without feeling lost,” Kimberley said. 

A Girls Guide To Cars | What Drives Her: Mitsubishi'S Kimberley Gardiner Navigates The Auto World To Spark Change - Screen Shot 2020 05 05 At 6.48.15 PmIs the Universe Trying to Tell You Something? 

When Toyota announced the company’s move to Texas, Kimberley decided the timing for a move across the country was not right for her as a mom of a teen daughter. She left automotive briefly for a startup and was quite happy until automotive starting calling again. This time, it was Kia.

“They pinged me a few times,” she said. But she declined; she was happy in the startup world doing something different. “They had to convince me; I didn’t think it was right. But they called again and I thought ‘the universe is trying to tell me something.’” She met with the Kia team and “was impressed by their product. They are very confident. When they decide something, you find a way. I like that mindset.” She had been used to a slower pace of decision making and liked the potential to shake things up. “That’s what attracted me. I got lucky. There was [new] product after [new] product” introduced by Kia over the next few years, including the World Car of the Year award winning Kia Telluride which remains sold out at dealerships across the country.

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“This Brand Really Needs Me”

In the midst of Kia’s ascent, Mitsubishi called. “I was not looking to move but they reached out,” Kimberley said. The recruiter “didn’t even tell me the brand, but described it” and her interest was piqued. “They want to grow, they have interesting [vehicles] coming and needed someone who understands marketing from a different perspective, who understands large and medium brands and can think in a creative way.” 

Kimberley sat with Fred Diaz, then president of the company, who asked her “‘How would you do this?”’ I’d never been asked that before. There was a white board in the room and I asked if I could use it. I mapped out an entire plan. I thought ‘this brand really needs me,’” the same feeling she’d had when she first entertained the move to Kia. 

 “I decided early on in automotive that I’m a change agent. I’ve always wanted to make things better in a positive way, I’ve had that in my mind forever. I’ve approached everything I’ve done in that regard, how can you make things better, faster, more efficient, more creative, more modern.”

Leading While Learning: The Power of Mentoring

“When I hear another woman leader talk about how she’s broken through, I feel connected,” Kimberley said. And that is where the power of mentoring lies: in learning what someone else knows that will help you get to your goals. However, as a leader and change agent you have to constantly learn, that’s how you make that impact. “To make change happen you have to understand the current system, what change has to happen and how to take it back to the organization and get that change to take effect,” she said. “I had a couple of managers at Toyota, including Tim Morrison, who had been in the industry long enough they were part of the fabric of automotive. [Tim] was open minded and helped me navigate those two worlds.”

The mentoring continued at Kia. The leaders she learned from included Kia chief operating officer Michael Sprague. “He was like that too; thoughtful and smart, willing to listen. You knew if you convinced him you had something going,” she said. 

But, “learning from the outside is what automotive needs to do, too” so part of the challenge was to find ideas and introduce them inside the organization. 

As a mentor, a leader and an agent of Mitsubishi’s future, that’s what makes her excited. “There is so much room for people to make impact. If I see something in someone, especially if they ask for help, for advocacy or mentorship,” she said, she’ll help. “I love being an advocate and being inspired,” by people who are engaged, enthusiastic and want to be part of the future.

And through it all, being an advocate for her consumer is at the heart of her mission. “As a communications person you have to interpret,” what is meaningful. The car purchase process can be a daunting experience for so many consumers. “To say ‘it’s not that hard, it’s not that scary,’” breaks it down and allows the details to shine through, in big batches or small. It’s that “extra bit of effort that lets you see the impact you have.”

Join Kimberley Gardiner for more insights on marketing, automotive and career building on Reuters Automotive Events webcast Celebrating Women in Automotive on Tuesday May 19th at 1:15PM ET. Registration is free and open to the public, just click here.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss