NFL-Averse, Dog-Friendly Ad Strategy Powers Subaru Surge

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As car and truck brands flood NFL games with TV ads in the coming weeks, Subaru is staying on the sidelines once again -- and with good reason. The automaker, which has long preferred the Puppy Bowl over the Super Bowl and the outdoors to the end zone, is enjoying big sales gains.

Amazon Subaru ad
Amazon Subaru ad Credit: Subaru

Subaru is sticking to its targeted formula as it begins marketing the redesigned 2018 Crosstrek, which began entering the increasingly competitive subcompact crossover market in August. Two new emotional ads by Carmichael Lynch continue the long running "Love" campaign and feature tales about a dog's loyalty and grandfather-grandson surfing adventure. In a new digital twist, Subaru will run banner ads on Amazon that target people shopping for outdoor gear. People searching for propane stoves, for instance, will be served ads that recommend the Crosstrek, along with copy that says, "You found your ride. Now go find your adventure."

"We don't buy commercial time in the NFL or any other professional sport," says Alan Bethke, senior VP- of marketing at Subaru of America. "Subaru is very clear of who we are," he added. "We don't use a shotgun approach to just try to say 'If you are a football fan you are going to like Subaru.' We think we can be more sophisticated than that."

The results speak for themselves: Subaru of America sold 360,513 vehicles through July, up 8.7% from the same period a year earlier, as the overall U.S. market declined 2.9%, according to data compiled by Automotive News.

"Subaru has just gotten it right on a number of levels," says Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for AutoTrader. "Their product is right in the heart of what consumers are demanding right now, SUVs or cars that are SUV-like. They've also done a fabulous job of marketing those vehicles to resonate with an audience that doesn't necessarily follow the traditional [path]. They are outdoorsy. They are dog lovers. So they are not necessarily into the NFL [and] sports and such."

The Crosstrek arrives as Subaru seeks to build momentum in the hot subcompact crossover segment. When the first-generation Crosstrek debuted in 2012, it only had one rival, the Nissan Juke. But the segment is now crowded with more than 10 players, as Automotive News recently pointed out.

The new spots are directed by cinematographer Lance Acord, whose credits include "Being John Malkovich" and "Lost in Translation." One ad, called "Forever Young," portrays a grandfather meeting up with his grandson for a secret surfing outing. While the kid pulls up in a Crosstreck, the grandpa shows up in a 1991 Subaru GL. The older model was included to spotlight Subaru's longevity. The grandkid-grandpa tale is meant to appeal to millennials, which "have a propensity to like that generational bond, maybe more so than the prior generation like Gen X," Bethke says.

The other spot, called "Welcome to the Pack," (at top) continues Subaru's dog-rich ad tradition by showing a pooch slowly warming to his owner's new boyfriend. Nearly half of all Subaru owners own dogs, while 67% have a pet of some kind, according to Subaru. In ads, "we like to replay that back to them because that is who they are," Bethke says.

Digital pre-roll videos feature unconventional recreational activities, like kayaking down a snowy mountain. Subaru also struck custom content deals with National Geographic and Buzzfeed, which is making videos featuring offbeat activities like people doing yoga on horses, which is apparently a trend.

Subaru is coming off a successful launch of the all-new 2017 Impreza that was backed by ads that began in February. Like the Crosstrek, the Impreza serves as an entry-level vehicle to the Subaru brand for millennials. Sales of the Impreza, which comes in a sedan and hatchback, surged 45.3% to 50,803 units in the first seven months of the year. Compare that with the total U.S. car segment, which is down 12.3% through July, according to Automotive News.

One Impreza spot touts a "car you can trust' and features complimentary stories of two families bringing home a puppy and a baby. It got airplay on cable networks including Travel Channel, Animal Planet and National Geographic, according to iSpot TV.

Subaru first found marketing magic in 2008 when Carmichael Lynch launched the "Love" campaign that plays off the loyal attachment Subaru owners feel with their vehicles. The campaign is now in its ninth year, which seems like an eternity in an age when many marketers veer from one approach to the next. The tagline "Love. It's what makes Subaru, a Subaru," was "born out of truth" and wasn't a slogan "that we dreamed up ourselves," Bethke says. "When you ask a Subaru owner what they think about their car, the vast majority of times the owner will say they love it."

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