L.L. Bean, Subaru pair for co-branding Appeal to outdoor enthusiasts links carmaker, clothing retailer

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Subaru of America is teaming with L.L. Bean Inc. in a multiyear, co-branding deal. The niche marketer of all-wheel-drive vehicles said it bested bigger car marketers for the alliance, which marks the retailer's first automotive licensing partnership.

"L.L. Bean is a natural partner for Subaru, as both companies provide outdoor enthusiasts with products that enhance their lives," said Bill Cyphers, VP-marketing at the carmaker. He declined to discuss any financial aspects of the deal.

Subaru becomes the official car of the outdoor clothing and gear retailer and will appear at L.L. Bean stores and in its catalogs. L.L. Bean becomes the official outfitter to Subaru, which will sell its clothing with Subaru branding at the auto dealerships. L.L. Bean will participate in Subaru-sponsored events, including the Subaru Gorge Games this July in Hood River, Ore.

In early fall, Subaru will start selling an L.L. Bean special edition Outback sport utility wagon. It will be unveiled at the New York Auto Show in April. The 2001 model will have the only six-cylinder engine in Subaru's lineup.

SALES PREDICTION

Some 10,000 limited edition models will be sold this year, Mr. Cyphers predicted. The L.L. Bean Outback will get dedicated advertising -- print to start, with spots likely on National Public Radio, he added.

Subaru's agency, Temerlin McClain, Dallas, will handle. The marketer spent $60 million in measured media during the first nine months of 1999, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The marketer expects to sell 160,000 to 165,000 vehicles in the U.S. this year vs. 156,000 last year, Mr. Cyphers said. Subaru is limited by production capacity. He said he didn't know at this point whether General Motors Corp.'s upcoming $1 billion cash investment to acquire 20% of Subaru's Japanese parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, would help production after the deal is finalized, probably next month.

L.L. Bean and Subaru met via their separate sponsorships of Leave No Trace, a non-profit outdoor ethics group, said Tim Bennett, the marketing manager at Subaru who hammered out the deal. He said L.L. Bean "was approached by most major carmakers," including GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler.

L.L. Bean "does well with Generation X," so the new venture could help Subaru evolve its image and become hip with younger buyers, said Wes Brown, an analyst at consultancy Nextrend. Younger buyers focus more on a brand's personality, lifestyle and attitude, so L.L. Bean can help Subaru in that arena. He called the partnership "a perfect mix."

The average Subaru buyer is 43 to 45 years old, although buyers of Impreza, the lowest sales volume vehicle, are younger, Mr. Cyphers said.

He said the marketer could attract younger buyers and freshen its image if it decides in the next few months to build a concept vehicle unveiled earlier this month at the Chicago Auto Show. The ST-X pickup builds on Subaru's cross-over vehicle heritage by combining the ride of a sedan with the utility of a pickup, Mr. Cyphers said. It has four doors, seats four people and has a versatile rear seat that folds down and opens to extend the cargo bed.

The marketer has already staged focus groups at several auto shows to gauge consumer and media reaction.

UNIQUE POSITIONING

Subaru invented the cross-over vehicle category in 1995, when it introduced the 1996-model Outback sport utility wagon. Since then, more manufacturers have used car chassis to build a vehicle that looks more like a truck.

Mr. Brown said Subaru still has a unique positioning and some of the most loyal owners in the industry.

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