Experiential Marketing Lessons from Subaru

Posted on November 16, 2009

I took a break from the office over lunch hour to run an errand to Whole Foods with my wife.  Upon our arrival, the parking lot was packed with shoppers and corporate types enjoying an organic lunch in the restaurant section.  On our way into the store there were two new Subaru cars display parked on the sidewalk near the entry doors and 2-3 field marketing staff literally blocking the entry doors while asking customers entering the store to take a test drive.  On our way out of the store with a cart half-full of groceries, we were asked if we wanted to test drive a 2010 SUV, to which I politely replied “… and what would I do with my refrigerated grocery items? Ah – no thank you.”

On the way back to my office I thought to myself that Subaru had this experiential marketing idea half-right.  That is, if prospects aren’t coming to the dealership for a test drive, then take the test drive to the prospects.  So far, so good.  But where the tactics seemed to miss the mark included:

(1) Consider Your Location – a busy shopping center with a full parking lot whereby a “test drive” is virtually impossible (not counting the busy intersection where this Whole Foods sits).  Think about the setting in which you are executing your field marketing and ensure it allows prospects to actually experience your product or service.

(2) Consider Time of Day – lunch hour when people need to eat and return to work doesn’t leave people time to focus on a new car. Likewise, mom’s don’t have time to juggle melting groceries and screaming kids to take a test drive.

(3) Define Your Engagement Strategy – Subaru lacked an engagement strategy or integration with an in-store or online experience.   In this case, no lead generation mechanisms or fun/learning interaction for the customer, nor a call-to-action for consumers to interact with Subaru or its website after they leave Whole Foods.   There was simply nothing “in it for the prospect” to engage the brand — and the first rule of engagement is (as marketers) we have to “give to get” in terms of offering something of true value in exchange for someone’s attention span (Seth Godin agrees).

Consumers who are conscious of eating organic and minimizing ecological impact are a good fit for Subaru’s “green” corporate messaging  — but the real irony is there was that Subaru made no mention of its 100% clean manufacturing plant, corporate green initiatives, etc. that could have really made an emotional connection with Whole Foods shoppers.

As a former marathon runner and current cyclist, I remember being at the “Hotter than Hell 100” ride in Wichita Falls, Texas in 2005 whereby among the Cannondale and Trek bike demo’s, thousands of cyclists could sit in (or demo) Subaru display cars — complete with bike racks, and camping gear.   This week in San Antonio was the rock-n-roll marathon, and although I neither attended or ran this year, I couldn’t help but think if perhaps that venue would have been better fit.  What’s more, how about using Subaru cars for “Sag wagons” (bail-out cars for runners who cannot make the full 26.2 miles)?  Possible ideas for Subaru to capture leads at a lifestyle (running) event could have included an expo demonstration, links to an online Subaru learn & earn site with free running gear and a chance to win a Forrester, etc.  What about a social media component to post pic’s and video of Subaru in action?

It just seems to me that Subaru (a usually hip company) really stubbed their toe today.  Not only did I not take a test drive, but I lost a little respect for the brand given the experiential marketing snafus.

I’m not writing to slam Subaru — rather, to remind all of us (me included) of the need to take our time when planning our marketing and to really think about what the customer wants (getting home before the groceries melt) — not what we want (forcing a test drive).   Had the field marketing agency thought this through a bit more, I’m sure Subaru’s field marketing dollars could have produced a much better ROI.

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