By on May 24, 2016

Subaru Camp Out/Xena Lvr Ad Targeted at Lesbian Customers, Image: Subaru

Subaru didn’t always enjoy the recession-beating success it’s famous for today. In the ’90s, sales at Subaru were in the tank, and marketers in the company needed to do something different.

After identifying core groups interested in its cars, Subaru found something curious: lesbians, for whatever reason, loved Subaru. For our edutainment, Priceonomics has detailed the history of Subaru loving those lesbians right back.

Aside from the internet trope that dictates at least one Mustang driver must crash at every Cars and Coffee event, there can’t be a much stronger automotive stereotype than lesbians loving Subarus. It’s a stereotype that may or may not have cajoled TTAC’s founder into comparing the grille of the B9 Tribeca with a certain part of the female anatomy, and it certainly fueled a job-killing headline of another TTAC E-I-C in the recent past. (I’m not linking to it, but I’m sure you can find it yourself if you really must read it.)

Yet, sometimes stereotypes — especially when it comes to marketing to certain demographics — exist for a reason. In the case of Subaru, its director of advertising Tim Bennett and gay-market specialist ad agency Mulryan/Nash transformed the automaker’s marketing message to develop wink-and-nod messages to the lesbian and gay communities after identifying groups of buyers who skew toward Subaru.

From Pricenomics:

In the 1990s, Subaru’s unique characteristic was that the company increasingly made all-wheel-drive standard on all its cars. When Subaru marketers went searching for people willing to pay a premium for all-wheel-drive, they identified four core groups who were responsible for half of the company’s American sales: teachers and educators, healthcare professionals, IT professionals, and “rugged individualists” (outdoorsy types).  

Then they discovered a 5th: lesbians.

“When we did the research, we found pockets of the country like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon, where the head of the household would be a single person—and often a women,” says Bennett. When Subaru marketers talked to these customers, they realized these women buying Subarus were lesbian.

Subaru crafted its marketing to identify with lesbian buyers without offending the sensibilities of conservatives.

However, it wasn’t an easy plan to put in motion.

The fascinating story is detailed at Pricenomics. Trust me — it’s worth a read.

h/t to Steve

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79 Comments on “Priceonomics Details Subaru’s Lesbian Marketing Love Affair...”


  • avatar
    vwgolf420

    I used to work with a really odd guy who was into Civil War re-enactment and he drove an Outback and said a lot of the guys involved drove Outbacks and Forresters because they needed to go a little off road to get to their sites and also they were the right size to carry all their muskets and such.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      “. . . also they were the right size to carry all their muskets and such.”

      Well, I guess that clinches it for the next Rocky Mountain Rendezvous.

  • avatar
    kvndoom

    Bertel! Wazzup!

  • avatar
    xflowgolf

    “Subaru received letters from a grassroots group that accused the carmaker of promoting homosexuality. Everyone who penned a letter said they’d never buy a Subaru again.

    But the marketing team quickly discovered that none of the people threatening a boycott had ever bought a Subaru. Some of them had even misspelled “Subaru.””

    Ha. Sometimes being the niche player allows inroads where other big corporate giants couldn’t play in the first place. Well done Subaru.

    • 0 avatar
      Tinn-Can

      This is one thing I wish more companies would look at when they get public pressure against stuff… Those people making all the racket aren’t your customers and you just end up pissing off the people that actually do buy your products. *dick’s sporting goods I’m looking at you*

    • 0 avatar
      April S

      Probably the same with the ones boycotting Target. That store is to too highfalutin for the Walmart set.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Target is only midfalutin now. They had some millennial chic with that particleboard furniture, but lost it when they replaced the end tables, bookcases, and artsy lamps with canned tomato sauce and boxes of rice. The highfalutin demographic is now going to the recently-upscaled J.C. Penney chain, putting worried looks on the execs at Macy’s.

  • avatar
    Balto

    In my home state of Vermont, approximately 1 out of every 3 cars is a subaru. And in Vermont it would not be outrageous to assume that 1 out of every 3 subarus contains a lesbian.

  • avatar
    Cactuar

    In corporate America it doesn’t matter whether you are white, black or yellow, the only color that matters is green. Subaru has understood this.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Chik-Fil-A has not understood this.

      • 0 avatar
        Macca

        Just curious, who has been denied service at a Chick-Fil-A? Further, what part of their marketing or food product is exclusionary?

        Out of curiosity, I dug in to CFA’s position in the fast food world. With only ~1,900 locations, CFA generated $5.8B in revenue in 2014, which makes it the 8th largest fast food chain in the US. That places it above Pizza Hut, KFC, Carl’s Jr. et al which have as many as 4x the number of locations – and also are open some ~50 more days per year.

        So I’m curious as to what they haven’t understood.

        • 0 avatar
          Big Al From 'Murica

          This. I think they get their clientele very well. I worked there some years back and I remember them as specifically not adopting some of the automation techniques that the other chains had in the name of employing more people which would seem to indicate some degree of corporate responsibility as well. Also they seem to enjoy much more loyalty from their employees than other chains. I personally witnessed them feeding homeless people who came in on several occasions. Similar encounters at a Taco Bell I had worked at resulted in calls to Law Enforcement.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

          It was just the views of their founder that got people up in arms. He never said gay people are unwelcome or wouldn’t be served. I still (occasionally) eat there. I don’t particularly care if the old-as-the-hills founder has some backwards, outdated views.

          • 0 avatar
            Carfan94

            I agree, I still occasionally eat there. They seem to have a very good work ethic, and like JohnTaurus said I don’t care that the founder has backwards, outdated views. However I know people who think Chik-Fil-A is “rabidly anti gay”, and refuse to eat there at all costs.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            This was my point, RE: what the founder spouted off. I was -not- referring to revenues per location or market share per zip code. I thought it would be evident from what I had said, but ‘parently not.

          • 0 avatar
            April S

            It wasn’t so much spouting some views, a foundation he controls donated a substantial amount of money to an vicious anti-LGBT group.

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            Which is a damn good reason NOT to go there. I make it a point to avoid any business that involves Rupert Murdoch – I’m not supporting somebody who’s personal views so clash with mine.

            I was behind a truck owned by a local demolition company, and they had a big sign on the back “Hillary for Jail and any Republican candidate for President”. While that might resonate for some, it is likely to offend an equal number as well. Smart business is to keep all political viewpoints to yourself.

          • 0 avatar
            andyinatl

            And on the day the gay groups called the boycott, i think Chick fil a broke the sales record. I was there 3 times that day with my kids. I don’t understand the need to bring someone down that thinks otherwise. And why call someone’s views as backwards and outdated just because you don’t agree with them. These were the views of president, until Biden set him up couple years ago. And although i used to spend a lot of money at Target on yearly basis, i am not planning on going back. That’s how i vote on issues; with my money.

          • 0 avatar
            April S

            It was mostly due to fundamentalist churches bussed in their members.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            I love Chick-Fil-A. There’s one close to my workplace and right next to the bank I use regularly. I never eat there though. The lines are always too long. If they’re open, there are cars waiting for the drive-through backed up into traffic and people waiting for parking spaces in their lot. I wish more people would boycott them. Maybe I could get a sandwich. The funny thing is this town is about as liberal as it gets.

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    Every time a Subaru-themed article appears on TTAC, it fills me with regret, as, although I’ve done okay financially, things could have been much better had I started the biggest Subaru Dealership Conglomerate, owning Subaru new-vehicle dealerships in Vancouver, B.C., Washington State, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine & Rhode Island.

    Screw high-performance and automotive exotica; the real money is in crunchy, granola-type, LGBT friendly, pet-friendly,middle management and austere professional type customers who love them some Subaru reliability, all weather capability, boxer-engine goodness

    THAT MARKET, WHICH SUBARU HAS BRILLIANTLY CORNERED, IS CRAY-CRAY BANK & MAD DOLLA, YO $$$$$$ !!!!!!

    • 0 avatar
      Frank Galvin

      Screw the dealership. The ultimate is having a billion dollar distributorship for every Subaru and OEM part sold in New England.

      Like this guy: http://www.cartalk.com/blogs/craig-fitzgerald/every-subaru-sold-new-england-comes-guy

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        Nah, just sell some Subaru headgaskets, thats where the real money is!

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        I always thought it might be interesting for Jack to interview this guy. Subaru of New England also has some of the best car commercials ever. No cars, just Ernie on guitar and sometimes other musicians. Then they flash something like “brought to by the Subaru Dealers of New England.”

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      I think Carter Subaru, with branches in Seattle and the nearby suburb of Shoreline, may be the largest-volume dealer of any make in Washington state. I bought my former Forester XT there and had the best, simplest car buying experience I’ve ever had.

      • 0 avatar
        onyxtape

        I don’t know if there’s still a large disparity between US and Canada prices for Subaru’s, but a non-trivial chunk of Carter’s business is from Canada.

  • avatar
    brettc

    Here in Maine there are a lot of Subarus on the road. (Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods parking lots look like used Subaru dealers on the weekend)

    As with Prii drivers, Subaru drivers like to take their time and mosey along and annoy me. I am an IT guy but I’d never own a Subaru based on the fact that they are thirsty and don’t seem to be able to get out of their own way (except maybe for the WRX). There are a lot of Lesbians driving them though. People think they need the AWD year round, even though they don’t.

    Oh well, to each their own. Fuji Heavy Industries knows their target market if nothing else.

    • 0 avatar
      Carfan94

      Yes my family has been to Maine many times (We love it!), and the one of the first times we went, we were absolutely astounded by the number of Subaru’s on the road. Also lots of Saab wagons it seemed. One time when we went at the airport rental in Portland we were faced with the choice of either a Forester, or an Edge, and my dad chose the Edge (Arrgh!).

  • avatar
    PenguinBoy

    Great article! A good example of a weak player that can not compete with the established players head on identifying a “Blue Ocean” and exploiting it.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      So, the fastest growing mainstream brand in America “can not compete with the established players.”

      OK.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Subaru is a niche player that behaves like one. Which is wise; VWoA should take notes.

      • 0 avatar
        PenguinBoy

        @VoGo:
        20 years ago, when this marketing campaign was launched, Subaru wasn’t growing as fast as they are today.

        Even now, they are a small outfit that could not compete with the likes of Toyota or GM head on – so they’ve found a niche that they can be competitive in, rather than attempting to be a full line manufacturer.

        It doesn’t take as much to be the “fastest growing mainstrem brand” when you’re starting at 3% market share.

        I don’t have anything against Subaru – I’ve bought two Subarus brand new with my own money and will likely buy another – but I have no illusions about their ability to compete head on with the major automakers.

    • 0 avatar
      Acd

      Makes a good case for Cadillac to stop with all the forced Millennial/hip New York BS and embrace its buyers (whoever they are) and build from there.

      • 0 avatar
        DeadWeight

        No way, Man!

        Don’t diss Cadillac’s marketing like that!!!

        MELODY, UWE ELLINGHAUS & JOHAN ARE ON THE CUSP OF CAPTURING HIP & VIBRANT MARKETING LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE!!!

        Public Skoolz House Ad agency, The Millennial Chick voiceovers, The Arena & Dare Greatly should all win advertisjng age awards.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    My wife and I both have Subarus. I have always liked women, but despite the car, she still isn’t as interested in them as I would prefer.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The original article is fun, but it fails to put any numbers on the results. And when no data is provided for this kind of content, then you can bet that there is an element of BS involved.

    This sounds in part like an exercise in self-promotion to the gay-oriented advertising firm that developed the ad campaigns. While including lesbians as a target market probably helped to improve marginal sales and was generally a good idea, the total number of cars sold to that group is probably low and it would be easy to bet that most lesbians don’t drive Subarus. There just aren’t that many lesbians, nor are they a monolithic block of consumers.

  • avatar
    kmars2009

    Never argue with a lesbian. In this case, I think they know their stuff. Obviously, look at how their sales are now. They must know a thing or two about cars! Gay men, however, are too fickle about cars. Always going for status, over reliability.

    • 0 avatar
      SC5door

      For gay men, yes absolutely; BMW, Audi or Mercedes over anything. I honestly see more gay women driving Honda CRV’s than anything.

      • 0 avatar
        April S

        There are plenty of not-so-rich gay men (and Lesbians) out there. Lots of older, non-fancy cars and trucks in the parking lot at my local LGBT center. If they own cars, Trans folks tend to drive older, beat up ones. Many lost everything when they started transition. Bears seem to like Trucks and SUV’s.

        P.S. I’ve noticed many Lesbians favor Kia Souls. I guess they make for a less pricy Forester substitute. Plenty of room for the kids and/or fur babies (pets). :)

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      Gay man here. Didn’t know a 1995 Taurus was a status symbol, lol unless the status is one of being decidedly *not* rich.

      If I had a far higher budget, there is still no way in hell zeee Germans would get my money. It’d be a bunch of older cars, but if it must be new: a Ford F-150 4×4 XLT and/or a Honda Accord 6mt I-4 coupe. The only BMW I really liked was the long-gone 318Ti (the hatchback). Likewise, I drove an 80s Audi Coupe GT and it was okay, but neither of those could be status symbols.

      Stereotypes are stupid IMO. Neither my boyfriend nor I are feminine, no piercings, no lisp, just a couple of regular guys. I’ve never even seen one episode of Sex and the City, lol.

      • 0 avatar
        Carfan94

        I’m also gay, and I have a 2007 RX 350 with 148k miles, it’ extremely reliable.

        I’m also sick of those disgusting stereotypes that all gay men are flamboyant, and feminine. I’m not feminine, nor am I attracted to men that are.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

          I think the reason they continue to exist is because its easy to spot a super feminine gay man (see: Jack McFarland on Will & Grace). But, most gay guys are just regular guys. You see a “manly man” and you assume he’s straight, but you may be wrong. Most straight people don’t take the time to consider it.

          You would be hard pressed to know that John and I are anything more than friends if you saw us in public, unless you just happened to overhear an “I love you” now and then. Its not that we don’t do the typical couple things like holding hands or kissing, but its usually done so discreetly. I would personally behave the same way if I was straight and had a girlfriend. I just don’t care for public displays of affection.

          • 0 avatar
            JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

            “You would be hard pressed to know that John and I are anything more than friends if you saw us in public…”

            I say that and then this random drunk woman comes up to us in a bar and says something to the effect of “I see the way you look at each other, you guys are together, right?” lol this isn’t a gay bar and we are sitting on opposite sides of the table. I guess some folks “gaydar” is pretty strong.

        • 0 avatar
          iNeon

          “What’s a man, now?
          What’s a man mean?
          Is he rough or is he rugged?
          Is he cultural and clean?”

          I wanna play too! I’m a high-maintenance leather sub and my MopaRomeo pretty much mirrors that.

          Daddy does the boring black Benz sedan, but has decided he likes the Dart so much that he drives me around in it instead of the E.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al From 'Murica

        As a gay man and a gay journalist…

      • 0 avatar
        SaulTigh

        Hey, ’95 Sable here. *High Five!*

      • 0 avatar
        PenguinBoy

        @JohnTaurus:
        I’ve got more respect for you for keeping a 20 year old Taurus alive and being enthusiastic enough about it to describe it in your screen name, than I do for someone who leases some entry “luxury” car they can’t really afford.

        Not really a gay / straight thing, more like poseur / enthusiast, but it’s still refreshing to see!

  • avatar
    Frank Galvin

    Great article. I live in the Northampton area, and yeah, at one time Subaru was “the” care for the lesbian set. However, that’s no longer the case. The Forester is no longer the modestly priced utilitarian runabout (new or used) – which puts off a lot of the younger singles / couples. The Crosstek appears to be a popular option, but its small stance does not behoove it to the lesbian with Labrador set. Also, the stereotypical large butch lesbian has kinda faded away. Think more along the lines of Patagonia clad hiking / kayaking / cycling aficionado, likely vegetarian, farm to table, dog or cat lover. So what are they buying? Jeeps, VW Sportwagons, Toyota Prius V, RAV4 and Tacoma, and Subaru too.

    • 0 avatar
      jimble

      20 years ago there weren’t a lot of choices for people who wanted what Subaru did well — not too expensive, rugged but not too truck-like, compact but easy to carry stuff (I cross-shopped an Outback and a Cherokee and ended up with the Jeep). Now the whole industry has turned to mining what used to be Subaru’s niche. It will be interesting to see if Subaru can hold onto enough goodwill and charm to keep the customers who saved its bacon back then, or if it will just grow big and boring.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Subaru is still among the best at its core mission. They are extremely well packaged despite the longitudinal layout, have more ground clearance than almost all of the competition, available for cheap, and very durable if provided with oil, tires, brakes, and a steady diet of CV joints.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          Agreed with dal. Their long-travel suspension tuning, packaging, and ground clearance leaves them a cut above the rest in terms of actual offroad-ability. Jeep Patriot, Renegade, and Cherokee are good too, the latter two a bit too compromised on the utility part of the mission.

          Gen 1 CRV had the ground clearance and superior utility (and reliability), but the RT4WD system was not as good as Subaru’s in responsiveness or sustained use, and suspension was more fragile and had poorer travel. The gen 1 Rav4 gave the contemporary Subies a run for their money offroad (maybe even exceeded when equipped with the LSD in the back), but quickly evolved into a very pavement-centric cute-ute.

        • 0 avatar
          davew833

          And head gaskets.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Mama

      “The stereotypical large butch lesbian has kinda faded away.”
      Yay! There’s nobody happier than me at the emergence of lesbian culture that embraces lipstick and shaved legs, with all that implies.

  • avatar
    dwford

    It is an interesting customer mix that Subaru has: lesbian, conservative family types, and hoons.

    • 0 avatar
      onyxtape

      There’s no way that this was a pre-planned marketing strategy considering the size of Fuji Heavy Industries – it hits too many profitable niches all at once – it likely morphed from a serious of accidental stumbles into successes.

      There’s also an element of cheapskate market in there as well. They do offer a lot of car for what they charge. At least in the more basic models.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “When we did the research, we found pockets of the country like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon, where the head of the household would be a single person—and often a women,”

    Good grief, either his English is terrible or Priceonomics doesn’t edit. I sits at me desk at work across from a women, two.

  • avatar
    zinnah

    There is truth in them thar hills.

    A few years ago I was camping with the guys up long dirt road in Colorado so we could have a bit of seclusion to do our thing. A Lezburu pulled in just below us and the two ladies pitched their tent and settled in for the night. They left their lantern on in the tent which provided an enjoyable shadow show as we looked down from above drinking our beer and wine. Could well have been an intentional “mistake”.

    My wife and I currently have a Forester which is our third Subaru.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    “When Subaru marketers talked to these customers, they realized these women buying Subarus were lesbian.”

    Wish I could have sat in on that marketing meeting when the lightbulb came on. I expect some awkward hilarity ensued: “You know, now that you mention it, she was wearing flannel!”

  • avatar
    Testacles Megalos

    I’m surprised that Subaru was identified as the originator of this. I thought sure it was the Toyota RAV4 —- or was it the Honda CR-V — that was the designated National Automobile of the Lesbian Alliance.

    I had the distinct impression that Subarus were for wannabe Quattro people…..

    And Quattros for either Walter Roehrl (Michelle Mouton for the females) wannabes or people too young for a Benz….

    and those cars for those too stately to be seen in a Porsche….

    And Porsches for those too grown up and important to be seen in a small Blitish Sporting Car.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      I had the distinct impression that Subarus were for wannabe Quattro people…..

      Hey I know that 250 hp isn’t impressive but the Legacy 3.6R has stayed on my radar for that reason.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Interesting to see the rear view of the older Outback and Forester, since they did and still use clearance as a sales feature. The newer generation of both have compromised clearance by low-mounted rear control arms. Much like the previous-generation Escapes, which otherwise had quite good clearance. I can’t think of any auto journalist who noted the degraded clearance of these newer Subarus.

    And speaking of the older Escapes, I wonder what female demographic liked the boxy shape so much.

  • avatar
    April S

    Now I know why I owned three subarus.

    :)

    1976 GF Hardtop
    1978 DL Coupe
    1993 Loyale sedan

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Saw an old Top Gear episode that went on and on about about how the Subaru was the knock around car of choice of the landed gentry. Had the same “everybody knows” kind of stereotyping, too. Weird.

    The explanation, in case you were wondering is that Subaru couldn’t afford a conventional dealer network at first, sold through farm implement dealers. Rich country folk would buy one for use by first hand, or whatever they were called in Britain, and then decided that they liked them for themselves…

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