Subaru Going Back To The Couch For Brand Analysis

Good piece in this week’s Automotive News by Jim Treece about Subaru and its CEO Ikuo Mori. Mori says he is revamping the company’s product and brand straegy, and admits the migration up market with the B9 Tribeca hasn’t worked.

I feel I am in a unique position to comment here. I’m a two-time Subaru owner. And I am currently dithering over what car to buy next given the fact that my 1998 Outback has 140,000 miles on it and leaks oil from the seals thanks to a bad radiator flush by an oil shop chain that ruined the engine. They replaced the engine with a junkyard engine, but it’s not the same.

Mori, says the Treece article, isn’t ready to divulge specifics about the big plan. But he says that Subaru’s “engineering first” mentality must change.

Let me offer Mr. Mori a few notes on his current product lineup that may or may not help him.

The Legacy/Outback: It’s a station-wagon. You like to call it a crossover, and boast it was the first of the crossovers. It’s not. The wagon version is just that—a station-wagon. Stop thinking and saying that it’s a crossover. You sound foolish when you do that. Station-wagons are not cool. And you’ll never get big volume out of them. The Outback is a fabulously practical vehicle, and there’s nothing…NOTHING…I’d rather be driving on I-90 in a snowstorm. But it has a limited audience, given its “styling”, even in an era when crossovers are the fastest growing segment. Remember, this is not a crossver.

The Forester: This is another station wagon. You call it a crossover. It’s not. It’s a station-wagon. It looks just like one. That’s how I can tell. It also gets above $25,000 waaaaaaaay too fast when you start optioning it the way one wants. The turbo-charged version is great. But the market for turbo-charged station-wagons…not so big.

The Impreza: Save the WRX version, whose engine performance redeems the retired-Kindergarten-teacher styling, this may be the most boring styling exercise on the planet inside and out. I have encountered shoe boxes with more interesting styling lines.

The B9 Tribeca: There is nothing especially wrong with this vehicle except that it has utterly nothing to do with Subaru’s brand. Do you even have a design language at Subaru? If so, it’s never been articulated particularly well. And pricing it at $35K when properly optioned disappointed a lot of loyal Subaru buyers who waited a long tome for a vehicle that seated more than five. Tribeca? Named for a trendy neighborhood in Manhattan. Subaru? That was marketing genius.

I happen to believe that Subaru’s Boxer engine and all-wheel-drive technology is the best in the business. Take that Audi! And now that my ‘98 Outback is on its last legs, there is a part of me that wants to to re-up with Subaru. But styling is too dull and prices are to high. That’s a bad combo. I may still buy a new Suubie. But it’s getting real tough to pull the trigger with so many choices.

A few points of advice:

Straigten out your styling, and make the models you bring out a bit more compellng without going the Nissan route. Make them look of a brand piece, too.

Bring out a legitimate crossover priced between $20k and 28K. Not a wagon. A crossover.

The next people-mover should be something closer in packaging to the GMC Acadia, not the Tribeca.

Get a hybrid from your Toyota corporate partner and put it in a car priced no more than 25K.

Get a clean diesel from Toyota.

Next WRX…don’t forget to style it!

Tell me brand story in your ads. Subaru is what I call a backyard bbq brand. People in my world will try and sell their neighbors on Subaru based on their own brand stories. I have told people about how I’d see SUVs—Explorers, Tahoes, etc—rolled over in a ditch on I-90 while the Subarus, my own included, stayed glued to the road in lake effect snow driving around Cleveland on the way to Western Pa. There is community in Subaru ownership.

Subaru, it seems to me, has long had a love-hate relationship with the people who were closest to its brand. In Japan, Subaru is viewed a kind of Junior BMW. Seriously. In the U.S., on a brand map, it exists closer to brands like Birkenstock and L.L. Beane. Relentlessly practical. It’s Japanese management has also never been quite at home with the affinity gay women have had with Subaru, though it’s American managers have employed Martina Navratilova as a pitch-model. Get over it.

The Junior BMW thing is not going to work in the U.S. A product line that is styled, packaged and marketed for value, environmentalism, capability and fun, though, will probably work. Make it happen. And be proud of it.

By the way…don’t forget to emphasize technology and engineering when you come out with the vehicle I want—-a cool looking (but not too cool) all-wheel-drive crossover vehicle with a Boxer engine that gets around 35 mpg. That would be true to Subaru’s brand values.

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