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..
Great articles Oli !!!
Thanks for this article Olivier! This article was very interesting to me because I didn’t know that such a traditional Japanese car brand from an industrial area has been doing such an innovative campaign. And how Subaru handled the criticism made me that you as a brand should look into “who” gave that negative feedback.
Thanks for your comment, Hikaru! Isn’t it so unexpected? Subaru is such a traditional brand and yet, their LOVE strategy has ensured constant growth, even during times of overall decline in the industry! I thought the same thing, actually – many brands are really scared of potential negative backlash but mostly, that backlash comes from sources that would have never bought your product anyway!
This post is my favorite so far! It is so surprising to me that i own one of the cars in the ads above! Makes me feel optimistic about life and the future.
Hi Toni, I love to hear that! I’m absolutely considering a Subaru now! 🙂
Very interesting! I love the fact that Subaru is such a traditional yet so inclusive brand.
Hey Oli, I have always perceived Subaru as a rather conservative brand. I did not know that they pushed LGBT marketing so early on. Very interesting article, great job!
Right, I thought so too! But actually seeing who drives them in Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire, etc. the picture is indeed very different than in Switzerland.
Thanks Oli for deep diving this subject, especially in the automotive industry. The example of Subaru is interesting at brand level. It could be interesting to see how to target this audience at a more local level. Hope we will see each other again to discuss this topic!
It was fun to combine my favorite topics in this post! I think the best thing Subaru did at a local level, and any brand can do for that matter, is supporting local events and charities for the community.
Really great article! It gives an example of one of the pioneers in LGBT marketing and probably sets a milestone for the LGBT marketing we see today in so many more forms!
Absolutely! Along with IKEA and very, very few other brands, Subaru really paved the way for LGBT marketing, not just for the auto industry – especially in a time other brands weren’t ready to even consider they had LGBT customers.
Brilliant! I really enjoyed reading your posts.
Thank you so much, Ivan!
Love the article! Always learning new marketing approach in a car industry where I thought I knew lots of things, but apparently not! Thanks Olivier
Thank you Robin! I thought that was a lesser known approach, glad you enjoyed the read!
I loved this article! It was so fun yet so interesting! I must say as far as design is concerned I’m not the biggest fan of Subaru, but I love them more now that I know what they did for the LGBT community. It was both an amazing marketing and society action. Amazing when the two manage to meet!
Salut Juliette! I fully agree, Subarus really aren’t the sexiest cars out there, but their LOVE PROMISE is really awesome and it makes me want to be on board!
Super interesting article Oli! I loved reading all your posts but this one really got me. I didn’t expect that a rather traditional and conservative brand like Subaru would pursue such an inclusive marketing approach… just wonderful to see 🙂
And many thanks to you for bringing LGBT marketing in general closer to me with this blog. I learned something new with every article. Great job!
Thank you so much for your encouraging words, Eva! This one was definitely among my favorite posts to write.
Such a well written article! It was informative yet so entertaining to read. There are so few articles out there which can do both of that. Amazing read! Keep up with the good work!
Thank you so much, Xian! This is the last post for now, but I’m tempted to keep the blog going in some way.
Very interesting article that shows different (and new) ways of doing Marketing in the Automotive industry.