Let’s take a trip back to the 1990s. Rachel and Ross, Britney and Justin, MTV, Sony Discmans, Slime, Tamagotchis, Yo-Yos, VHS tapes, … It was a fun decade. One brand wasn’t having a great decade, though. Subaru’s sales were in steep decline. Although the small automaker was known for building very reliable (albeit a bit boring) cars, they just weren’t able to keep up with giants like Ford or Toyota. After many failed attempts at playing in the big leagues, they returned to their old focus: Marketing their vehicles to niche groups, like outdoorsy people who appreciated the fact that Subarus could handle dirt roads with ease.
In the search for such niche customer segments, they made an interesting discovery: Lesbians loved their cars. They appreciated the dependability, size, and even the name “Subaru”. They were, in fact, four times more likely than the average consumer to buy a Subaru.
Subaru had been looking for niche segments like hikers and kayakers, not necessarily lesbian couples. The 1990s weren’t exactly a gay-loving decade. Very few celebrities were out (Ellen’s coming out was one of the worst received coming outs ever – both she and Oprah Winfrey, who Ellen officially came out to, received death threats as a result), and after the Swedish furniture maker IKEA launched one of the very first major ad campaigns featuring a gay couple, one of their stores received a bomb threat, and Bill Clinton passed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
Still, Subaru decided to go ahead. They launched an ad campaign focused on lesbian customers. That revolutionary decision was such an overwhelming success, that it pushed LGBT advertising to the mainstream. Today, people joke about lesbians driving Subarus (or Lesbarus, as some people even call them), but the reason behind all of this is that Subaru cultivated its image as a car for lesbians – at a time when extremely few companies would even acknowledge their gay customers.
Now, the question remained how they should advertise cars that were commonly described as sturdy but bland? Subarus unique selling position at the time was that they made all-wheel-drive standard on all of its cars. Subaru found that there were five groups of people willing to pay a premium for AWD: teachers, healthcare workers, IT professionals, outdoorsy people, and… lesbians. When Subaru’s market researches talked to their lesbian customers, they found out that they valued how good Subarus were for outdoor trips and hauling things without being as large, bulky, and flashy as a truck or SUV. Subaru found, that within the five groups they identified, lesbians were the most enthusiastic for the brand.
But what did Subaru do that made their efforts work so exceptionally well?
1. They ensured corporate inclusivity
The Subaru team was aware that to appeal to lesbian customers, they first had to support their own gay and lesbian employees, so they scheduled a meeting with Japanese executives to argue for domestic partnership benefits and they were able to go ahead immediately.
2. They stood tall facing backlash
By 1996, Subaru’s ads appeared both in gay and mainstream media. The teams within Subaru were worried about conservative backlash but as they sold cars to a diverse and well-educated group of people, their customers wouldn’t be offended by the ads. They still got letters from conservative people swearing off the brand forever, but Subaru learned quickly that none of those people had ever bought a Subaru in the past and were extremely unlikely to buy one in the future anyway – some of them even misspelled the brand’s name.
3. They hid in the open
While this approach isn’t anything I’d recommend today, back in the 90s hints and nudges worked better among lesbian customers than showing actual couples. Instead, Subaru created taglines with double meanings and included details in their ads, only their lesbian target group would be able to decipher. In fact, they found that their lesbian target group loved deciphering the coding, and they really appreciated this form of advertising. Indeed, their straight customers back in the 90s only saw bike racks as a standout feature in these ads, while LGBT consumers were able to see the bumper stickers and specific number plates as shoutouts to the gay community. You could call this an early version of gamification.
Some further taglines included “Get Out. And Stay Out” (referring to the outdoors but also to coming out as gay) and “It’s Not a Choice. It’s the Way We’re Built” (referring to all Subarus coming with standard AWD but also LGBT identity), among others. When Subaru marketers tested these ads with heterosexual focus groups, they didn’t read gay into it at all, even after discussing LGBT issues before showing them their ad. This form of gay advertising became known as gay vague, with many other corporations choosing that path, too.
4. They openly supported LGBT icons
That said, Subaru definitely did not hide their support of their LGBT customers: They openly supported the former tennis-pro Martina Navratilova, an open lesbian. Navratilova was outed against her will and found it hard to find endorsement work after that. Subaru made her the face of their company, because she was out, which made queer consumers love the brand even more.
5. They put their money where their mouth is
Of course, Subaru knew that the LGBT community would see right through their shoutouts if they didn’t show they actually cared about the LGBT community. They contributed millions to HIV research, among many other LGBT causes.
6. They reaped the benefits
Pop culture embraced the “Lesbaru” stereotype and Subaru are continuing their efforts today. As a result, the brand is consistently named as the favorite car brand of many queer consumers. The only brand to grow faster than Subaru in the US during the 2010s is Tesla – that really says something.
To tribute just how revolutionary they were so early on, here’s another ad from the early 2000s:
By targeting the LGBT community so openly and directly, Subaru paved the way for many (automotive) brands coming after it. After seeing Subaru’s success, many other brands saw an opportunity in marketing to the LGBT community that was already loving their brands.
Let’s have a look at some recent examples of LGBT representation in automotive ads – some more daring than others (kudos to Renault for going all the way), but all-important in their own way.
LGBT Automotive Ads Today
Personally, I love seeing those ads and automotive pride floats as I work in the auto industry and love cars. Subaru has truly lead the way in automotive LGBT targeting and I’m happy to see other brands are following suit.
Now, I’m curious to hear from you! Would you have been able to decode Subaru’s ad messages? What’s your favorite LGBT car ad?
As this is my last blog post, I would like to thank all of my readers – it’s been an incredible journey and I truly enjoyed learning about this very important topic.
Please share my blog post with your peers!
Do you want to know more about LGBT-Marketing? Read my other posts, too!
🌈 4 Reasons Why Your Business Needs LGBT-Marketing
🌈 The Dos and Don’ts of LGBT-Marketing
🌈 LGBT-Marketing: Worst Practices
🌈 LGBT-Marketing: Best Practices
🌈 How to Deal With Anti-LGBT Backlash
🌈 Rainbow-Washing: Explained
🌈 How To Celebrate Pride During a Global Pandemic
🌈 How To Find LGBT Inclusive Businesses
🌈 10 Steps to LGBT-Inclusify Your Business
Mayyasi, A. (2016). How Subarus Came to Be Seen as Cars for Lesbians. The Atlantic, 22.
Witeck, R., & Combs, W. (2006). Business inside out: Capturing millions of brand-loyal gay consumers. Kaplan Pub..