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Subaru: A History of Advertising Excellence

Car advertising can run the gamut of wonderfully genius to utterly divisive. On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find the endearing message present in Porsche’s 2006 ad “Through Children’s Eyes” that boasts the child-like wonder that a luxury sports car can conjure up. On the other end is the ad campaign that Chevrolet has been running for the past couple years showing “authentic” reactions to new models of vehicles and industry awards they have earned. The irony here is that the reactions have been edited so neatly that any actual earnestness that should be present is gutted for time and content. This is where Subaru has consistently deviated with their advertising in their history.

Subaru first entered the US market in the 60s with the 360. This vehicle was known for its efficiency but not exactly for its aesthetic. That’s putting it lightly. The car was a major eyesore. But this is where Subaru did something brilliant with their marketing. Instead of sugarcoating the benefits of the car, they steered into the skid. Literally.

“Because it’s cheap and ugly, a little Subaru goes a long way to make you happy”

Their ad campaign at the time actually stated that their car was “cheap and ugly”. That’s a brave statement to make about your product. But the draw is still there. Even though people get a chuckle out of it today, the commercials are honest in a way that advertising is usually not. Only a few brands have been able to capture the same truly authentic message.

A good example of another car company that has taken from Subaru’s retro playbook is Smart’s ForTwo Offroading commercial from 2013. This ad shows how poorly Smart’s vehicle performs in an off-road setting. It thuds into an unfortunately placed rock and is brought to a punctual halt by a shallow creek. But Smart doesn’t care. That isn’t where their machine thrives anyhow. It transitions to an urban setting and a larger vehicle passing over a parking spot that is slightly too small to fit in. Then the Smart car bulldozes in and takes the spot with ease. All of this is accompanied with some delightfully dated nu-metal for a humorous edge. But the same message is there. Everything has its cons, but you’re better off knowing them upfront.

“Smart reveals that the hero doesn’t need to win all of the time, but just needs to win in the end.”

Now it’s worth auditing Subaru’s strategy in the modern age, where high-angle shots of cars driving down stretches of roads or dirt at high speeds with pulsing synth and a deep-voiced narrator dominate the industry. They currently are running a broad campaign called “Love” that focuses on the people using the car and the how it benefits them, not just on a logistic level but on an emotional one as well. The specs of the cars themselves are rarely touched on in an intrepid move by Subaru.

“Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

A fantastic example of this is their Impreza 2017 ad “Moving Out”. This commercial tells the story of a boy growing up before his parent’s eyes and heading to college with the family car. The vehicle itself takes a back seat to the people that own it as a toddler packs his bag to leave for school and by the time he reaches the car, he has grown into a man. It really tugs at the heartstrings in a very Hallmark movie-esque way. The dog aging from a puppy to a grey-jowled hound is the cherry on top.

This is only one of many of the ads in this touching campaign that Subaru has been running. While admittedly more refined, it does having something in common with the “cheap and ugly” roots of Subaru’s American marketing. The emphasis isn’t so much the car itself, but what the car will do for you, the people around you, and your wallet. That’s a welcomed fresh perspective in the automotive industry that other brands can and have learned from.

Keep on keeping on, Subaru. The roads ahead are clear.

Our Favorite Ads

For an ad to be effective, it should:

  • Be memorable
  • Resonate with consumers by ringing true and delivering a personal, meaningful message
  • Communicate how the product makes your life better, more productive and happier
  • Stand for values above and beyond the product itself
  • And be inextricably linked to the brand

Great campaigns help brands avoid being a commodity and instead push the view in to an experience that combines powerful, meaningful and inspirational messages that touch the audience. While it’s not an easy task, especially for larger brands, here are some companies we think are doing it right.

Here are a few of our favorite video ads:

For their latest series of ads, Johnsonville asks their non-marketing employees to dream up a commercial that they then produce. The writing is subpar, the jokes are bad, and talking animals even make an appearance, but the result is good for a chuckle and it highlights some unlikely, lovable heroes. The ads put faces to the name of Johnsonville: friendly, down-to-earth, neighborly faces. The guy could be my uncle. He could be your uncle. By the end of the ad, the viewer knows that “The Johnsonville Way” values its employee family (and creates delicious, woodland critter-approved sausage). You just might want a side of that for breakfast.

A father cleans out the family’s old Subaru Forester as he prepares to pass it on to his 16-year-old daughter. Each artifact he finds in the car triggers a memory of a moment he’s shared with his daughter— which then magically appears on the lawn. As the daughter drives off in the old Subaru, we’re reminded that you can fit a lot of memories into a Subaru, but there’s always room for more. It leaves you with a sense of value, reliability, safety and durability.

This ad is a master class in the art of restraint. There is not an extraneous word, graphic or sound. The sudden shift from an increasing crescendo of voices to both auditory and visual silence simply and powerfully underscores the ad’s message of the difficulty of finding the truth amongst the noise.

This ad is a pleasant reminder that marketing has the capacity to do more than provide positive light to a product. By taking a neutral stance and implementing an appropriate platform for civil discussion, it shuns the argumentative disposition of conversations on differences within echo chambers (and how widespread they’ve become) without even acknowledging them. While it could be seen as a bit exploitative, Heineken proudly states their position of consideration for all people. No two people are the same. Celebrate and understand the distinctions over a beer.

“June” is a power of one story that paints a beautiful picture of the sharing economy for the brand Lyft. One day June, a lonely widow, is out on an errand and her car, full of so many memories, is totaled in an accident. As a result she rediscovers her community and that life really is better when you share the ride. The story is moving and relatable, the art direction is incredible, and it illuminates the current interest in the sharing economy.

This ad echoes back a parent’s experience in a pitch-perfect parody. It touches on every parent’s sense that important moments are getting lost in the busyness of normal life. You feel that you have a duty to your children to preserve some memories of their childhood, but you don’t have time to do that well because you’re surrounded by children all day. It also addresses the tensions and frustrations of parenting without being overly negative. “So if you love your children, or think you someday might, try Chatbooks.” It’s funny, charming, and rings true with parents.

Share your favorite ads below, or find us on Facebook and let us know what you think. @mjmexperience

Demos and Documentaries

Some recent advice from ad man @malbonnington:

“Make demos and documentaries, not ads.”

This is vital advice for all companies to consider, including LASIK and cataract doctors and those in the vision industry. What does it mean to make demos and documentaries?

Demos: Don’t tell me about your product – show me your product. Show me how it works, how it makes my life better. Show me how clear vision will affect my daily life. Show me how you make surgery as safe as possible. Show me how you improve my outcomes. Show me how I can afford LASIK. Let me see the laser, the lens, the after-care shields. Show me, show me, show me. A demo allows me to become part of the decision-making process in a way that speeds up and increases my conversion.

Documentaries: Don’t tell me about your product – tell me about your customers, your patients. Tell me why they chose you and how you made their life better. Tell me why you exist, what drives you to be the best. Testimonies. Narrative. Drama, climax, catharsis, meaning. I want LASIK or cataract surgery because of who I will be AFTER surgery, not what kind of ASC relationship you have. A good documentary changes the way we look at the world. Rather than creating an “ad,” tell stories about clearer vision and share those stories with the world.

Nobody trusts advertising. Demos and documentaries build trust and brands.

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You Want to Advertise? You Need a Marketer

Although, nationwide, refractive surgery volumes are still relatively flat, many practices are finding strategic advertising efforts have a positive impact on their clinical and surgical caseloads. Some ophthalmologists believe that achieving higher volumes should be as simple as calling the cable station and asking for a bundled advertising package. This approach is dangerous, as it may not be a strategy for sustained growth. Why? There is a vital difference between advertising and marketing.

No matter what business you are in, the purpose of an advertisement is to make a logical prospect try your offering … once. Your team’s ability to capitalize on that single opportunity, in my opinion, is what separates those who believe in advertising from those who say it never works. Marketing, on the other hand, should be defined as the work your team does with every patient, every day, to deliver value to patients, build a positive brand identity, and spread the referral net for the practice. Marketing is operational.

Advertising makes a promise. Operational marketing ensures that this promise is kept for every patient, every time. Strong marketing is the foundation of effective advertising.

Operational Marketing

Implementing operational marketing is not easy. Prior to placing any advertisement, the savvy practice will have harmonized and optimized its phone team’s skills (see “Premium Practice Today,” June 2012 issue, page 60), its communication standards for each patient’s visit, its education of patients, financing (including payment options), and the consultation. A practice harmonizes these encounters by planning what is performed at each stage of the process and ensuring that all is in line with what the patient/customer should experience and feel. Optimization entails enhancing each individual staff member’s performance at every one of these opportunities throughout the customer’s experience. Because every stage of the customer’s experience is important to the definition of marketing, those who are developing the advertising should understand these components as well.

Advertising is often the responsibility of one person or group, whereas marketing is the responsibility of the entire staff. Every individual in the practice organization must assist in the development of the customer’s experience at the point of service. If everyone is acting in harmony, external advertising efforts can be kept to a minimum.

After building a proper operational marketing program, your practice may be prepared to advertise your offering to the external market. You may be targeting a market segment, referring group, a certain area in the community, or simply the people who are already walking through the doors. The kind of advertising you want to implement will determine the type of person you hire to handle the task.

With these strategic notes in mind, here are the key areas you should consider when hiring someone to handle your marketing and advertising.

Key Areas To Consider When Hiring a Marketer

According to Cindy Haskell, the former administrator, now marketing consultant to Gordon, Weiss, and Schanzlin Vision Institute in La Jolla, California, the following are required of any internal personnel in the role of marketing director/coordinator.

  1. Build your brand. The individual is responsible for overseeing the brand and message in all areas of delivery. Your brand is defined as what your customers say about you. To grow your brand, it is crucial to have consistent messaging throughout the organization.
  2. Coordinate advertising and marketing. The individual is responsible for coordinating the day-to-day advertising and marketing activities. The marketing director is also directly involved in the development, implementation, and tracking of the strategic marketing plan.
  3. Prepare a budget and conduct an analysis. The individual must be able both to plan and place advertising across modern media and to analyze the reach and effectiveness of advertising efforts. It is impossible to change tactics if you do not know what is working … or not.
  4. Perform research. The individual must be able to gather and analyze data on competitors, the community, and the marketing industry to properly position the practice.
  5. Use current patients. The individual will create and maintain a robust database of former and prospective patients, gather video and narrative testimonies, and use these local stories to build the brand of the surgeon and the practice.
  6. Run internal campaigns. The individual will use operational marketing principles to create positive internal campaigns targeting specific patient demographics.
  7. Gain referrals. The individual will develop a strategy to maintain and increase referrals from current patients.
  8. Create the website. The individual will manage and update the practice’s website to ensure effective and current promotion of the practice and the fulfillment of appointment and information requests. Increasingly for all surgical specialties, the Web will be the most vital portal for information and engagement with prospective patients.
  9. Develop patients’ education. The individual will design, produce, and distribute educational materials for patients customized for the local practice. Great education for patients delivers on the advertised promise to give them the best possible treatment and experience.

By paying attention to the center’s day-to-day operations as an extension of the marketing plan, your center can be sure that your paid external efforts will be maximized. Creating a role internally ensures that what is said in the advertisement actually matches the experience. Collectively, this combined marketing-operations effort will create new leads whose experiences match your promise in your advertisement.

Matt Jensen, MBA, is the executive director of Vance Thompson Vision in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a certified Experience Economy Expert. He is a member of the advisory board of Cataract & Refractive Surgery Today’s “Premium Practice Today” section and serves as an adviser to numerous practices and companies. 


This article originally appeared in Cataract & Refractive Surgery Today. Click here to download a PDF version.