NEW YORK -- With some clever advertising on Google, Subaru used interest in a top competitor, the Honda CR-V, to reduce summer inventory of aging Forester crossovers.
How? It ran paid search ads on Google that appeared when online shoppers went looking for a CR-V -- ads that were easily mistaken for Honda listings.
The Subaru listings asked shoppers to "Compare CR-V vs. Forester." And when clicked, the listings took CR-V shoppers to a Subaru Web site, where they heard about the virtues of the Forester compared with its top-selling rival.
The strategy helped the Forester post three of its best months of the year this summer, said Dean Evans, Subaru's chief marketing officer, in an interview at the Automotive News Marketing Seminar last week. It also allowed Subaru to clear out inventory without rebates or other incentives that erode profits and residual values.
"The beauty of [a Google] paid search is that you put your money in until you get the number of leads you want. Then you just shut it off," Evans said.
Using competitors' brand and model names in search listings generally is frowned on. For instance, Group 1, a dealership group based in Houston, sued a Texas dealer who used a Group 1 store name in a paid search ad.
Honda spokesman Ed Miller said: "Whether they [Subaru] tried to game the system, they're allowed to do that. But we feel we have the best vehicle in the segment."
Evans said summer discounts to prepare for the new model year tend to erode brand equity. So Subaru turned to Google this year with a bit of digital derring-do despite the risk of Honda retaliation, which hasn't come so far.
"It's great, until they punch back," Evans said with a chuckle.
Evans, 44, is comfortable in the digital world. Before joining Subaru a year ago he was marketing chief for four years at Dealer.com, which manages Web sites for U.S. dealerships. He also has had marketing stints with Jaguar, Land Rover and Chrysler.
Evans acknowledges using a bit of sleight of hand to get Forester information in front of CR-V shoppers. The Forester ads popped up high on Google search pages whenever a shopper typed in the key words "Honda CR-V" during a Google search.
In effect, Subaru intercepted shoppers intent on getting more information on the CR-V, not the Forester.
Google's key word auctions were essential to Subaru's strategy. Google conducts auctions that allow interested advertisers to buy the rights to words and phrases.
Subaru bid $1 to $5 per click for the phrase "Honda CR-V" in markets across the country. When a searcher used that phrase, a Subaru listing, also called an ad, was presented to the shopper in a shaded box near the top of the Google search results.
Subaru paid the bid amount every time a shopper clicked on its ad and was taken by a link to the Forester Web site.
Evans said the campaign was cheaper than a TV blitz or sales incentives on the hood of each vehicle. He declined to specify what Subaru paid for the campaign.
The current-generation Forester is about 4 years old, while the CR-V was updated and restyled in the past year. Faced with that competition, Subaru needed an innovative marketing approach for the Forester, Evans said. The next-generation Forester is expected next year.
Honda's Miller said the hot-selling CR-V can stand up to comparison shopping with any other crossover. Through August, the CR-V in the United States outsold the Forester by 191,113 to 50,505.
That said, the Subaru campaign on Google had the desired impact. Subaru sold 6,956 Foresters in August, up 8 percent from August 2011.
Forester stocks also were reduced, Evans said. Subaru reported that the supply of Foresters on dealer lots fell from 65 days on June 1 to 47 days on Sept 1.