The Greatest ‘Love’ of All1 Dec, 2014 By: Thomas Haire Response
Alan Bethke says Subaru’s campaigns capitalize on a combination of an adored brand and an expansion of direct and digital efforts.
“Building the Subaru brand for the long term, while at the same time ensuring there is enough mid- and short-term demand to provide the opportunity to hit the sales targets, is important,” says Alan Bethke, vice president of marketing for Subaru of America Inc., the automaker based in Cherry Hill, N.J. “Direct, digital and data-driven marketing allows us this opportunity. They are effective and measurable media that are an important part of Subaru’s media mix.”
That Bethke and Subaru would be leaders in including these more measurable facets in the branding campaigns for the company’s line of cars isn’t surprising. Since Subaru first arrived in the U.S. in 1968, the company has always done things a little differently — and, one could say, a little more intelligently.
Bethke has been with Subaru since 2003, working his way up the sales and marketing team to his current leadership role. Prior to that, he spent time with American Suzuki Motor Corp. and Maytag Corp. His vast array of experience has taught him the importance of driving a return on investment with each marketing dollar.
And nowhere has that focus helped more than with Subaru’s current “Love” brand campaign that began in 2008 and continues to drive Subaru’s sales to new heights. The two most recent launches in the campaign are for the company’s new 2015 Legacy and Outback models.
“The launch of both carlines included a highly coordinated media plan, including direct, digital and data-driven marketing to current Subaru owners, prospects and competitive owners, designed to help build awareness, favorable opinion and demand for the new products,” Bethke says.
A Growing Reach
When the Subaru 360 hit the U.S. market in 1968, priced at $1,297 and — the company admits on its own website — ugly, not many knew what to expect from the Japanese automaker. But, it turned out that Subaru’s vehicles — along with fellow Japanese imports Toyota and Nissan (then known as Datsun in the U.S.) — would help lead a transition from the American-made gas guzzler to the smaller, more economical and reliable vehicles that dot our highways today.
The company has long been a leader in providing value for the consumer’s money, banking on award-winning reliability and its product lines’ growing flexibility. From small sedans to an impressive array of intriguing all-wheel-drive vehicles, Subaru earned itself a special niche among American car buyers during its first four decades in the U.S.
When Bethke arrived at Subaru in 2003 — as a district sales manager in South Florida — he knew from his prior experiences what it would take to move Subaru from that niche and into a bigger player.
“I started my career in sales, working as a district sales manager for Maytag Corp. My job was to increase the wholesale and retail sales results of local, regional and national appliance dealers,” he says. “I was responsible for well-known and premium-priced brands — as well as value-priced brands that had low awareness. This gave me a strong understanding of the need to create demand for a wide range of products.”
He moved to American Suzuki, also in a sales role — but began to gain more extensive marketing knowledge during his time there. “I started American Suzuki’s sales training efforts, a responsibility that bridged the gap between sales and marketing efforts,” Bethke says. “My responsibilities within Suzuki’s marketing department then expanded to include sponsorships, events and advertising production. Each responsibility in my career has built on the others and given me a well-rounded set of experiences.”
After succeeding in district sales manager roles in South Florida and Washington, D.C., Bethke transitioned to the corporate advertising department where he worked his way up to national advertising manager. In that role, with a budget of more than $100 million annually, he “directed the development, implementation and evaluation of Subaru’s national and spot market media plan.”
But it was when he became manager of marketing operations and planning that Bethke gained real experience combining brand marketing with direct marketing tenets for the company, as he re-evaluated the company’s dealer co-op advertising program to, he says, “improve market competitiveness and ensure return on investment.”
When he became director of marketing communications for Subaru, it remained more of a niche automaker, both in media spend and sales. But Subaru’s marketing underwent a change of focus, and his efforts became a part of pushing the company to new heights, especially in digital marketing.
Not only was Subaru honored with automotive marketing awards, but the company also saw a 30-percent increase in online shopping for its products, a 58-percent increase in traffic to Subaru.com, a stunning 719-percent leap in Facebook engagement, and — perhaps most importantly — a 20-percent increase in driving customer leads to dealers.
With those results as part of Subaru’s powerful marketing team, Bethke moved into his current role as executive leader of its $200-plus million annual marketing and advertising budget. He manages a department of more than two-dozen people that have operated the company’s successful “Love” campaign that debuted in 2008.
A ‘Love’ of Measurability
“Subaru has always had strong product offerings, especially when it comes to core values, such as safety, longevity and capability,” Bethke says. “But while the products themselves were very competitive, the Subaru brand — for many years — was not well defined or well known. That started to change in 2008, when Subaru completely revised its marketing strategy and communications process.”
What that meant, according to Bethke, was defining a new brand strategy that included “speaking about the emotional, as well as rational, reasons for owning a Subaru.” It also meant hiring a new ad agency — Carmichael Lynch — creating a new campaign, revising media plans and implementing new processes.
“As part of the media effort, Subaru dramatically evolved its media mix and began focusing more on digital, mobile and data-driven marketing,” Bethke says. “The effort targets consumers based on where they are in their purchase process and delivers an appropriate communication for them.”
He adds, “Subaru uses data and intelligence to target these customers and optimize communications for better performance. Digital marketing has become incredibly important to Subaru and now represents a substantial part of the overall marketing budget. It’s an ever-increasing and viable way to target consumers.”
All of this has taken place under the banner of the company’s “Love” campaign during the past six years. Designed to create a highly memorable, consistent and effective demand platform for Subaru, the campaign includes extensive trackability and measurability aspects on top of its impressive television branding efforts.
“Subaru’s ‘Love’ brand campaign continues to be the primary communication platform for the company — the idea that people who drive a Subaru ‘love’ their Subaru,” Bethke says.
And the campaign has been a smash success. “We created the highest levels of brand and product demand in company history, helping support record-high levels of sales, revenue and profitability — while utilizing record-low levels of customer incentives,” Bethke says.
Subaru has recorded five consecutive years of record sales and revenue during the campaign — and became the only automotive manufacturer with sales increases in seven of the past eight years. And the company’s reliance on the measurability afforded by direct and digital efforts has paid off handsomely, as well — Subaru’s media spend is ranked No. 19 in the U.S. auto industry, but because of its targeted success, the company’s sales have climbed to No. 9.
Driving a New Legacy
The latest launches under Subaru’s “Love” campaign banner are for the new 2015 Legacy sedan and 2015 Outback crossover SUV. The Legacy campaign launched on television and online in July, while the Outback campaign hit TV and the Web in September.
The Legacy campaign included three new TV spots, as well as extensive digital and data-driven support. “The all-new Legacy advertising campaign focuses on Subaru’s core values relayed into sedan form,” Bethke says. “With all-new safety and infotainment technology, as well as more interior room and trunk capacity, the Legacy offers customers a compelling alternative to a two-wheel drive midsize sedan.”
Meanwhile, two new TV ads for the company’s popular Outback hit the air more recently, along with accompanying digital and direct efforts. “The all-new Outback embodies adventure and the new campaign demonstrates how the Outback is ‘built to take you to the place you’ve never been,” contends Bethke.
Each campaign, though, came with its own challenges. “The launches were different because while the Outback is very well known in the U.S., the Legacy has relatively low awareness,” Bethke says. “So digital marketing really allowed us to tailor each launch to suit the needs of each car. While it’s still very early in each launch, the initial metrics and results look very promising.”
Promising results have been a consistent factor since Subaru’s marketing underwent that 2008 overhaul. Another consistent factor during that time: advertising agency Carmichael Lynch.
“Our agency of record, Carmichael Lynch, has been a critical part of our success,” Bethke says. “Subaru hired the agency late in 2007 and since that time, we have built a solid platform for the Subaru brand together. Carmichael Lynch is involved throughout, both in terms of creative and media, and has served as a wonderful resource for strategic, as well as tactical, development.”
Throughout the company’s recent success, however, Bethke says that the Subaru team says maintaining objectives and goals remains crucial to that success — and utilizing the tenets of direct and digital marketing continue to help more and more.
“Subaru has been using digital and data-driven marketing increasingly since 2008,” Bethke says. “With each initiative, we track and measure the impact and the results — with learning incorporated into our future plans. We see that ideas that connect to the customer’s passion points have done well. And as you move further toward directly targeting shoppers of other brands — or competitive owners — you might find that results from the program may diminish. That’s why, when determining your tactics, it is important to have clearly defined the objectives and goals of each initiative.” ■