Subaru Shows How to Cut Path Through Rough Terrain

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

As the marketing world tries not to panic amid all the talk of crises and bailouts, perhaps executives should turn to Subaru as an example. The auto manufacturer might not often be lumped in with the likes of Apple and Nike, but consider its success over the past year while some of the biggest names in the sector struggled with both their sales and their marketing efforts.

The auto industry has been experiencing its worst sales year since 1993. Hit with a slow economy and high gas prices, most automakers have fallen back on messages touting price and gas mileage -- and, despite swearing off huge incentives and deep discounts, keep going back to that well. Subaru of America, meanwhile, is clipping along. The niche brand reported the industry's biggest percentage jump in U.S. new-vehicle sales: 129,298 units through August, some 5.8% better than a year ago.

How is Subaru doing it? A solid product always helps.

A lot of the credit can go to Subaru's 2009 Forester. The model's bigger size and more SUV-like styling are reportedly bringing in more male buyers.

Subaru also has a solid base and cultivates it. According to Tim Mahoney, senior VP-chief marketing officer at the automaker, referrals and word-of-mouth have accounted for a lot of the company's success. So has staying true to the brand. Like the aforementioned Apple, Subaru knows what it is and sticks to the game plan. It hasn't tried to be all things to all people.

Of course, that only takes a brand so far, and most companies want to be a little more to a few more people. But the company didn't rush out to get a flashy new agency and spend three times the old ad budget on a shiny new campaign. Mr. Mahoney and his team did their homework and found out that outside of that core base, brand awareness wasn't very high.

Figuring that brand awareness wasn't going to be built with a rational plea, the automaker went with emotion. That's not to say such messaging is right for every brand, but it was right for the Subaru brand at this particular time. In each of the past two months, half of buyers have been new to the brand. The marque's U.S. market share was its highest ever in August, at 1.5%, even though Subaru had one of the lowest average incentives in the industry last month.

There's a lesson in there somewhere.
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