These days, a brand-agency partnership lasting, say, five years is impressive. Yet, at 22 years, Subaru and Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu’s working relationship has lasted a small lifetime. We take a look at this year's long-term agency partnership winner.
Subaru and Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu’s relationship started back in 1996 when Subaru New Zealand was in the midst of a major crisis. Sales had collapsed and millions of dollars of losses were piling up. The marque was near to closing its doors and Subaru’s international owners stepped in, ring both the senior management and incumbent agency.
The owners then made Wal Dumper, a markerter who'd only joined the company a few weeks earlier, the boss. They let him hire a tiny new advertising start-up to help turn things around: Barnes, Catmur & Friends.
Working under pressure, Dumper and the new agency had to put their heads together to come up with a plan to save Subaru New Zealand.
The agency decided Subaru needed a marketing-led strategy rather than a sales-led mentality and encouraged Subaru to take a risk, celebrating its point of difference.
From a marketing-led perspective, if Subaru was different and took a different approach from other automotive brands – great. Unlike the autobahns of Europe or the urban freeways of the USA, New Zealand has beaches, mountains, forests and rural roads all packed together with four-seasons-in-one-day-weather conditions.
With a landmass the size of Japan or England, but with a small population, one in every three kilometres of New Zealand roading is unsealed. Which led to the founding idea – Subaru’s go-anywhere All-Wheel Drive system, which was a perfect t for New Zealand’s unique landscape.
This was a bold move when 97 percent of the market, and 50 percent of Subaru’s sales, were 2WD and only three percent of consumers drove any kind of AWD.
But there’s something about embracing your differences that inspires confidence. The new advertising relaunch ‘Total Control’ focused on the new AWD-only position and brimmed with confidence. The headlines were bold and the visual language raw and grainy, versus the glossy, over-retouched imagery normal in the industry.
For the next two decades, Subaru pursued the same fundamental strategy of an AWD focus and a New Zealand connection, coming up with a range of creative executions with the AWD theme.
Each has been different enough to capture the consumer’s interest, yet aligned enough to keep building brand equity.
Once it changed its approach, consumers flocked back, and soon the brand was selling 200 percent more vehicles with only 40 percent of the dealers, confounding conventional auto wisdom. The brand's upswing also drove a massive lift in used imports too, with Legacy soon becoming the most popular wagon in the nation.
Back in 1996 the term SUV or Sports Utility Vehicle barely existed. Now it’s the fastest growing category in the automotive market, and Subaru is benefiting with record sales year after year. It goes to show that if your long-term strategy is right, sometimes the consumer will move to meet you, rather than the other way around.
Dumper, still managing director of Subaru, attends most agency meetings and works closely with Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu (the agency was bought by The Dentsu Aegis Network in 2016) founder Daniel Barnes and the rest of the team.
The brand has a Grand E e on its shelf, and other Subaru New Zealand alumni have gone on to win accolades like New Zealand Marketer of the Year, while Subaru was also a winner of the Automotive category at the 2016 TVNZ- NZ Marketing Awards.
With new agencies starting up all the time and vying for the attention of big brands, Subaru seems to have followed the wise old saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t x it’.
Long-Term Agency Partnership
Subaru and Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu
J H Whittaker & Sons/MBM, Mercury/FCB, RUN/Niue Tourism, Smith&Smith®/Belron®/Media Co Global/Mime Analytics, TRACK New Zealand/Air New Zealand, Trustpower/Gunroom.