How to do a great branding ad — Subaru scores with skier-focused print.

“Winter storm slams into Washington.”

“Travel advisory for the entire New England area.”

“Heavy snow accumulations across the Rockies.”

Subaru of America loves headlines like that. Every time a big storm

how to do a good branding ad

brings traffic to a standstill, the front page of the newspaper reads like a branding ad for Subaru.

Which brings me to an ad that I spotted in Ski Magazine some years ago. It was pleasantly simple:

“Snowstorm Advisory.
(More of a calling than a warning)”

Subaru.

No photo of the car. Just a dramatic photo of a lonely road in a blizzard. It’s taken in the first-person perspective, as if I’m sitting in the front seat on my way to the mountain.

That ad doesn’t just speak to me. It sings.

Hats off to the creative team that did that ad. And a round of applause for the client at Subaru who actually stood up against the industry convention and agreed to leave the car out altogether.

It takes guts to run a full page ad in a national magazine without showing the product. And I’m sure the dealers gripe about it, and say “it’s just a branding ad, it’s never going to sell anything.”

how to do a great branding ad

This is the type of product-as-hero image that every dealer wants in every ad.

But nevertheless, it works.

It speaks volumes about the brand, and it touches a highly relevant emotional chord with anyone who has ever driven through a blizzard to be first on the chairlift.

Besides, with a limited budget there’s a good, practical reason to leave out the product shot: The appeal is not limited to any one model of Subaru. It’s not an ad for the Outback, it’s an ad for the brand.

Just let them imagine whatever Subaru model they like. For a younger, California skier it could be a WRX. For a Birkenstock-wearing telemark skier in Vermont, it’s a Forrester.

By NOT showing the model, they actually sell every Subaru in the line up.

Damn right it’s a branding ad! You should be so lucky.

The Subaru ad reflects a genuine, empathetic understanding of the core audience.

Kevin Mayer, Subaru’s Director of Marketing, says his brand is as much about customers as it is about products.

Subaru caters to outdoorsy people of comfortable means who opt for function over fashion every time. It’s a well-targeted niche market of skiers, hikers and kayakers who need all-wheel-drive for navigating unpredictable roads. (Not surprisingly, most Subarus are sold in the Northwest and the Northeast, where there’s a lot of skiing, kayaking and hiking.)

But more importantly, “Subaru owners are experience seekers – they want to live bigger, more engaged lives,” Mayer, said. “To them, the car is the enabler of that bigger life. A conscious alternative to the mainstream.”

It’s obvious that the ski magazine ad came directly from that sort of crystal-clear consumer insight and brand strategy.

“We went back to the customer and started thinking again about their values and how our values are alike. We dialed in our strategies back to core,” Mayer said in a MediaPost.com article.

To me, the message is loud and clear… crummy, snowy roads can’t stop me from doing what I love.

In this ad, it’s benefits over features, all the way to the bank.

Karl Greenberg, editor of Mediapost said, “Subaru has the kind of brand equity and staunch loyalty you usually find in luxury marques, which means they can keep their message on product and brand, not on deals or features.”

Rather than running a headline that touts the features of a Subaru (ie the “symmetrical all-wheel-drive system) the ski magazine ad conveys the benefits of that system: Being in the mountains doing what I love.

While everyone else is stuck at home, Subaru owners are out enjoying life. Having fun. Missing nothing. It’s a message of empowerment wrapped in a warm, wintery blanket.

That’s what long term brand advertising is all about… connecting with specific groups of people in a relevant, emotional manner, time after time, after time. Until people start feeing like they’re part of the club.

Clearly the top executives at Subaru get it. They know their market. They’re clear on company values. And they’ve designed products that align perfectly with the brand, the message and the medium.

how to do a great branding ad

You couldn’t place that Subaru ad in The New Yorker or Parade Magazine, even during a snow storm. It would be out of context and off target.

When you see it in context of ski magazine, it doesn’t come across as hype. It’s as authentic as they come.

But no brand is perfect, and Subaru has had its share of flops, Like this ridiculous photoshop job on the right…

Subaru buyers don’t want to forget about winter. They want to embrace it. Be out in it. Conquer it.

Then there’s the granddaddy of automotive cliches:  A Subaru on a curvy road is not only off brand, it’s also downright generic… it reads just like any other standard, run of the mill car ad. That one’s definitely not firing on all cylinders.

how to do a great branding ad

Subaru’s foray into the luxury, upscale SUV market was a flop. Subaru CEO Ikuo Mori admitted that the “up market migration” with the B9 Tribeca hasn’t worked.

Too big and too flashy for that family of cars. Jim Treece from Automotive news said, “There is nothing especially wrong with the B9 Tribeca, except that it has utterly nothing to do with Subaru’s brand.”

Subaru enjoys tremendously high brand loyalty. Rally enthusiasts swear by the WRX. Forrester owners love the practicality.  And defacto brand ambassadors sell their neighbors on Subaru based on their own brand stories.

Which is the basis for Subaru’s excellent print campaign titled “Dear Subaru.”

Fantastic teasers! I want to go to their site, just to get more about these true stories. Two words and an intriguing photo of a car that’s not posed, polished and fake. That’s all you need for a brilliant branding ad.

how to do a great brand ad

For more about automotive industry branding, try this post.

If you’re thinking of launching your first branding ad, give me a call at BNBranding.

BN Branding

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