If car companies were high school students, Subaru would be the smart kid at the back of the class, hand up, ready with a joke and the right answer.
The Japanese car company has spent the last five years trying to get noticed, with marketing efforts spanning jealous Germans, sexy Sumo wrestlers, clutch cams and even an infomercial.
Now the brand has everyone's attention. Canadian sales from 2006 to 2010 rose 72% to 27,805 cars, with share rising from 2.9% to 5.2% of the Japanese market, making Subaru the fastest growing Japanese automobile brand during that time. Post-tsunami, production is back on track, with a new global positioning strategy and projected sales increases driving units sold past the 30,000 mark for this year.
"Overall sales is how we measure success," says Subaru Canada director of marketing Geoff Craig. "We've increased our share of the Japanese market, which really was the intention: to broaden our appeal beyond just the all-wheel drive intender to more of a Japanese automotive intender, which put us into a larger arena."
Known for sporty small SUV runabouts like the Outback and Forester, the company's next launch moves out of the all-wheel drive segment entirely. A joint venture with Toyota Motor Corp (which bought a 16% share of Subaru parent company Fuji Heavy Industries in 2008), the Subaru BRZ is a rear-wheel drive sport coupe rolling out this June.
It's an example of how the brand does what's right, not what's expected, says Craig. "Here we are stepping into a rear-wheel drive configuration that takes us away from our all-wheel drive heritage, but in a sports car, that's what's right."
Marketing efforts for the BRZ will tap into the passionate fan base that the segment inspires using social media, as well as media stunts and product placement. Craig says the plan is for the BRZ to show up in places where people will look at it and say, 'I wouldn't expect that from Subaru.’
Subaru has had success using social media to reach other niche segments, such as for the WRX STI, popular with fans of the World Rally. Last year, Subaru hooked up five cameras to its rally car and drove a stage of the Rally of the Tall Pines in Bancroft, Ontario. Visitors to the Subaru Canada YouTube channel can synch and toggle between the resulting videos, which, along with a behind-the-scenes video seeded on blogs and forums, have earned the channel over 2.8 million views.
This bold stance started in 2007 with the launch of the new Impreza, described in an award-winning ad campaign by DDB Toronto as "the Japanese car the Germans wish they'd made." The first of a series of launches under a new strategic direction dubbed "Japanese Plus," it was a departure for a brand that had always been very rational and benefit-focused in their marketing, says Michael Davidson, SVP business unit director at DDB Canada.
"Most people didn't even know this was a Japanese car, so we decided to position it in a more emotional way," he says. "People started to notice it, and they'd go into a dealership or go online and discover that the brand actually offered a lot."
In 2008, the redesign of the Forester distanced it from the faltering wagon segment to take on the small SUV market, dominated by Honda and Toyota. The campaign tipped over one of Japan's most sacred cows, reimagining world champion Sumo wrestler Byumba as an unlikely but unabashed pin up icon, frolicking at car washes and posing on calendars.
“The insight was that people bought that category because they really liked the look of it," says Davidson. "Nobody else was saying it, so we just boldly came out and said we're the sexiest Japanese small SUV out there."
This combination of funny and smart drove Forester sales up 132% during the first campaign period, and Subaru's share of the Japanese SUV category rose from 7 to 11%. A second effort in the first six months of 2011 drove sales up another 56% with no significant product changes.
Annual sales grew from 3,000 in 2007-2008 to 9,000 in 2010-11 without cannibalizing the Outback, which, in terms of brand positioning, is more Vancouver-centric compared to Forester's Toronto base.
Outback's "Maybe you should get out more" campaign used TV spots to unsubtly remind people they should get off the couch. Playing off the most famously mundane of television ads, the Snuggie infomercial, the campaign spot reached through the screen to prise the TV open with a crowbar, revealing a pristine lake scene. Sales during the campaign period more than quadrupled. For the next phase, DDB hit the message home with an original infomercial for a fake product called the Lap & Snack, designed to send suburbanites running for their car keys.
The Outback push was so successful DDB and Suburu won two Gold CASSIES, Canada’s advertising effective awards, for Best Launch and Automotive marketing, and the original head-turning campaign, Forester’s “Sexy Sumos”, took the Gold Sustained Success award - for increasing initial consideration by 400%, ramping up purchase intent by 83%, and tripling pre-campaign launch sales.
Since the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan back in March of last year had a massive impact on production, Subaru launched a new global brand positioning, "Confidence in Motion", to allay concerns. DDB has adapted it for the Canadian market and it will guide upcoming launches. Despite the tsunami, Subaru sales share of the Japanese market increased to 5.5% in 2011.
With remodels for the Outback and Forester still a year off, Subaru is now planning for the September launch of XV Crosstrek, which is getting a lot of attention in Europe where it is known simply as the XV.
"We've always built our brand through individual models, and I don't see that changing in the near future," says Craig. "Fun and humour has worked for us, but we want to evolve that into something much more intelligent and likeable."