How Subaru Fell in Love and Never Looked Back

The automaker rides the relentless optimism of its Carmichael Lynch ads to record sales

Headshot of Tim Nudd

IDEA: Subaru owners knew it almost before the company did. It was always about love.

"If you ask a Subaru owner what they think of their car, more times than not they'll tell you they love it," said Alan Bethke, director of marketing communications for Subaru of America. "It was always in front of us, but never utilized in the marketing."

That changed five years ago, when Carmichael Lynch launched work with that simple theme: "Love." In the years since, the ads have told poignant stories across the four thematic pillars—longevity, safety, versatility and adventure—that resonate with the target, defined as doers deeply engaged with life, others and the world.

The automaker is particularly adept at father-daughter tales—like "Baby Driver," the Emmy-nominated spot from 2010, and now "Cut the Cord," about a girl's first day of school.

The results are impressive. The Japanese company has doubled U.S. sales in five years, and in March had its best U.S. sales month ever. "It's a testament to the great work happening all around the company," said Subaru spokesman Michael McHale, "but notably, I think, in marketing."

COPYWRITING: The writers try to find slice-of-life stories that humanize what those four themes mean to everyday people. Often, the ads are about life stages—in "Cut the Cord," a dad puts his daughter on the school bus for the first time, then drives alongside it to make sure she's OK.

"That's a trying moment for anyone," said Carmichael executive creative director Randy Hughes. "He buys the safest car money can buy. And then he has to put his daughter in someone else's hands."

The dialogue is minimal—small talk, mostly improvised. (Having the scripts be loose allows more truthful moments to emerge, the agency believes.) "I'm overprotective. That's why I got a Subaru," the dad says in a voiceover. "Love. It's what makes a Subaru, a Subaru."

The word "Love" appears—the letters stable at first, then cartwheeling joyfully around. It's followed by the Subaru logo and global brand statement, developed in Japan: "Confidence in motion."

FILMING/ART DIRECTION: Vince Squibb shot the spot in a day in Long Beach, Calif. He had a meticulous eye for detail, particularly with costuming.

"Wardrobing that little girl and playing up her classic look—she has a timeless quality about her that's pretty charming—that was a really good move," said Hughes.

The whole campaign has a brightness and warmth, rooted in realism. "These stories make you feel good in some way," said Hughes. "Sometimes they make you want to cry, but in a good way."

TALENT: The girl has a remarkable presence. "She was so measured. It was amazing," said Hughes. "We're saying, 'Just look a little scared,' and she had a way of doing it that was very natural. We didn't get 100 takes like this one. The little crinkle of her face was just right, and a shock wave goes through the set, and you know you got it."

The dad exudes pain and love. "He's a professional," said Hughes. "He's got a suit on, he's got a nice Legacy, he's going to work. But this is an important moment, and he goes with it. And your heart goes out to him as he reacts to her."

SOUND: The song is "Keep Me in Mind," by Tashaki Miyaki. The lyrics fit perfectly, if obliquely. ("I want to be the one that's on your mind/I want to be the one that's by your side.")

"We look for tonality that is part of the emotion we're trying to bring forward," Hughes said, "and then lyrics that help the story get a little bit richer."

MEDIA: National broadcast and cable, spot TV buys in key markets, and online.



Client: Subaru

Agency: Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis

Chief Creative Officer: Dave Damman

Exec Creative Director: Randy Hughes

Copywriter: Conn Newton

Art Director: Michael Rogers

Director of Integrated Production: Joe Grundhoefer

Executive Senior Producer: Brynn Hausmann

Business Manager: Vicki Oachs

Account Service Team: Andy Gorski, Kristen Stengel

Production Company: Gorgeous

Director: Vince Squibb

Executive Producers: Paul Rothwell, Jeff Baron

Line Producer: Rupert Smythe

Director of Photography: Alwin Kuchler

Editing House: The Whitehouse

Editor: Russell Icke

Assistant Editors: Stephen Dunne, Shane Reid

Online Artist: Steve Medin, Volt

Telecine: Sean Coleman, Company 3

Audio Mix: Carl White, BWN

Sound Design: Carl White, BWN

Song: "Keep Me in Mind," Tashaki Miyaki

Music Company: Mixtape Music Ltd (London)

Music Supervisor: Jonathan Hecht

On-camera talent: Marcus Nelson (dad), Daisy Wetherholt (daughter), Jianna Wiliams (daughter' friend), Casey Adams (dad driver double)

Voiceover Talent: Justin Beere (announcer), Marcus Nelson (dad VO), Lauren Whitcher, aka Paige Stark (singer)

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.