Although Subaru sells cars to humans, it’s made dogs a central theme of its marketing campaign.
There’s a good reason. About half of Subaru buyers own dogs, according to Dominick Infante, the automaker’s spokesman.
For years it has used the “Barkley” family of retrievers in its television commercials. They depict the family doing a relatively mundane task such as dropping their puppy off at obedience school in a variety of Subaru vehicles. The spots end with the line “Dog Tested, Dog Approved.”
The same family introduced the Subaru Ascent large SUV at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show.
Trucks.com caught up with Infante at a recent press drive of the 2020 Subaru Outback in Northern California. Dogs were a major part of the conversation.
Why use dogs for Subaru’s central marketing theme?
We have known through market research that pets, especially dogs, are a big part of our customers’ lives. We find that 69 percent have pets, and 50 percent have dogs. The idea of using dogs in commercials came about through Carmichael Lynch, our advertising agency.
The creative folks there decided to make a video of their own with their dogs in the cars. They thought it would be really funny. The first ad used an Australian sheepdog shepherd and a cat. The pets are arguing over a parking spot. We thought it was hilarious and sweet. We put it up on the web. People liked it. We started looking more into the numbers and found that it resonated with people. So we started exploring it a bit more.
We are selling to families. So we created the Barkley family, and it has grown from there. It’s not always the Barkleys. When we launched the Crosstrek, we showed the car aging with a young couple. You see them first buy the vehicle, and then they get older. They have a chocolate Lab, then they have a kid, and the Lab’s face gets gray and older. Finally, he’s moving a little more slowly getting in and out of the car. There was an incredible reaction to it. People were sending us letters saying how much they loved the ad and how it makes them cry. You tug at the heart. That’s the idea behind an ad campaign like that.
Who are the Barkleys?
The Barkleys are the retriever family that drives the cars in our commercials. They are a mother and a father. Auggie is the name of the actual dog who’s the dad. He’s the one who’s very good at steering.
It’s a mother and father who are doing everyday things for humans. They drop the kids off at school. They’re doing driving lessons – stuff you would do in normal life. Going through a car wash is one of the most recent ones. It’s quite funny. That has English bulldogs running the car wash. But because they’re so short and the Ascent is so big, they only can clean the bottom half of the vehicle.
We have worked up a campaign that will involve the Barkleys again for the new Outback launch.
We have tried to have fun with it. There’s one with the Impreza. The mother’s driving all around trying to get the baby to go to sleep. Everyone’s experienced that with a kid. But it is even adorable with the little puppy in the car seat.
All these dogs have personalities. They’re super sweet, but they are dogs. They run around, play with toys and have fun.
Are they trained to act?
The dogs are very good at staring at a piece of food when they have to. That gets them looking in the right direction for the cameras. We use a person to control the vehicles. He is laying in the footwell below what the camera sees and is operating the accelerator and the brake.
Has Subaru grown this marketing theme into a dog adoption campaign?
We have been involved with pet charities. During the annual Subaru Share the Love Event, one of the four national charities we donate to is the ASPCA. We donate $250 for every new Subaru vehicle purchased or leased to the customer’s choice of participating charities. From there we decided that we could help out with adoptions.
We set up a white picket fence area at our national business conference and brought in some local shelters. They are only no-kill shelters. We had gathered all of our vendors and the people we work with all year long and gave them a chance to look at and play with some dogs. Right away, we were getting dog adoptions. We decided to roll that into the displays we do at auto shows. Los Angeles was the first one. We set it up in front of our booth.
People will take a break from looking at the cars and start playing with a dog. We see people connect. We have done 110 adoptions this year at nine shows. Next year we will have it at 20 shows. It’s a positive, happy thing.
What do you mean by dog-approved?
We offer several water-repellant seat materials, including durable StarTex upholstery on the new 2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT. It’s great if you have pets that are getting in wet and messing up your interior. You can get in there and wipe it down. We also offer water-resistant seat covers for bigger dogs.
Since the pet product industry has no testing or performance standards, we sponsored several studies conducted by the Center for Pet Safety to ensure that pet travel seats, crates and carriers and harnesses are living up to their claims of being crash-tested or offering crash protection. We used specially designed dog crash dummies developed by CPS — weighted dummies just like you would have a human dummy. They weren’t stuffed animals. They were anatomically correct to mimic a dog. We paid to develop this type of crash testing which revealed that many common pet travel products do not provide adequate protection in the event of a crash. Pet owners can visit the Center for Pet Safety website to find which certified product is right for their dog.