If you had told me a few years ago that a car brand could build a successful campaign around a selling proposition that it contains more love than other car brands, I’d have said, “No way.” “The category is too competitive,” I would have said, “and the promise is too soft.” In general, the claim that “we care” more than the next brand is virtually impossible to prove, even if there were some objective way of measuring it. A variety of car brands have touted their latest safety features (most of which are mandated by regulation) as evidence of their concern for our families’ safety. But that doesn’t prove that they love me, or my family, or even building cars more than the next guy.
Yet, four years ago, Subaru embarked on just such a campaign, and it’s working because it’s human and also very clever at presenting selling features as a subtext to its brand message. “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru,” has become Subaru’s de facto tagline, even though the older slogan, “Confidence in Motion,” shows up at the end of each spot. “Love” has helped drive a substantial increase in sales, which were up nearly 100 percent from 2010 to 2014.
Subaru has managed to take many of the clichés of advertising and pull them together into an effective body of branding work. There have been dozens of commercials, but some of the most memorable include the apprehensive father sending his daughter off solo for the first time in the family Subaru, where she appears to him and us through most of the spot as a five-year-old girl who is far too young to drive. There is a very funny spot with two parents and their daughter, together with a slightly dotty grandmother, who are searching for the tree under which the grandmother first met her husband. After much searching, grandmother and granddaughter find the tree and hug it, yes, literally hug it. Eventually the parents join in, but only patronizingly. And there has been a series of dog spots, which is a perhaps the most brilliant strategy of the entire “Love” campaign. In one of the most endearing we see a dog grow up and grow old through vignettes of annual trips to the family cabin. There is also a whole series of commercials where an eclectic group of dogs drive Subarus to various typical destinations, such as the beach, the store, and the gas station. They are funny, albeit silly, especially if you like dogs.
And here’s the sheer brilliance: I’m guessing about 100 million people in this country like dogs. That’s a lot of people. And these people want to take their pets with them when they travel. If Subaru were to come out with a campaign that said (to borrow from another great tagline), “We’re the ultimate dog driving machine,” they would risk building an image of a rolling kennel that could turn off other car buyers. Instead, the dog lovers component fits seamlessly into their overall brand concept, yet is the one element that sets it apart form the typical safety message of being afraid to send your daughter out on the road by herself.
Now, back to the point about subtext messages that I so carefully planted early in this rant. Subaru’s real message isn’t actually about love. The “love” concept is what gets our attention. The real message about the Subaru brand hasn’t changed in a long time. They are good quality, practical cars. They go just about anywhere (all-wheel drive). They hold a lot of stuff. They’re above average in safety. They’re durable and last a long time. Every one of these messages is present in the “Love” campaign spots. The dad, ultimately, has confidence that his daughter will be safe in the family Subaru. The road trip with grandma was a bit weird, but it was fun and comfortable going all over the countryside with three generations of family looking for a tree. The dog aged gracefully while the Subaru faithfully hauled it and everything else to their cabin over the years.
Subaru has had other taglines and campaigns that were about being practical. Years ago it was “What to drive.” For some time it was “The beauty of all-wheel drive.” More recently it was “Confidence in Motion,” which has remained the official tagline of the “Love” campaign. So, is the core of the Subaru brand really about love? No, but it’s what made a series of mundane claims more human and compelling. And their sales prove that it’s working.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.