A view from Dave Trott: Are we selling the forest or the trees?
A view from Dave Trott

Are we selling the forest or the trees?

In America in 1991, Subaru were small and they weren’t growing.

The problem was, compared to Toyota and Nissan, they had no image.

Subaru felt, in order to compete, they would need a similar mainstream image.

This is standard dumb, advertising thinking.

It never occurred to Subaru that Toyota and Nissan were many times bigger, and that copying them would just be seen as a poor imitation.

You can’t beat someone by copying them.

But Subaru wanted to look like the big boys, so they wanted advertising that made them feel like a big mainstream brand.

So that was Subaru’s brief to the ad agencies pitching for their account.

Each agency pitched with a strapline that would be the backbone for its campaign.

Wieden & Kennedy pitched with: SUBARU: WHAT TO DRIVE.


Warwick, Baker and Fiore pitched with: SUBARU. CARS THAT CAN.

Jordan McGrath pitched with: SUBARU. FOR ALL THE RIGHT REASONS.

WB Doner pitched with: GET REAL, GET A SUBARU.

WB Doner also pitched a second campaign: THE SUBARU STORY, IT NEVER ENDS.

Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver pitched: THE CAR THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR MIND.

All of those campaign lines were the product of consumer research.

They were all meant to reflect the type of driver who was right for Subaru.

Sensible, no-nonsense, practical, unpretentious.

So they made the car fit the audience, not the other way round.

They decided the audience were the brand, so they sold the audience back to itself.

There is one major flaw in that approach.

It gives the client a nice warm feeling because it feels like Toyota or Nissan advertising, but that’s exactly the problem with it.

That advertising could be for anyone – take out the Subaru name and you could substitute Toyota or Nissan.

And both of those brands have many times Subaru’s share-of-mind, so that advertising won’t change a thing in the market.

The agency that won the account was Wieden & Kennedy.

The advertising obviously failed, W&K were fired and so were the Subaru marketing department.

The new management woke up to reality – Subaru were not a mass-market brand the size of Toyota or Nissan, they were a challenger brand and had better start acting like it.

Nothing was going to change by talking about consumer image, brand advertising.

Product builds image, image builds brand.

They needed to talk about what made their CAR different from other CARS.

They hired a Texas agency, Temerlin McClain, who built a campaign around what made Subaru cars different: SUBARU. THE BEAUTY OF ALL-WHEEL DRIVE.

The ads demonstrated that Subaru is the only car, apart from Porsche, with a flat-six engine, a straight-line symmetric drivetrain, and all-wheel drive.

They reframed AWD as the ultimate safety feature because of its incredible road-holding.

Inside a year, the Subaru station-wagon was the best-selling station-wagon in America.

Within a decade, Subaru sales had increased 700%.

As George Muller, the new president, said: “It goes all the way back to the engineers who designed our product and why they designed it the way they did.”

Who would have thought selling an actual product would work better than selling brand?

But, as George Orwell said: “To see what’s in front of one’s nose requires constant struggle.”

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three