At the outset, I should admit that I live in the Pacific Northwest and that may be one of the reasons I’m taken by this buy, use, love story. I love our Subaru (technically it’s my wife’s car so I don’t use it as much as I’d like to). When we bought it, it was the lightest, most fuel efficient (for an AWD), tightest-turning little SUV we could find. Even though all cars eventually lose their new smell and sheen, we keep recommending the Subaru to our friends and family.
There is no doubt that Subarus shine in parts of the country that have harsh winters or tons of outdoor enthusiasts. Lately, however, it seems like its core group of self-appointed brand advocates have slowly started turning the rest of the country on to Subaru vehicles. In 2009, the year we bought ours, Subaru saw remarkable success while the rest of the industry was being bailed out or bought up. In fact, they’ve kept up the blistering pace of growth throughout the Great Recession.
All car companies have hits and misses and Subaru is no exception; it is also much smaller than some other companies so growth rates alone might not be the correct measure of its success. What is clear, however, is the loyalty of Subaru owners… everyone we know who owns one, loves their Subaru. As you might expect, the Product Manager in me was compelled to investigate the strategies that fuel this (sometimes unhealthy) devotion.
Create a unique identity and stay true to it
Subarus are quirky, all the way from their exterior design and mechanical underpinnings to the way they are produced and marketed. This quirkiness, which aligns the company’s values with those of its customers, makes Subaru’s story and value proposition authentic and sticky. The ubiquitous all-wheel-drive (safety), the smooth, fuel sipping boxer engines (fuel efficiency) and the industry-leading zero-landfill auto plant (eco-consciousness) all make the company’s identity inseparable from the values held dearly by its customers. As a Product Manager, it seems obvious that one would build a marketable value proposition around the customers’ deeply held values (not just near-term needs and desires) but Subaru’s example highlights how uncommon it is to create and maintain this commitment to authenticity.
Focus on customer experience and outcomes
According to their CMO, Subaru recognizes that its core customers (I’m paraphrasing) are the types of people who buy experiences instead of things. These are well-heeled, educated and financially savvy customers who buy Subarus to fulfill their desire to beat the elements, burn rubber (in the case of the WRX drivers) or explore the wild outdoors. Consequently, Subaru’s product strategy focuses on enabling these experiences instead of outdoing their competition with muscle, chrome and technology. All good Product Managers realize that customers care more about dead (or trapped) mice than a better mousetrap… it’s essential to focus on the experience and the outcome not just the product.
Turn sales into relationships
The key reason for its recession-proof financial performance is Subaru’s ability to inspire devoted loyalty and return business amongst its customers. Even though typical Subaru customers are frugal enough to keep their cars for a long time, they keep coming back to buy more Subarus (apparently on average every 7.3 years). The company invests heavily in these relationships by making product improvements to address customer feedback and training dealership personnel to excel at everyday service. They’ve even started a program to let customers adorn their cars with badges to profess their love (free marketing, anyone?). Even with the possibility of occasional harsh criticism, creating a true relationship and dialog with customers is the most valuable and gratifying investment a company and a Product Manager can make.
As I read this post, I keep wondering if I’m describing a company’s product strategy or the secrets to individual success. Creating an authentic identity, focusing on positive outcomes and building rich relationships can definitely make us the best versions of ourselves; as it turns out, these principles also help make the best products.