As media buyers and network ad sellers enter their second month of stalled negotiations in this year's TV upfront -- the time when marketers spend as much as 80 percent of their annual TV budget -- advertisers such as Subaru will be approaching the marketplace more prepared than ever this year.
The carmaker will come armed with a months-long strategy to break the impasse and sign ad deals to secure its vehicles key product placements and integrations into upcoming shows.
The Japanese automaker and its Minneapolis-based media agency, Carmichael Lynch, have adopted a reverse approach to the upfront since February 2008, working with a TV budget that accounted for a little more than half of the automaker's $195 million measured media spend in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
That total was down nearly 10 percent from 2007, a sign that Subaru is spending more on integrated marketing deals with TV networks, which aren't always measured in spot advertising by TNS.
Next week, Subaru's Impreza WRX gets a co-starring role on Syfy's "Eureka," which returns for its fourth season July 10. The vehicle will be featured in several episodes as the high-tech replacement for Tabitha, an old jalopy of one of the main characters. Subaru will also have a custom microsite at syfy.com/Subaru.
Following last year's success
The new deal follows the success of last year's upfront meetings, which yielded about a dozen key partnerships, including integrations and customized vignettes for Animal Planet's "Groomer Has It," History's "Expedition," National Geographic's "Dog Whisperer" and Sundance's "Eco-Trip with David DeRothschild." And later this year, the Impreza WRX STI will be integrated into AMC's all-star remake of 1960s spy drama "The Prisoner," featuring Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel.
Kevin Mayer, Subaru's director-marketing communications, referred to this so-called reverse upfront process as "speed dating." For the past two years, the automaker has been meeting with the sales and marketing teams of key network partners, giving each one 45 minutes to present their ideas to Subaru in Manhattan.
"We wanted ideas instead of them [the networks] telling us who they were and how much they've grown," he said.
Mayer said the strategy "gives us a head start" and much earlier integration into programming with more impactful opportunities. "It gives us one-on-one interaction with them and lets us be more efficient instead of three months of negotiations back and forth and then getting to the ideas."
Traditionally, the TV upfront marketplace has not been a place for "big ideas" to be discussed, lest they get in the way of efficiency plays and price-point negotiations. But increasingly, marketers are using the months leading up to the upfront to put their biggest integrated marketing ideas into motion, hence a reverse upfront strategy that was implemented by Unilever for its $499 million TV budget.
Shari Weisenberg, Syfy's VP-strategic marketing, said the network was looking for a car that had a built-in consumer following, with a brand and agency team willing to find ways to make the product work within the scripted show's storyline.
"They have a good understanding of who their car buyer is, so it really allowed us to be creative with the execution to reinforce the brand positioning," she said.
Push for advanced car-launch plans
Subaru's reverse-upfront strategy has also forced the brand to think aggressively about which new vehicles will be ready for consumers to purchase, often months if not entire years before the show hits the air. In the case of "Eureka," Subaru had to ship two identical versions of its 2009 Impreza WRX to the show's Vancouver set before the car had even hit the lots of its dealerships, said Neil Goodspeed, Carmichael Lynch's group-director, brand engagement.
That advanced planning may ultimately work against some of this year's deals, as stalled upfront negotiations have prevented any of Subaru's 2009 reverse-upfront deals from being transacted.
"Right now there are a few things that, if it continues to stall, we might not be able to do because the timing might get away from the model we had in mind," Goodspeed said. But so far, "I don't see any major issues with production timelines. Everybody kind of expected things to be slow-moving."
Subaru's Mayer declined to reveal which TV networks or programs Subaru is interested in this year, saying only that "we have opportunities with new programs." He disagreed that the upfronts are stalled, however.
"It's quite active. I think it's going to be an aggressive year -- both ways. As an advertiser, we expect our dollars to work harder for us than in the past."
Subaru also comes into this year's upfront in a position of relative strength, having just reported a U.S. June sales record on July 1 tallying new-vehicle sales of 18,620, or 3 percent higher than a year ago. For the half-year, the marketer posted sales of 93,306 units, just a 1 percent drop vs. the same period a year ago, and among one of the best performances in the industry.
Goodspeed expects the brand to spend at levels "comparable to last year," particularly as post-campaign metrics start to come in from 2008's integrated deals, many of which are halfway through their initial airings.
"We've realized this is the timeline you have to follow to get good things done," he said. "It puts the ideas in front of the budget decisions."
So far, the strategy seems to be working -- two of Subaru's fourth-quarter 2008 integrations yielded positive brand metrics. The carmaker's vignettes for NBC Universal's Green Is Universal promotion posted a 21 percent increase in ad recall, a 29 percent gain in brand favorability and purchase intent lifted by more than 20 percent. The Green Week vignettes were also recalled 46 percent more often than typical 30-second Subaru spots, and yielded a 67 percent increase in brand recall.
An integration into Spike's "Scream Awards" in October produced similar results. Unaided top-of-mind recall went from 2 percent to 12 percent, while Subaru was deemed twice as likely to be recalled than competitors that ran advertising without a partnership.
Jean Halliday contributed to this report