The Sledgehammer

How Subaru Found Its Pride

June 16, 2020

At any given time, there are 200+ actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way—here comes The Sledgehammer.

In the early 1990s, Subaru was in a decade-long slump. They were losing money, and morale was low. But there was one bright spot: their all-wheel drive vehicles were selling notably well. To understand why, they did what any good strategist would do: research.

When sifting through the data, they identified a handful of consumer attributes that were behind these sales: outdoorspeople, teachers, healthcare workers, and IT professionals. But then they noticed another pattern: clusters of all-wheel drive owners in cities like Portland, Oregon and Northampton, Massachusetts noted in their purchase paperwork they were both “head of household” and “single.” And often a woman. After meeting with these Subaru owners, they confirmed what the data could not—that many of these Subaru owners were lesbians. These women often cited Subarus as something that fit into an active lifestyle, but also allowed them to transport stuff without being an oversized SUV or truck.

Now, here is where Subaru’s marketing team could’ve buried these findings into the back of a filing cabinet. It was the early ’90s after all — “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was happening in the military, and the Defense of Marriage Act was soon to be signed. When IKEA featured a gay couple in one of their ads in 1994, there were boycotts and even a (fake) bomb threat to one of the stores.

Yet Subaru pushed forward. Rather than go after the same mass market that other brands were relentlessly targeting, the company created campaigns to speak to each of the five aforementioned groups. And they took a clever approach to do so—the campaign ads used “winking” language that included metaphors and coded language to connect with their niches. This amounted to especially clever copy lines for lesbians, including “Get Out. And Stay Out,” which could mean exploring the outdoors or coming out as homosexual. Other efforts included inside jokes depicted on the featured Subaru’s license plate: XENA LVR (a reference to the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, whose female characters seemed to be lovers) and CAMP OUT (you get it). At the time, Subaru marketing execs reported that many of their heterosexual focus group participants didn’t even pick up on these references; yet their niche audiences reported enjoying seeking out these “Easter eggs” in the ads. The brand had embraced its colloquial moniker, “Lezbaru.”

After first premiering in gay publications, these ads eventually hit the mainstream media in 1996. And while Subaru did experience public backlash, they stayed the course with the support of straight allies inside the corporation. In fact, the external decision to highlight the queer community also led way for important internal changes at Subaru, including employee awareness/education programs and domestic partnership benefits.

But… was it good for business? Subaru’s sales turned around in a matter of years, and after some high-profile marketing decisions (hiring famously outed tennis star Martina Navratilova as a spokesperson, product placement on the TV show The L Word, sponsoring pride parades and a credit card that supported LGBT causes), they had their best sales year ever. When the 2007 recession hit, Subaru was the only car company that didn’t lose share, and in the 2010s, Subaru grew faster than every other car company except Tesla.

No, this success can’t only be attributed to Subaru’s marketing to the lesbian community. More broadly, it was because Subaru chose to stop asking the masses to fit a Forester into their lives and, instead, doubled down on creating connections with the customer segments who had already shown a willingness to embrace the brand.

So, our Subaru story ends here. And there are countless business lessons to be learned from the brand’s efforts, including the importance of data, the power of prioritization, creating deep connections with an audience, being brave, and demonstrating commitment through corporate policies.

But that all went down in the ’90s—when representation and support of the queer community in corporate America was still very nascent. What about the 2020s? What is today’s state of marketing to the queer/LGBTQIA+ community, and how can brands and companies show their support and create a genuine connection like Subaru did?

To begin answering these questions, we turned to members of Heartbeat’s own internal LGBTQIA+ group, Queerbeat. And while each of their opinions are unique and personal, there are three themes that unite their thinking:

1. A rainbow, alone, won’t cut it.

June increasingly brings about a flurry of multicolor brand activity, as companies step out to support the queer community for Pride Month. And while many in both our own Queerbeat community and the broader community say this is appreciated, they also caveat it by saying that a brand’s efforts must go beyond adding a rainbow to its social media profile pic in June. (In fact, 2/3’s of our Queerbeat responders said that “rainbow washing” is worse than saying nothing.)

Image via BuzzFeed

That’s because, whereas Subaru’s efforts in the ’90s likely took many in the queer community by surprise, today’s community has the expectation that a brand should not only speak out but act out. Heartbeat’s own community raised their hands in favor of efforts such as:

  • Including LGBTQIA+ actors and models in brand campaigns
  • Partnering with a queer spokesperson
  • Using a corporate platform to speak out in favor of the community, amidst backlash or public controversy
  • Creating valuable offerings and services that fit the community’s unmet needs
  • Financially supporting causes that are important to the LGBTQIA+ community

2. Authenticity still reigns.

In the same way that a branded rainbow, on its own, is perceived as insincere, so too are brand efforts that feel like a stretch from their own industry or offerings. As one Heartbeater said, “Some ads targeted to queer sexualities seem organic and appropriate while others seem exploitative and cynical. It’s fine that they want my money (all advertisers do), but it can be fraught to get it ‘right.'”

From another Heartbeater: “You won’t convince me the brand is really engaging with this community if LGBTQ+ content is reserved only for the month of June or is superficial in a way that is disconnected from the product. Like, I don’t think any specific car company is going to win me over in this way (or at least I haven’t seen it yet), if they are trying to connect car [purchase] to car safety to family safety to LGBTQ+ family—it’s too much of a stretch.”

There are plenty of examples of brands who got it wrong and got called out for it. But Mastercard’s Gay Street effort, cited by Heartbeat’s Diego Barnes, highlights the delineation between putting up rainbows and owning action in an industry.

Image via AdAge

In 2019, Mastercard partnered with the NYC Human Rights Commission to transform the street sign for Gay Street (near The Stonewall Inn, the hub of the gay rights movement in the 1960s) into a series of additional street markers that recognize a broader range of queer identities—Bisexual Street, Trans Street, Nonbinary Street to name a few. Diego said that he loved the signs when he saw them, but he didn’t love seeing Mastercard’s logo laying claim to the effort. “It felt forced… [but then] I Googled it and was happily surprised to read about how the signs were in tandem to an initiative to help trans folks get their names on their credit cards.” That project, True Name™, gives transgender and nonbinary individuals a way to have their chosen name appear on their card, instead of their legal name (as the legal process can be tedious and expensive).

3. Be proud year-round.

We’ve already hinted at this several times, but a few weeks of overt brand support isn’t enough to score the approval of community members and allies—there are 11 other months in the year, after all! How can brands balance these efforts and expectations amidst their other marketing and corporate responsibilities? Three places to start:

  • The first is a company’s commitment to walking the walk with their own employees. Are they living the values they espouse in their campaigns, through a consciously diverse workforce, corporate benefits and policies, and an overtly inclusive environment? By creating transparency around these efforts, companies are signaling that they “live the expression of their values,” as Heartbeater Karin Cook put it.
  • The second is keeping their Pride Month initiatives alive and in their year-round communications. By providing updates and encouraging ongoing feedback, brands can signal that they are thinking about the community beyond June and not just pulling PR stunts.
  • The third is a commitment to diversity in their advertising, regardless of the campaign or time of year. Many members of our Queerbeat group advocated for diversity within their own community: “I like to see normalization of queer people in media; however, I find the mainstream representation of LGBTQIA+ is usually portrayed only as gay men, which is sexist and leaves so many others in the queer community otherized.”

But for many, overall diversity is something they value and celebrate in brand advertising. As Karin Cook said, “My values and interests are not just isolated to my own identity. Brands would be missing an opportunity if they market to me as only a reflection of myself. I’m as moved by a racially diverse family as I am by a family that looks like mine.”

The life sciences industry can and should be doing so much more to support and represent the LGBTQIA+ community. No doubt it is challenging. From one Heartbeater, “I know the corporate battles that get fought to take a stand.”

Others plainly laid out their reasoning for why we must all push past such battles:

“In this day and age, it shouldn’t be seen as a bold move to accurately depict us.”

“It’s just simply the right thing to do.”