Automakers eschew typical messages during COVID-19

A new ad from Subaru is the latest effort providing gratitude in a time when car brands are facing an inevitable sales hit.


Most auto manufacturers have suspended new vehicle production in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, research from IMI says 64% are less likely to make a major purchase – such as an automobile – over the next year than they were before the pandemic started.

With both supply and demand facing an inevitable slowdown, auto brands are using their marketing space to instead spread messages of togetherness and support for those who need it most right now.

Subaru is one of those brands, marrying the safety message that has been a brand pillar with a thank you for front-line workers impacted by COVID-19.

The brand teamed up with its AOR, Zulu Alpha Kilo for a somber ad using pre-existing footage and images of front-line workers. It begins by informing viewers that the automaker “originally paid to air our Subaru commercial in this time slot,” but instead recognizes and thanks those working in areas like healthcare and food for keeping Canada safe and fed.

Adapting to the current situation, it’s a break from Subaru’s typically off-beat messaging; however, the ad ends by recognizing these workers “bring us confidence,” a line it has usually used over the years for its own safety messaging.

Ted Lalka, VP marketing and product management at Subaru, tells strategy that Subaru had a strong campaign planned for March and going into April, focused on Impreza and Forester, but as concerns mounted over COVID-19, it “was the wrong time to promote vehicles and get people to go out and enjoy themselves, when the reality was very different for many individuals and for families.” But the media was already bought, and Subaru sat down to consider what message it would convey instead.

“We already bought this space, but wanted to change the message, and make it more appropriate for what is going on today,” Lalka says, adding that it came together incredibly quickly, put together in a week, total. He says the brand has also introduced a deferment payment relief for its buyers.

Subaru is one of several automotive sector brands that have adapted their communiques to better suit the pandemic crisis.

Agencies Smaller Agency and Someplace Nice, for example, teamed up to tout the joys of driving for Toronto-based luxury auto share service, RClub, which offers motorists access to a fleet of high-performance vehicles for an annual fee.

Noah Barlow of Smaller Agency, says it could’ve gravitated to a slicker approach promoting the luxury sports car service, but instead “focused on the bonding moments that happen with cars,” which he says “makes a much more interesting and heartfelt spot.” It also comes at a time when many Canadians are worried about both their finances and the economy in the fallout of the pandemic, and a luxury car service may not be the most urgent matter on their minds.

In the spot, a father comforts his young son by taking him out to pilot a remote-control car – but it ends with a twist suitable for RClub.

Automakers are also among the the brands that looking outside of advertising to offer some help during the pandemic. While some automakers have been called to use their manufacturing capabilities to build in-demand products like ventilators, Jaguar Land Rover Canada has made a fleet of its Land Rover off-road vehicles and drivers available to hospitals in Canada to assist in the collection of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – such as medical masks – that are in high demand at hospitals facing a shortage. Some consumers have these needed supplies at their homes, but in order to get them to a hospital without leaving the house, Land Rover is urging people to visit its website to let it know what it has on hand, and it will send a car to pick it up and deliver it to a hospital in need.

Volkswagen Canada has also been working with Dillon’s Distillers, one of several alcohol makers that have shifted their production to provide in-demand hand sanitizer, to assist in distribution to essential service providers in Ontario. Over 10,000 bottles have been delivered since March 17.