Automotive Marketer Of The Year: Thomas J. Doll, President and COO, Subaru of America

Sometimes, numbers speak for themselves. How about “seven.” Seven consecutive years of sales records for Subaru of America. And it didn’t have to wait until the end of the year to tally those numbers. It broke it in 11 months. How about “five.” Subaru’s U.S. sales rose 5% last year, putting it just about five years ahead of its sales volume schedule. January was its 50th straight month of growth. It has a good problem: production capacity can barely meet demand. Two-thirds of buyers are new to the brand. Tom Doll, CEO of Subaru of America, Inc., is the rare U.S. auto executive who has risen up through the ranks the old-fashioned way. 

Doll, who came to the company in the early ‘80s, isn’t a hired gun. He’s an accountant by training, actually, but he has the long view, and he enjoys the benefit of knowing, really knowing, what Subaru stands for, and he understands Subaru owners. Maybe that has given the automaker the rare confidence to do things no other automaker can do when it comes to advertising and marketing. It was Doll, after all, who a decade ago suggested a new way of branding: the love Subaru owners feel for their cars. With a lot of other brands, especially Japanese brands, that might be a stretch, but Subaru really has the kind of meaning for its owners to make into that a legitimate claim. 

In late 2006, Doll hired a new creative agency, Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch, a unit of Interpublic Group. The first change was simple: The tag line — "It's what makes a Subaru, a Subaru" — was prefaced by "Love." A slate of emotionally charged ads followed. Kids and dogs were everywhere. The only features the company lingered on were safety-related. Instead of buying a Super Bowl slot, the company sponsored Animal Planet's “Puppy Bowl.” 

And the “Love” idea is infused into every aspect of Subaru’s business, including the retail side with its “Love Promise,” a community-benefit program centering on local dealers. And every year, in the fourth quarter, Subaru runs a charity campaign, in which a percentage of every sale goes to one of several charities from a list the automaker lets new buyers choose from. That list includes the ASPCA, and pets are a big part of the Love mantra for Subaru. 

With “The Barkley’s,” Subaru takes the pet friendliness to its logical conclusion. The campaign, which the automaker launched in 2013, takes the idea of pet friendliness to this end: A family of golden retrievers lives in a suburban house, and drives around in a Subaru. What’s not to love about that?

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