Subaru New Zealand managing director Wal Dumper was one of this year's TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards' finalists for the 'Marketer of the Year'. We had a chat with him about how the brand has changed in his time at the company, why he got into marketing and how he runs his team.
What got you interested in marketing?
I went to James Cook High School in Manurewa. To get pocket money, I groomed cars/motorbikes and sold motorbikes, parts and spark plugs, and ultimately cars. Through that journey I was fascinated by the why's and where's of how various brands got to places, and rather than keep selling I believed the best path was to try and influence how that brand could create emotive responses to make their products easier to sell.
Fortunately, I was exposed to some amazing opportunities during my career where I have ended up doing some great marketing and strategic planning courses that have been invaluable. My enthusiasm for branding and marketing as a whole developed and has not been dimmed by the challenges of being a managing director in a company with overseas PLC ownership. That just makes it a steeper learning curve but provides a global resource to learn from too.
Business is about people, so I pride myself on having great people around me. My natural bias is towards marketing so it's just logical that we have great marketing people at Subaru.
How has Subaru as a brand changed in your time there?
It has simply evolved with technology and the progression we have faced in the world. At the same time, we have tried to constantly innovate to be ahead of the 'wave' of marketing, and where we can't be on that wave we try to be fast followers.
Ironically, way back then Subaru had a brand image of being a bit 'old-worldy', so we purposely positioned Subaru as a Kiwi brand. However, in addition, we needed to create a unique selling proposition to give us a point of difference among all the clutter of the many automotive brands here. We chose to walk away from more than half our sales, and went 100 percent All Wheel Drive. That remains our USP today, so while the brand position has changed in perception, it is still a cornerstone of our marketing direction.
We learnt over all those years that you can't make something 'cool'. It has to earn that position on its own merits. Upon reflection, everything has changed but much of it remains the same.
Subaru will be moving towards hybrids and electric vehicles very shortly – we are excited about being part of the automotive revolution and the marketing challenge this poses. We just stay focused on how to brief the agency on making sure we deliver excellent creative and keep some of our core marketing agenda items as our guiding lights, such as remembering the journey is just as important as the destination and striving to meet challenges with a uniquely Subaru New Zealand approach.
What does your team look like?
Some people think we're a massive company with lots of staff – and budget – to do things like sponsorships and promotions. Subaru New Zealand only has 22 staff, from warehouse parts specialists through to myself. Subaru only manufactures about one million cars globally a year. We grasp this uniqueness and ensure that anybody who works at Subaru New Zealand must be a culture-fit person to the brand.
I believe I have one of the best marketing people in the auto world working with us. Our marketing team is led by Daile Stephens as marketing manager and Amie Mildon is our marketing and communications specialist. Multi-tasking is key in a company of our size so other members of the business work between the marketing and leadership teams.
What lessons have you learned over the past year in your role?
The last year simply reflects how exciting this business is. If you speak to someone in this business and they are not busy, my guess is they are asleep or exiting. Not a day goes by where you don’t learn something new. I am keen to see more marketers at senior management level so we get away from some of the boring CEO’s you see in the media prattling on about how tough things are. If we were led into the GFC by financial expert CEO’s, maybe it will be marketers who lead us out?
I want the next generation of marketing managers to know that being a managing director or similar is a natural career path step.
What excites you about the future of marketing at Subaru?
We dare to be different and we love driving cars. Here we are today and we face a future with potentially electric cars that don't need drivers – how on Earth could you not be excited about that marketing challenge? What excites me the most is the fact that there will be great people to worth with, and I don't know what I don't know. Let's also inculcate that the next generation of marketers have skills in abundance to face real life change.