Tim Mahoney, Subaru

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In some ways, it looks like Subaru is filling the space of emotional safety positioning once owned by Volvo. One new TV ad appears to show a fortysomething father giving the keys to the Subaru to his 5-year-old daughter to drive. The payoff is that she is really college age and he still sees her as a child. The only car he would entrust her to is a Subaru. Mahoney likes to pair these emotional brand scenes with some of the third-party endorsements that keep coming Subaru’s way: top safety picks by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety for all of its cars, and MotorTrend Truck of the Year for Outback.

Unlike a lot of companies, Subaru is not investing big in social media or executing flashy online campaigns designed to get noticed by throngs. A trip to Subaru’s Facebook page, which has just 17,000-plus followers (compared with 105,000 for the smaller Lexus which also has an older buyer profile), says a lot about Subaru’s universe. There are posts about the Subaru Forester being the official vehicle of the Aflac Iron Girl Triathlon and its AAA award for being top brand among pet owners.

Subaru is not a Super Bowl brand by any means. Instead of buying time on the big game, Mahoney sponsored Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl, which shows a Yule log-like scene of puppies frolicking in a pen. Seven ads were created, each showing dogs in the Subarus behaving as people. Why? “Fifty percent of our owners are dog owners, and they love them like part of the family,” Mahoney says.

“Subaru has been practicing what I call the ‘Remember Who You Are’ marketing strategy, and few marketers in any category do it better,” says Los Angeles-based independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene. “Dish up one set of attractive, engaging, sensible set of values and messages consistently to the public over a long enough period, and they will trust your brand and keep coming back.”

And not just existing owners. Mahoney’s strategy is working on conquesting other brands, which is the only way to grow within a declining auto market. Sixty percent of Subaru sales this year come from stealing drivers from other brands. Mahoney notes that the recent designs of the Legacy, Outback and Forester were spot on for the American market. The new Forester design, launched in 2007 with a much more stylish profile, began attracting more approval from men. The new Legacy sedan and Outback SUV are taller and larger than previous models. And, he says, those models are benefitting from baby boomers and Gen Xers downsizing from truckish SUVs.

But Mahoney is not counting on those cars to sell themselves. When economic calamity hit the U.S. in 2008 and 2009, lots of advertisers reduced ad spending to lower costs. Not Mahoney. He not only jacked up his spending, but he also got more placements because media prices dropped. “I’d say that was our most important decision,” he says.

Subaru may be seen as the safe choice by many, but Mahoney has some gamble in him.