Subaru entered the United States in 1969 as , selling quirky vehicles based on utility and rugged four-wheel drive. Until 1991, Subaru's tag line was 'Inexpensive and built to stay that way.' But steadily declining sales, from a high of 183,242 in 1986 to 105,052 in 1991, pushed Subaru into a corner to redefine itself.
At the same time, with little cash flow, it was preparing the launch of the new SVX, a six-cylinder, radically designed, $28,000 sport coupe, which was introduced in the 1992 calendar year.
These factors triggered a review of the Subaru advertising account, which had been at Levine, Huntley Vick and Beaver. The account was awarded to Weiden and Kennedy, an artsy agency that had built a reputation for creating powerful Nike sneaker ads.
Its staff of young, avant-garde art directors created a Subaru ad campaign that was visually striking, but it did not sell cars. Further, the TV and print campaign, designed by W&K, failed to sell SVXs (see chart). It did not cohesively define that model or the overall Subaru lineup, for that matter.
Another agency change
This failure caused executive shuffling at Subaru and triggered another agency review in 1993. When the dust settled, Temerlin McClain, an agency in the Dallas area, had won the account.
In contrast to W&K, Temerlin McClain had built a solid reputation for conservative, high-profile clients such as American Airlines. However, the agency would not be able to do anything noteworthy for the SVX because Subaru's parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, already had decided to kill the model. This decision was reinforced by the similar fate of comparable vehicles - Nissan's 300ZX and Mazda's RX-7. However, Temerlin was given an incredible gift by its client in the form of two decisions.
First, Subaru of America Inc. had made a decision, based partly on safety and partly on marketing, to import only cars with all-wheel drive. Second, it decided to move forward with production of what was deemed a risky vehicle. Named the Outback, the crossover vehicle would be a Legacy wagon with an exterior treatment to give it a more muscular appearance.
A new direction
From day one, Dennis McClain has led the Temerlin creative teams focusing on the Subaru account. The agency began living up to its reputation for solid creative work by defining the Subaru lineup with the tag line, 'The beauty of all-wheel drive.' With that came the sub-head 'transferring power from the wheels that slip to the wheels that grip,' which helped explain to the consumer a complicated system in an uncomplicated manner. This statement became the core of the Subaru message.
Meanwhile, Australian actor Paul Hogan, best known for his lead role in the Crocodile Dundee films, was chosen as the company's spokesman. Hogan's role was to make consumers feel safe and secure in Subarus.
Internally, crossover vehicles such as the Outback would be known as hybrids, and those such as the Legacy GT would be categorized as performance vehicles.
The advertising position for hybrids continues to be 'a focus on the destination and perhaps the adventure,' notes Tony Balmer, account director at Temerlin McClain. For performance vehicles, it's not so much the destination but the drive itself, he says.
Challenging VW, Acura
Now Subaru stands on the brink of a new chapter in its history. It is taking an 'evolutionary, rather than revolutionary step,' by introducing the hotly awaited WRX sports sedan and wagon, says Subaru Communications Manager Rob Moran.
This Impreza model takes Subaru into the high-performance arena. With 230 hp and a base price of less than $24,000, it presents a challenge to the likes of the Volkswagen GTI and Acura Integra GS-R.
The WRX will be available as a sedan or a wagon, with expected sales weighted toward the sedan. The challenge for Temerlin is how to work magic with the WRX while defining its relationship to the rest of the Subaru lineup.
Subaru plans to devote at least 20 percent of its approximately $112 million advertising budget to the WRX. Temerlin is focusing its campaign on a cross-section of people, younger males particularly, through a broad range of TV and print media buys, including ads in traditional enthusiast magazines and non-enthusiast magazines such as Men's Health and Esquire.
'We want to target born-to-drives, as they are called,' notes Glenn Geller, Temerlin's executive director of planning and research.
For the WRX, no spokesperson will be used. Instead, the focus will be on the experience of driving the car.
'The TV ads will provide the viewer with this experience, while the print will support it in terms of facts and figures,' Geller adds.
One can look to the past to Subaru's launch of the SVX nearly 10 years ago and see the treatment of the vehicle as almost a stepchild. Today, Temerlin believes it has a formula that allows Subaru to present a unified image to everyone, while showing off the WRX to those who want to take a few minutes longer getting home on back roads.
The 'beauty of all-wheel drive' will continue to be the message for all vehicles,' Balmer says, 'but the WRX will particularly highlight performance through all-wheel drive with messages like a winning history in rallying.'
He says advertising direction for hybrids will 'stay the course.' We'll keep an eye on how it takes shape.