2020 MOY: Ted Lalka sets the stage for Subaru

How the long-time marketer leaned on messages of safety and trust during a year of reckoning.

2020 MOY Ted Lalka

By Will Novosedlik

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy. 

While he’s quick to point to his marketing team and agency partners as the “secret to Subaru’s success,” Ted Lalka has no doubt played a major role in building the brand in Canada over the years. The SVP, marketing and product management has been with the company since 1989, when he was hired to help grow the Japanese carmaker’s presence in the market.

Since he started, Subaru Canada’s share has more than tripled from under 1% to 3%. And this year, despite COVID-19, the company had its best July ever, selling 3,501 vehicles. September and October were even more impressive, with over 6,000 vehicles sold each month. Market share for October grew to 4%, thanks in part to campaigns spearheaded by Lalka, alongside Toronto creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo, Quebec-based shop Agence Rinaldi and media outfit OMD.

Back in the early days of the pandemic, brands were flummoxed. With the virus forcing everyone indoors to help “flatten the curve,” advertisers had to shelve their marketing plans and figure out how to communicate to a shell-shocked populace without seeming tone deaf.

Subaru Covid Response ad

While many struggled to create appropriate messaging, Subaru was among the first brands in Canada to produce a response ad that was unencumbered by a sales pitch, instead promoting a message thanking those on the front line. Once the curve began to flatten, Subaru turned its focus on providing tools that would help build consumer confidence back up.

“People were still very apprehensive about visiting dealerships, despite the careful protocols we took,” says Lalka. So to continue engaging with buyers, it launched the Rapid RTC Live Dealer in July 2020, several months before many other auto brands rolled out their own virtual showroom tools.

“We were one of the first to come out with this feature that allowed a customer to contact a salesperson and have them use their phone for a 360-degree tour of the vehicle they’re interested in,” says Lalka, adding that consumers could then follow-up with an in-dealership visit, having all the information they needed so they could spend as little time in the store as possible.

Subaru’s focus on safety was not difficult for Lalka and his team. Even prior to the pandemic, the wellbeing of customers had become a much bigger priority for Subaru. Over the years it had pivoted from being solely perceived as a rugged, outdoorsy all-wheel drive vehicle to being a symbol of reliability and longevity.

For example, it kicked off 2020 with the “As safe as a Subaru” campaign by Zulu Alpha Kilo, which showed off features like traction control, blind spot recognition and pre-collision braking systems in true-to-Subaru offbeat ads.

Made to Be a Subaru1

He explained to strategy at the time of the launch that research showed “safety” as being one of the main reasons Subaru vehicles end up on consumers’ consideration lists. “These cars last a long time,” he says. “Over 96% of vehicles we’ve sold in the last 10 years are still on the road. What often happens is people buy one and when they want a new one, they give the old one to a family member rather than trading it in. It’s challenging to find a used Subaru because people keep them.”

But even a promise of reliability needs the evidence to support it. “We have talked about safety [in our marketing] for years, but it’s not just based on what we think – it’s based on authoritative third-party independent validation,” says Lalka. For instance, The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has recognized Subaru as a “Top Safety Pick” for several years, while Kelley Blue Book has rated it the most trusted brand, six years running.

In September 2020, Subaru launched a campaign that leveraged those industry accolades to showcase its reliability and reputation for longevity. Also created by Zulu Alpha Kilo, the “Made to be a Subaru” campaign showed Canadians as they progressed through different stages of their lives (from being newlyweds to raising a family to retiring) alongside their trusted Subaru. Unlike many of its product launch ads – which since the “Sexy Sumo” spots of 2012 have relied on humour to build awareness – this campaign was more focused on promoting Subaru’s core masterbrand attributes.

One of the things Lalka likes to hammer home is that Subaru, as a small player, has to work harder to project an image of uniqueness. Its “G.O.A.T” (Greatest Outback of All Time) campaign to support the launch of the 2020 Outback is a part of that pursuit. The quirky spot features a competition between an Outback and a mountain goat to see who can make it over a mountain the fastest.

Subaru GOOAT

For its Impreza, Subaru also positioned itself as an alternative to mainstream brands with a campaign that spoofed pharmaceutical advertising in January 2020. Ads showed young drivers afflicted with boredom, desperately seeking excitement by sliding down staircases and balancing spoons on their noses. When they are given a ride in the “fast-acting” Impreza, their symptoms begin to vanish.

Finally, the auto brand’s campaign to promote its Crosstrek comically compared the vehicle to a teenager with attitude – one that likes to leave unannounced to pursue their passions (off-roading in the wilderness) or come home with tattoos (a bumper sticker).

As to the future, Lalka says he remains focused. “If we continue to do the right things it will work out, but health and safety are definitely the top priority. The same goes for our messages of safety and trust.”

Subaru’s performance in the last year certainly attests to that.