Subaru Gains Traction as Auto Industry Stalls

Carmaker Forgoes Reason for 'Love' in Ad Push That Led to 6% Boost in New-Car Sales

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- As the auto industry sputters through its worst sales year since 1993, Subaru of America is clipping along, and it's doing so without an ad message touting price, performance or gas mileage. Despite offering the lowest incentives in the industry, the niche brand reported the industry's biggest percentage jump in U.S. new-vehicle sales -- 129,298 units through August, according to Automotive News, some 5.8% better than a year ago.
The new Subaru Forester is credited with helping the automaker drive new-vehicle sales in the U.S.
The new Subaru Forester is credited with helping the automaker drive new-vehicle sales in the U.S.


What makes this feat even more impressive is the fact that most of the Subaru's loyal owners typically drive their vehicles up to 150,000 miles, meaning they aren't coming back to the market very often. So where are the new sales coming from?

Beyond referrals and buzz
Referrals and word-of-mouth, said Tim Mahoney, senior VP-chief marketing officer at the automaker, who said Subaru owners love their vehicles and that leads to advocacy. Still, the company wasn't spreading the love far beyond that circle, which led the company to try its current advertising approach.

Mr. Mahoney said his team and the brand's ad agency, Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis, did research last fall to learn why more people did not buy Subaru. He expected all-wheel-drive, which is offered standard on all Subarus, would be the main barrier to purchase, believing drivers in warm-weather states would figure they didn't need that system. But the research found a quarter of consumers simply didn't know much about the brand.

So Subaru started educating consumers with its umbrella ad theme, titled "Love," in the spring for the launch of the redone Forester SUV. Mr. Mahoney said emotions play a big role in the car-buying process and he criticized the many industry players that are hammering away at more rational reasons, such as price, fuel economy and performance in their communications.

He said consumers' favorable opinion of Subaru has jumped by roughly 25 points since last year. "It's not a matter of money for us," Mr. Mahoney said. Subaru spent $74 million in measured media in the first half of 2008 compared with $55 million the same period a year ago, according to TNS Media Intelligence. But Mr. Mahoney said his ad budget this year is flat, although he has moved more to national TV and cut the number of markets for spot TV by roughly two-thirds from two years ago. Subaru also isn't gaining much additional volume from fleet sales, as only 5% to 6% of its total comes from rental outfits, businesses and government fleets, he said.

Credit the Forester
A lot of the credit can go to Subaru's 2009 Forester, which "has been a smash. They can't build enough of them," said Wes Brown, VP of consultancy Iceology.

The model's bigger size and more SUV-like styling are bringing in more male buyers, he said. Mr. Mahoney said the prior Forester model attracted more females and empty-nesters, but now buyers are better balanced between the genders and are a bit younger. The model is also winning over buyers from Honda's Cr-V, Toyota's RAV4 and Ford Escape, he said.

But it's not just the Forester that's powering Subaru. Mr. Brown said in each of the past two months half of buyers are new to the brand -- a good thing considering its owners hold on to the cars so long. "They are broadening their buyer base," noted Mr. Brown. Subaru's Impreza WRX performance car has given the brand some street cred and brought in first-time buyers.

The marque's U.S. market share was the highest ever in August, at 1.5%, even though Subaru had one of the lowest* average incentives in the industry last month, at $752 per vehicle, said Jesse Toprak, exec director-industry analysis for auto-information site Edmunds.com. "That means your product is strong and selling itself."

Mr. Toprak said Subaru sales are getting a boost from Americans who are downsizing from big SUVs to smaller, more fuel-efficient models. And buyer consideration for Subaru has jumped in each of the past three months, based on consumers looking at the automaker's pages on Edmunds -- one of the few brands that has seen increases.

Subaru buyers tend to be sensible and practical, said Mr. Mahoney, and "that's the right place to be, especially now."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Subaru had the lowest industry incentives.
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