In mid-2009, a 30-second advertising slot opened for an upcoming broadcast of “Dog Whisperer,” a reality show on the Nat Geo Wild channel that was sponsored in part by Subaru.
Subaru’s advertising agency, Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch, had complete creative freedom to figure out how to fill it. One option, recalls Randy Hughes, the agency’s executive creative director, was a type of public-service ad where “Dog Whisperer” star Cesar Millan would use a Subaru to, say, demonstrate how to properly secure a dog in a car.
But Hughes wanted to make a car commercial instead.
“It was a no-lose situation,” he said. “We didn’t need to have a meeting. It was just, “Let’s figure out something to fill this.’ We wanted to celebrate dogs and what it means to be a dog owner.”
The result of that brainstorm was a subtle ad featuring a dog struggling to parallel park a Subaru, and an oddball tag line — “Dog tested. Dog approved.” It was a marketing turning point for the brand, kicking off an enduring TV campaign that has helped cement Subaru’s powerful connection with dog lovers.
In all, Subaru has made 32 different spots starring 36 different dogs. The formula has been consistently unorthodox: a series of everyday driving scenarios — fast-food drive-through, supermarket parking lot, airport pickup — where dogs do the driving (and a few cats appear as foils). There’s no voice-over, just the occasional bark or growl.
“There’s not a lot of product mentioned; there are not a lot of details or comparisons and all of the trappings of normal automotive advertising,” said Alan Bethke, senior vice president of marketing at Subaru of America. “It’s connecting with people. We want it to be brand-specific and model-agnostic. It can apply to any model in Subaru.”
Hughes said the spots have “cut through the clutter” and clearly distinguished the brand. “People ask me what I do for a living,” he said, “and when I tell them I sell cars for Subaru, they ask, “Do you make those dog commercials?'”
The campaign was born on a whim, but it fit the brand. About 66 percent of Subaru owners have a pet, Bethke said, and of them, 71 percent own a dog. For that reason, Subaru has had a long history of supporting animal charities. Since 2008, it has donated more than $16.5 million to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Subaru also has sponsored several studies done by the Center for Pet Safety since 2013.
Even so, Subaru runs a famously lean marketing operation. And for the first attempt to fill that 30-second spot, the creative team at Carmichael Lynch faced a number of challenges. Because Subaru hadn’t yet approved, the agency had to make the sample spots on a tight budget, with a short turnaround time and no guidance from Subaru.
Also, dogs don’t drive.
Hughes’ team had a weekend to shoot five 30-second vignettes and no professional actor dogs to star in them. So they had to improvise. They used vehicles that Subaru had given the agency to drive. A writer and art director at Carmichael Lynch cast their own pet dogs, Olive and Zelda, to star as the driver and passenger.
“One of the guys grabbed a camera, and we just made some stuff up,” Hughes said. “We didn’t get permission. We didn’t do storyboards. There were no meetings. It was an experiment.”
Perfecting the illusion of dogs driving required some clever camera work.
“It’s what you don’t see just outside of frame,” Hughes said. “Here’s the dog shifting the gears. Well, if you widen out one more inch of frame, you’d see the art director pushing the dog’s paw.”
In another, the art director lay on a fully reclined driver’s seat operating the pedals while his dog was on his lap, Hughes recalls. (Dramatization. Do not attempt.)
Later that summer, Hughes and his team flew to Subaru’s U.S. headquarters in Cherry Hill, N.J., for a meeting with its marketing leaders. There, Hughes pitched the driving-dog idea as a broader campaign and showed them the sample spots his team had created.
“I was anxious,” Hughes said. “I thought this was gold, and I hoped they’d see it. But it was pretty nontraditional.”
When the lights came on, “the room just erupted,” Hughes said, and Subaru wanted to see more. “You don’t really have to argue when you can feel it, and you know that’s some really positive energy.”
‘Unique and disruptive’
The first TV spot, “Parallel Parking,” aired during “Dog Whisperer” in February 2010. Subsequent commercials were posted online first and later ran during other animal- or outdoors-related TV programming.
After that, Subaru expanded the campaign to more mainstream TV networks and introduced a family of dogs known as the Barkleys, who returned this year for a new series of ads ahead of Super Bowl Sunday.
Subaru will continue expanding that distribution, Bethke said, as the brand seeks more conquest sales. About 61 percent of its new-vehicle retail sales are made to conquest customers — those from other brands. In 2013, that figure was 59 percent, he said.
Bethke believes the “Dog tested” campaign has helped boost sales at Subaru, which has been riding a streak of sales and market share growth since 2007, just before the campaign started. At the end of 2015, Subaru’s market share stood at 3.3 percent, up from 1.4 percent in 2008, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
The spots are “captivating, unique and disruptive,” Bethke said. “They did what we were looking at them to do, which is show Subaru as a brand that is around pets.”
Hughes believes the campaign works because it is authentic. It reflects what Subaru stands for based on its work with animal groups and its customer base of outdoor enthusiasts and animal lovers.
“I get two or three phone calls a month where people … say, “Thanks for doing these ads; I really appreciate it. I’m going to buy a Subaru,'” Hughes said. “It’s crazy, but that’s what they do.”
Read the article in Automotive News here.