Don Durst – The change provoker

When Don Durst joined Subaru Canada four years ago as SVP sales and marketing, the Mississauga-based auto co did not stand out from the pack. Its overall

When Don Durst joined Subaru Canada four years ago as SVP sales and marketing, the Mississauga-based auto co did not stand out from the pack. Its overall share-of-voice in the category was only about 1%, consumers were unfamiliar with its products and it was importing advertising from the U.S. Something needed to be done to get Subaru into the consciousness of Canadian consumers, and Durst, who had 34 years of experience in the auto industry – 10 on the financial side at American Motors and 24 in marketing at VW/Audi/Porsche – turned out to be the guy for the job.

‘It was a wonderful company, and the cars were better than their sales would suggest,’ he recalls. ‘So I saw an opportunity to make a mark.’

In late 2006, Durst, president/CEO Katsuhiro Yokoyama, VP marketing and product planning Ted Lalka and advertising director Geoff Craig determined that Subaru Canada needed to hire the right agency partner – ultimately, Vancouver-based DDB Canada – and develop its own marketing.

‘Taking control of our destiny was crucial,’ Durst says. ‘It was sad relying on a U.S. strategy that didn’t fit in this marketplace.’

The team then organized focus groups across the country. ‘Don’s been inspirational in provoking change,’ says Mike Davidson, VP business unit director at DDB Canada. ‘Subaru is a conservative company, and it doesn’t have a boastful culture. Don wanted people to talk about it and look at it differently, so he instigated finding out what the hurdles were to getting people to consider Subaru for the first time.’

‘The craziest thing we found was that, even though Subaru had been in Canada for 30 years, people didn’t know it was a Japanese car,’ says Durst. ‘When we told them, their attitude towards the vehicle skyrocketed. So we needed to get that message out, but you can’t just put a Japanese flag in a commercial. We had to plant that seed without upsetting anybody.’

The team came up with a theme called ‘Japanese Plus.’ As Durst explains, ‘I came from a European brand known for driveability, and Japanese brands are known for reliability. But the thing about Subarus is that they’re a blast to drive. And that’s where we came up with this best-of-both-worlds thing: reliability without sacrificing driveability.’

In August 2007, Subaru launched the Impreza as ‘the Japanese car the Germans wish they’d made.’ The campaign, targeting young drivers, included TV spots showing tearful German engineers and the microsite, as well as banners, social media, print, OOH and direct mail. It helped create the most successful Impreza launch in the world, propelling Subaru Canada to 22% growth during the campaign.

Then the team turned to the Forester, which had been in decline for years. For the 2009 launch, they needed something eye-catching to go up against Toyota and Honda in the small SUV category. The answer, naturally, was sexy sumo wrestlers.

‘Subaru’s reputation was for great cars that were kind of boxy,’ explains Durst. ‘But the new Forester is also great-looking. So that’s where the idea of using ‘sexy’ came about, and employing the sumos with the tagline ‘Japanese SUVs just got a little sexier.’ And that’s when Mr. Yokoyama got brave. Because in Japan sumos are revered, like hockey heroes here. He had to sell his Japanese colleagues on it.’

The campaign – which included print, TV, radio and online – was a smash, helping shatter sales records for both Forester and the overall Subaru brand (up 23% in May-July over the previous year’s results), and push Subaru’s share of the small Japanese SUV market up five percentage points to 12% from May to July. Meanwhile, the 60-second ‘Car Wash’ video went viral, garnering more than 700,000 views and coverage in the New York Times.

Just as the campaign launched, Durst handed principal marketing responsibility over to Lalka and became SVP sales and after sales, but he remains part of the core team.

‘Don was instrumental,’ says Davidson, ‘One of his strengths is to not just accept the status quo, but push for bigger ideas and better work. And he’s helped transform that organization from people who make great cars to people who are also great marketers.’

Marketing team size: 4

Years at Subaru: 4

First job in marketing: GM at Porsche Canada

Professional highlight of the past year: Reaching an all-time yearly sales record

Marketing style: Breakthrough, humorous, on-the-edge. If you’re not pushing it, you’re not going to get noticed

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Overall winner: Andrew Barrett – Absolutely fabulous

Lisa Charters – The plot thickener

Jennifer Errico – The in-crowd pleaser

Carmela Murphy – The rock seller

John Cappella – The off-roader