Subaru Success: It May Not Be Love, But It'll Do

Last Updated Sep 4, 2009 9:22 AM EDT

Subaru has had record U.S. sales three months in a row, far outstripping the rest of the U.S. market overall.

In August, Subaru sales jumped 51.5 percent from the year-ago month, to 28,683. Year to date, Subaru sales are up 11.2 percent in 2009, to 143,828 after eight months, according to AutoData Corp. July's record sales were up 34.2 percent from the year-ago month. June sales were up about 3 percent.

Could it be love?

That is, Subaru's current marketing campaign, from Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch, with the tagline, "Love. It's what makes a Subaru, a Subaru."

I've said a couple of times now that I personally find the "Love" line smarmy and over-the-top, not to use a barnyard epithet. At the same time, I admit that the ads are memorable. I also agree that Subaru owners -â€" and I'm one -- really do seem to like their cars. For instance, many Subaru owners use their cars for outdoorsy activities that make Subaru's all-wheel drive relevant to them, and therefore worth the money. Subaru is smart enough to encourage and exploit that.

It's also relevant to point out that Subaru apparently is spending more money on advertising, so whether or not you like the tagline, magazine readers, TV viewers and radio listeners are hearing and seeing the brand a lot more, which raises its "share of mind."

On the more practical side, Subaru is also offering a long list of discounts, lease deals and low-interest financing on its web site. Presumably those are also playing a role, even though Subaru executives insist that by industry standards, their discounts are not all that high. Subaru also got a boost from "Cash for Clunkers."

But in addition to those short-term factors, Subaru also deserves credit for long-term smarts. For instance, the Subaru brand is on a roll in terms of new-car introductions, and those don't happen overnight. The all-new Forester crossover is a certifiable hit, with August sales up 75.5 percent. That's a great result, for a car that was introduced last year for the 2009 model year.

Industrywide, most new models hit a peak as soon as they are introduced, and then sales start deteriorating. Subaru also has an all-new Legacy sedan and wagon, which is historically its bread-and-butter model.

As I've also noted before, Subaru also deserves credit for finding a niche and sticking to it, namely all-wheel-drive passenger cars. In terms of hardware, the combination of all-wheel drive and a distinctive "boxer" engine, in which the pistons move side-to-side, instead of up-and-down, is really what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.

Subaru labored mightily for decades to get that message across, with only mixed success. What's new is that they seem to have figured out that what was relevant to consumers was how the hardware made them feel, rather than the hardware itself.

If it's not love, it's the next-best thing.