Adweek’s 2021 Brand Genius Honorees
Adweek recently recognized 10 marketers who guided their brands with resilience and ingenuity when it mattered most. Alan Bethke, SVP of Marketing at Subaru of America Inc., was one of the leaders honored for this year’s Brand Genius awards.
The below was originally published on Adweek. Click here for the full article and list of 2021 recipients.
Americans hunting for a new vehicle last fall might have been surprised when visiting Subaru’s homepage. Instead of seeing the usual colorful shots of the automaker’s Forester, Outback or Crosstrek models, they instead encountered photos of Pogo, Wuzzle and Elmer.
They were dogs—and not just any dogs. Some were senior mutts. Elmer happened to be blind. Pogo was an amputee.
Welcome to Subaru Loves Pets month. Throughout October, more than 500 Subaru retailers held or sponsored adoption events, helping nearly 23,000 animals find homes. Almost one in five of the rescued pets were dogs with special needs.
Rather than hit the brakes on its philanthropic activity during the pandemic—an understandable reaction, given the catastrophic sales year 2020 turned out to be—the company was proud to do “exactly the opposite,” according to Subaru of America marketing svp Alan Bethke.
Subaru officially touts that it’s “more than a car company”—the pandemic, to Bethke’s thinking, was just another chance to prove it.
During its autumn Share the Love Event, for example, Subaru donates $250 to charities for every new vehicle purchased or leased. When combined with the brand’s retailer contributions, the 2020 donation totaled $26.2 million. Throughout the pandemic, Subaru and its retailers have also provided 150 million meals to Feeding America and 50,000 blankets to homeless shelters across the nation.
Subaru’s tried to provide some (safe) fun for customers, too. In October, more than 1,700 owners gathered in Costa Mesa, Calif., to form a line of vehicles that stretched two miles. The result set a Guinness World Record for the largest parade of Subaru cars in history.
If it was a peculiar achievement, it’s also one that reveals a genuine fondness for the brand. And that is no accident.
Fourteen years ago, stagnant sales and a revolving door of agencies seemed to have stalled Subaru’s prospects. As Bethke recalls, “We had very loyal and passionate owners—we just didn’t have very many of them.”
The solution was a campaign called “Love.” Developed with lead creative agency Carmichael Lynch, it tapped into the enthusiasm of Subaru’s customers, even as it put the traditional stuff of auto advertising—options, special discounts and so on—in the back seat.
The automaker hasn’t glanced in the rearview mirror since. Today, Subaru of America sells 600,000 vehicles per year—more than triple the rate sold prior to unveiling the “Love” campaign in 2008.
Under Bethke’s leadership, the marketing effort has evolved and expanded into other areas such as caring for the environment. But it’s never veered from its original vision.
“We try to be consistent,” says Bethke, whom Adweek honored with a Brand Genius award in 2017 for the brand’s support of the LGBTQ+ community, an outgrowth of the “Love” campaign. “Over time, we think that’s a key ingredient to help build an identity.”
Randy Hughes, executive creative director at Carmichael Lynch, compared Bethke and his approach to growing brand equity to a prudent investor who understands the virtue of patience. “We keep putting pennies in the bank,” Hughes says. “Now, 14 years later, our compounded interest is enviable.”
The tactic has certainly paid off during the past year and a half. When many companies trotted out “we’re in this together” messages and aspired to show the public a kinder, gentler side of themselves, Subaru’s reputation for compassion was already long established. And following a rough 2020, its numbers are returning, too, with Q2 sales up 20% over 2020. —Paul Hiebert