Subaru, the company that popularized all-wheel drive for the masses, faces a new challenge this year as it brings its first high-performance car to market in North America - the Impreza WRX, offered in two versions, a sport wagon and sedan.
Subaru is excited about the WRX for a number of reasons, chief among them the expectation that the WRX will improve sales performance in Sun Belt states such as California and Texas. And it may help fend off competitors moving in on Subaru's all-wheel-drive turf.
Working with a relatively small advertising budget of about $112 million, Subaru's vice president of marketing, Bill Cyphers, must get Americans to accept the concept of a Subaru high-performance car while maintaining the company's image as a maker of rugged sport-utilities. To do this, he plans to remain true to the core philosophy behind all of the company's marketing efforts. 'We market to lifestyles, not demographics,' he says.
Smaller role for Hogan
Cyphers' plan of attack can be summed up in four words: 'motorsports,' 'personalities,' 'promotions' and 'Internet.'
Cyphers plans to appropriate 82 percent of his advertising budget for TV, using well-known personalities to promote some of the models. In the past, Hollywood adventurer Paul Hogan has appeared in spots for Subaru's overall lineup, but this year Hogan will be dedicated to Subaru's Outback.
Female sports stars, such as tennis great Martina Navratilova, will speak for the Forester model because females make up 60 percent of Forester buyers.
The new Forester commercials won't represent traditional femalespeak such as cupholders or family matters. Navratilova, et al., discuss things such as limited rear slip differentials and all-wheel drive. There will be no spokesperson for WRX. (See story on next page.)
Ready to rally
In an effort to further separate the WRX from other Subaru models, the company plans to field an SCCA Pro Rally team here.
Cyphers believes no other motorsport demonstrates a vehicle's capabilities and durability better than rallying because rally competitions are conducted on real roads through snow, ice, sand, mud, gravel and dirt.
'WRX will help define performance on Subaru terms: the ability to perform in all types of weather and road conditions, inspiring drivers with confidence and control,' Cyphers insists.
Subaru has not competed in motorsports in this country but won the World Rally Championship three consecutive years - in 1995, 1996 and 1997. Subaru will dedicate about half of its nonmeasured media budget to racing.
Cyphers says 15 percent of the marketing budget will go into promotions.
Subaru is the official vehicle of more than 18 outdoor organizations, including the American Canoe Association, the National Ski Patrol, Professional Ski Instructors of America, Cross Country Ski Areas Association and American Association of Snowboard Instructors. Further, Subaru has forged strategic partnerships with the International Mountain Biking Association and the Rainbow Endowment, a nonprofit organization that funds causes related to the gay and lesbian communities.
Subaru also is the title sponsor of the Subaru Gorge Games, a showcase for amateur and professional outdoor athletes that includes mountain biking, kayaking, trail running, kiteboarding and windsurfing.
The 2001 Subaru Gorge Games, set in Hood River, Ore., are scheduled for July 15-22 and will be televised on NBC.
Cyphers admits that the payoff for these alliances is hard to measure, but he believes they create a great deal of enthusiasm for the brand. And, he says, the company is able to gather names and information of prospective buyers.
WRX goal: 12,000 sales
The WRX goes on sale at the end of March, and of the 26,000 Imprezas that Subaru expects to sell this year, Cyphers projects 12,000 of them will be the WRX.
According to Cyphers, Subaru fans actually broke into the Imprezawrx.com site before it was officially opened. As of the end of February, Subaru had taken more than 3,000 orders for the WRX online and 8,000 requests for brochures.
Subaru seems ready to meet the marketing challenge. In 2000, sales of 172,216 cars were a 10 percent increase over 1999. With new products and a solid marketing plan, Cyphers says 2001 promises to be even better.
'The biggest challenge here,' he says, 'will be education, specifically why the WRX and Subaru are different.'