The Subaru Outback is one of the best success stories in the modern age of automobiles. Where it came from, and how it transformed a brand.
Before the Outback was introduced, Subaru was a brand that was not part of mainstream America’s car culture. The tiny import brand earned some minor success with the BRAT, a subcompact pickup with two rear-facing plastic jump seats tacked into the bed with the intended purpose of avoiding the 25% import duty on light trucks. Aside from that, the Subaru brand was having trouble getting noticed. However, Subaru’s all-wheel drive was a novelty that had a bright future and Fuji Heavy Industries’ car brand was making the Legacy sedan and wagon better and better.
As Subaru entered the mid-1990s as a niche maker serving select markets, a convergence of events led to the creation of the American-market Legacy Outback wagon and the “Outback” for the Austrailian market. Initially, the Outback was a Legacy wagon with plastic body cladding, roof racks, a tough-looking front fascia with bold foglights meant to look like rally lights, and a slight lift to the suspension. Although that doesn’t sound like very much of a difference, the Legacy wagon underpinning the Outback was built industrial-strong by Fuji Heavy Industries. AWD and a couple of extra inches between the oil pan and the ground were more than enough for almost every American’s all-weather and all-road needs (and remains so). The Outback name is genius, and one of the most apt names for any crossover ever conceived. The car retained its official “Legacy Outback” name for a few years in the U.S. markets, but most owners just called it the Outback from the get-go.
Subaru’s marketing department has always punched above its weight class. In the latter half of the 1990s, Subaru wisely opted to make Paul Hogan its spokesperson. Hogan was an Australian actor/comedian best known at that time for being the Foster’s Lager spokesperson. However, it was his role in the Golden Globe-winning 1985 movie, Crocodile Dundee, that made him the perfect Outback spokesperson. Subaru produced a series of short action-adventure commercials starring Hogan and the Outback blasting through the wilderness outrunning badguys driving the competition, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Subaru and the Outback matured during the 2000s and the Outback grew a bit in size, but more importantly grew closer in quality and content to vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, and other all-road capable family vehicles. The changes brought new energy to the Outback’s sales.
However, equally important to the Outback’s success was the Subaru “Love” marketing campaign. The “Love” campaign focused on Subaru owners’ love of their dogs and their cars. It also tied in a charitable effort that donated $250 for each car sold. By the end of the campaign, Subaru had donated more than $120 million to charities. The money went mostly to organizations focused on helping people, but Subaru’s funding also helped the ASPCA rescue, transport, and find adoptive homes for nearly 40,000 animals across the country.
In 2008, the year the “Love” campaign began, Subaru sold 44,271 Outbacks in the U.S. Ten years later, that annual sales number had more than quadrupled to 188,886 by the end of 2017. During the “Love” campaign, Subaru also added the “They lived” marketing campaign to focus on Subaru’s impressive safety record. The ads went where almost no other auto ads had gone before by showing wrecked Subaru cars and shaken survivors. Together both campaigns have defined the brand in the modern age. The “Love” campaign’s start is marked in red on the sales graph below. The “They Lived” campaign’s start is shown in yellow.
The Outback’s present sales rate puts it firmly in the mainstream. It took Subaru about 22 years to sell two million Outbacks in America, but half of those were sold since 2011. With the Forester, Crosstrek, and the new Ascent joining the family, the Outback’s steep sales curve is flattening but still climbing. The Outback was up for the month of March, up for the first quarter of 2018, and was up for the year in 2017. During these time frames, many of the Outback’s peers lost sales. For example, despite a new design, the Honda CR-V is down by double digits this year to date.
Subaru isn’t slowing down the Outback’s marketing and still isn’t afraid to go places in its ad spots no other automaker dares. The ads may help bring the customers to the showrooms, but it has been the cars that have closed the sales all along. The original Outback drew a dramatic number of first-time Subaru buyers to the brand (including your author). They loved the rugged simplicity of the Subaru brand and the Outback began to create a solid base of Subaru families who have a deep-rooted loyalty to the brand. Subaru’s Outback has become a modern crossover/wagon with modern amenities and a look that still seems fresh. It remains the brand’s top-selling vehicle. This despite smash hits with the Forester and Crosstrek. Neither of which strays very far from the Outback’s formula of rugged all-road capability, unbeaten safety credentials and a reputation built on love.
Paul Hogan video