Subaru's 15-year sales and marketing veteran Alan Bethke believes that there's value in both trying new things and staying consistent. And that's exactly what he did that led to his 2017 Brand Genius Award win. His leadership on the brand's "Love" campaign aided in moving Subaru from a small niche player to a major player in the U.S. Now, Subaru totes ten consecutive years of sales records, all during the "Love" campaign. Read on to hear what he's learned from this campaign, advice for working with agencies, and why the "little wins" are so important.
What have you been up to since receiving your award?
I’m happy to say that I’m still with Subaru of America, Inc. I’m a firm believer in the Subaru product, our brand, and our company culture. Since receiving the Brand Genius award, Subaru has enjoyed ten consecutive years of sales records and is the only brand in the U.S. automotive industry to do so.
What was most eye-opening or memorable, for you, in creating the campaign that earned you the Brand Genius award?
The most memorable part was the idea of how different and unique the Subaru “Love” campaign was compared to the rest of the automotive industry when it began in 2008. Historically speaking, and even today, automotive brands follow a very similar strategy of rational advertising that focuses on product features/specifications, competitive comparisons, low price/discounts, and sales events. For 40 years in the U.S., Subaru followed the same rational message – advertising just like all other automotive brands – and often struggled with an undefined brand and low consumer demand. However, starting in 2008, Subaru adopted a completely different marketing and advertising strategy built on a single key thought… Subaru owners love their cars. That idea led to an advertising campaign based on emotional, rather than rational, thinking.
After launching in 2008, the Subaru Love campaign is still going strong. The idea of “Love” for Subaru products [and brand], continue to be the main focus of our advertising and brand direction.
Any "aha" moments you can share?
"Focusing on “little wins” can build momentum..."
The proposed marketing strategy and message were an “all-new” direction and one that didn’t follow other brands. At the time, many internal stakeholders didn’t agree with the idea, but there was a small number of individuals that were passionate about the new direction and committed to making the idea a success. For me, the key learning experience is that it is not often easy or quick to change the minds of others, especially when the level of change pushes people out of their comfort zones and into uncharted waters. The difficulty to change minds is further magnified when the risk is high. In those instances, it’s important to communicate “little wins” along the way to start building confidence in the idea and to start to break down the objections or doubt of naysayers. Focusing on “little wins” can build momentum, which in turn can lead to support, and over time, belief.
What’s one thing that’s critical to a successful relationship between brands and agency partners?
In my experience, relationships with an agency are critical to success. As a client, we’re looking for the best work from our agency partners, so it’s important for us to think about what we can do to support that objective. What kind of a client do we need to be to get the best work? What kind of a relationship do we need to have with our agencies to get the best work? Having a strong relationship with an agency that builds into a true partnership is a powerful way to work together. A true partnership between a client and an agency can deliver great results, while also maintaining a strong sense of respect and trust for each other. Overall, it’s a pretty simple thought, but one that many clients and agencies fail to achieve.
What one piece of career advice would you offer brand marketers today?
"While it’s indeed important to not let a brand be stagnant, I think there is value in consistency."
Marketing is a complex recipe that is dynamic and always changing based on a brand’s current and desired state. As marketers, there is an ongoing tendency to want to change taglines, campaigns, messaging points, and creative ideas on a frequent basis. Essentially, to keep doing “new.” While it’s indeed important to not let a brand be stagnant, I think there is value in consistency. In essence, identifying what your brand stands for, and why, and then being consistent around those ideas.
If money or talent were no object, what would you be doing?
Three things come to mind. First, I would like to spend more time with my family. Second, traveling to memorable and unique places to experience life moments, and to have my kids be a part of those experiences. Finally, I’m passionate about cars, so anything related to cars would be fun, especially racing them!
When you’re not creating genius campaigns, where can we find you?
Work is busy and requires a lot of travel, so I try and spend as much time at home with my family when possible. I have three sons with my wife Julie, and it’s important for me to be a part of their life. The boys are all teenagers, so life is pretty busy with school, sports, and other activities. Most of our nights and weekends are filled with activities associated with the kids, but when there is a gap in the schedule, we try and get away as a family to help broaden their experiences.
What is your favorite quote?
One quote that has always resonated with me is from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right.” It’s a clear and simple thought, but a powerful one. The quote has meaning for me because I believe in the power of positive thinking and I strive to use a “can do” attitude. With the right attitude and hard work, anything is possible.