Subaru’s gay-and-lesbian–focused marketing campaign was a hit, and the company’s efforts continue today. In focus groups and online polls, gay and lesbian consumers consistently choose Subaru vehicles as their favorite cars or Subaru as the most gay-friendly brand. As one focus-group participant put it, “Martina Navratilova is a spokesperson. What more do you want?”
That reputation has translated into financial success, and Subaru’s parent company recently rebranded the entire conglomerate under the Subaru name due to the carmaker’s surging popularity. In the 2010s, only Tesla grew faster than Subaru, which led Subaru’s president to worry that Subaru could get “too big.”
Lesbians buying Subaru cars did not singlehandedly resurrect the carmaker, but the gay market was one of the best for Subaru. The carmaker tracked the effectiveness of its niche marketing by partnering with 40 or 50 organizations—like outdoor associations and the Rainbow Card—to offer discounts on Subaru cars. Every year, Tim Bennett says, the LGBT organizations were in the top five in terms of cars sold.
Subaru was not the first company to create advertisements for gay and lesbian consumers, but it was the first major company in the United States to do it so transparently and consistently. Subaru’s lesbian-focused ad campaign was widely discussed, and its success helped spur growth in gay and lesbian marketing. By the early 2000s, marketers were writing articles that called gays and lesbians an “underserved market” and “perfect consumers.”
For some, though, it was an uncomfortable embrace. The perception of the gay market as a goldmine relied on the misperception that all gay people were well-off and part of dual-earner households without children. A number of academics criticized corporate America’s embrace of the LGBT community: While companies wanted the profits that came from marketing a gay sense of style, they focused on upper-class and white gay identities—rarely gay people of color or those unable to afford medical treatment for HIV/AIDS.
But according to Derderian, that perspective underestimates the intelligence of LGBT consumers. To show that Subaru cared about its gay and lesbian customers, she says, the carmaker supported causes that they cared about. Through its sponsorship of the Rainbow Card, Subaru contributed millions of dollars to HIV/AIDS research and LGBT causes that helped both their customers and people who couldn’t afford a Subaru.
Moreover, Derderian, like many LGBT people who see a company pitching to the gay market, vetted firms interested in sponsoring the Rainbow Card by looking into the policies they had for their employees, like benefits for same-sex partners. This led to a trend of companies making their internal policies more gay-friendly when they wanted to advertise to gay customers. When Ford created gay-friendly ads, it revised its policies for its more than 100,000 employees.
In a sense, all Subaru did was notice a group of customers who often felt unwelcome and invisible, and create ads for them. But it was a big deal at the time. While companies’ involvement in causes are almost always driven by an interest in the bottom line, it’s heartening that the origins of lesbians’ stereotypical affinity for Subarus is not a cynical marketing campaign, but a progressive one.
This article appears courtesy of Priceonomics.