Subaru Embraces “Mediocrity”

Advertising Tweaks The Competition, But Will It Resonate?

Subaru has long cultivated its reputation as a brand for nonconformists. Its cars, with their all-wheel-drive systems and boxer engines, have always set the brand outside the technological mainstream, just as its marketing has often spoken to a devoted owner base at the niche level. But its latest campaign, called, “Mediocrity,” stokes the brand’s rebellious image with a scathing and sarcastic criticism of its competition.

The campaign includes TV ads but it’s mostly based around a website http://www.subaru.com/content/static/fightmediocrity/index.html that pretends to introduce the new 2011 Mediocrity, a car so boring that it’s only available in beige. The website may, in fact, set a record for using the most different shades of beige, a perfect complement for the most uninspiring vehicle you have likely ever laid eyes on. But this fake car, the Mediocrity, is actually a thinly disguised, previous-generation Kia Optima. And that’s what makes the whole endeavor interesting, that Subaru is so openly cynical about its competition, and by extension, the state of the midsize sedan market in general.

The website is actually quite funny, with plenty of clever stuff, like a quiz to evaluate whether or not you are right for the car. Questions include: “I think it would be fun to: A. Jump out of an airplane B. Weave a basket or two” and “I would like to be a professional: A. Volcano Diver B. Burlap Sack Manufacturer.” After I completed the quiz, I was told, “Unfortunately, the testing results show that you are not mediocre enough for the 2011 Mediocrity. We suggest the following tips to help take your mediocrity up a notch: Prune a Shrub, Stop Using Exclamation Points, Buy a Rock Tumbler, Detangle a Garden Hose.” Of course all this has to have a payoff for Subaru, which comes in a link back to the Subaru website that’s disguised with this kind of verbiage: “Or click here to drive a car more suited to your lifestyle.” On the Subaru site, there’s a video of the Legacy with the tagline “Fight Mediocrity.” While this is all fun and clever, I have my concerns whether quite a few people are going to get lost before they ever get to the Subaru site itself.

Beyond the website, there are three ads that seem to be in rotation right now. The first is simply called “2011 Subaru Mediocrity”.

The second is called “Designers” and feels like so many other car ads we have seen where the designers pontificate on their brilliance, but this one does it in reverse.

The last is called “Spokesman”. Again, another tried and true auto ad tactic done in jest.

The campaign is really anti-auto industry insofar as Subaru is poking fun at the hype that is typically associated with auto launches. You know what I mean, the ads where the announcer brags about the latest amazing innovation or styling element. (The premise is not entirely new, as you may recall Nissan Altima’s “The Cure for the Common Car” campaign.

But any anti-establishment concept like this is also wrought with obvious risk.

First, I have had more than one person ask me if the Mediocrity vehicle was a real car. Now I have to think that most would see the obvious parody, but one can never make too many assumptions when it comes to what people might believe. (Look at the world of politics if you don’t believe me.) Next is that people might be turned off by the parody itself and feel as though it is insulting. Then there are others who might actually believe that Subaru does not care or is not taking the business of making cars seriously.

Then there is the issue that while it may be fine to poke fun at the big boys — in this case taking aim at Toyota or Ford — it is not very credible when you are not next in line for the sale.

Subaru’s sales have actually done quite well over the past three years with 2009 being their best ever at 216,652 vehicles sold, which was a 15 percent increase over 2008. This year Subaru’s sales increases on a percentage basis are among the strongest in the business. Yet Subaru still barely scratches the top 10 automotive companies. In a market where there are dozens of new car entries, and much discussion of new car companies (think Tesla), Subaru rarely breaks through. And regardless of the clutter in the automotive space, Subaru has little brand consideration.

As marketers, one of our first goals is to get on the shopping lists, we call it the “consideration set,” of as many consumers as possible. The next goal is to get the customer to the dealership or at least to a website where the customer can price and equip a vehicle and hopefully request a quote or find a dealer. Unless you can get yourself on that shopping list, you struggle mightily. Subaru it seems, has been doing a decent job of gaining some traction, but when the competition is outpacing it exponentially, these slight gains may be insignificant. Subaru is not only not next in line to Toyota and Ford, but it is about eight slots away. So the believability factor for a vehicle that is not on that consideration set seems far fetched.

That said, I tend to see more of the positives in this campaign — but I am always going to give credit to the company that is not afraid to step out of the norm to make a statement and gain some attention for their brand. In this case, what does Subaru have to lose? They are admittedly at the bottom of the auto manufacturing pack in terms of sales and awareness. They have seen some gains in sales but are likely seeking far more than the incremental sales they have been achieving so far. They are also probably quite convinced that their current customer base, one that has a slightly higher level of education, disposable income and is geographically located at the edges of the country, will see the humor in this parody and will be all the more emotionally attached to the brand as a result.

At the end of the day, as with all ad campaigns, the success will be seen in the showroom. My prediction is that this will work in favor of Subaru, providing more attention and delivering a brand image of smart, funny, and out-of-the-norm. All of which are refreshing in the sea of sameness — the mediocrity — that we are often subjected to.

One comment

  1. Very good thoughts Julie. I agree that Subaru deserves some credit for doing something innovative and edgy. I also agree that copy on the site and the videos are really funny. One concern I have, however, is that Subaru’s designs over the years haven’t exactly been the most interesting and/or compelling. The base Impreza, Legacy, and especially the Forrester are pretty bland my most standards and the Baja was just plain ugly. While ugly isn’t mediocre, I’m sure that’s not the point of this campaign. In any case I applaud Subaru for doing this and I hope it’s successful.

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