For years, the Hyundai Motor Company endured mockery and negative press in the United States. But the South Korean carmaker has proved the naysayers wrong. Over the past decade, Hyundai’s image has changed from a maker of cheap, unsophisticated vehicles to a world-class brand.

The turnaround began in earnest in 2004, when Hyundai was ranked second in initial quality by J.D. Power and Associates. (“Initial quality” is based on a survey of new-car owners 90 days after purchase, and is considered a good predictor of long-term dependability.)

This year, J.D. Power ranked Hyundai as the best nonluxury brand, ahead of powerhouses Honda and Toyota — and in the top three in a brand loyalty study. In Britain, it was named “Carmaker of the Year” for 2010 by AM, a leading auto trade magazine, beating out Jaguar, Ford and Land Rover. 

“What Hyundai has accomplished is incredible,” says Kevin Woodhurst, vice president/general manager of Dolphin Pools & Spas in Phoenix. “Other car manufacturers have floundered and haven’t learned how to adapt quickly [to the times]. Where Hyundai was and where they are now is astonishing, and their cars are cutting-edge, great designs.”

Hyundai’s Miles Johnson agrees: “[When] Hyundai started investing heavily into image to connect with customers, the main ways were through modern design and gaining customer trust. It led to things such as the 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty on the powertrain on cars,” says the manager of product public relations, based in Costa Mesa, Calif. “Plus, showing that we listen to our customers in this economy, we came up with an offer, promoted in commercials, that if you lost your job, you could bring the car back with no penalty in 2008.”

In its online interactions with the public, Johnson says Hyundai tries to be honest, but with a dash of humor. “We want to keep the conversation going and give the company a personality. Our CEO Tweets every day — he’s always posting something he’s done or answering questions. That’s kind of unusual.”

Meanwhile, Woodhurst is pursuing a similar course in the pool and spa industry. “Social media is a great thing, a great tool,” he says. “In a very short time, business has changed. Are we [the industry] adapting?”

He certainly seems to be. For a year now, he’s been active on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, plus he blogs on Dolphin’s Website. He uses a multimedia approach to try to get people into the store and, he says, “I feel vindication when a customer comes in and tells me, ‘I remember you from your blog’ or something like that. … I work 60 to 80 hours a week, and one-fourth of my time is spent online. In the forums you see people saying, ‘I don’t have time to spend online [at work].’”

Woodhurst thinks they can’t afford not to.“The big thing in sales is figuring out how to differentiate yourself,” Woodhurst explains. “Think outside the box.” Or, as Hyundai’s current marketing message puts it: “New Thinking. New Possibilities.”