Specialist and niche carmakers can identify their target audiences more easily than volume carmakers. But such market focus does not always signal a pan-regional advertising approach, according to Japanese all-wheel-drive specialist Subaru.
The Subaru brand has at least two strong points in its favor: an impressive customer satisfaction rating - including the prized top position in the UK J.D. Power quality and service survey - and a series of world rally championships. But not every European country recognizes both virtues.
Subaru advertising across Europe enjoys the luxury of two parallel storylines.
Customers in Germany, Subaru's No. 1 European market, are interested in reliability and value for money, not motorsport achievement.
Meanwhile, in snowy, mountainous Switzerland - Subaru's second-biggest European market - all-wheel-drive is a key feature.
Without current rally stars of its own, French interest in motorsport has declined - so Subaru promotes the practical virtues of its cars there.
But it is a different story in other territories. The Scandinavians, Italians, Spanish and Portuguese are all enthusiastic about motorsport. And in the UK, where Subaru sales approach Swiss levels, motorsport is so popular that it has become pivotal to the brand's overall advertising approach.
Subaru's UK importer International Motors, based in West Bromwich in the English midlands, recognized the appeal of motorsport early on. At first, the Japanese parent company was apparently unaware of the competitive potential of its cars' four-wheel-drive chassis and boxer engines.
But then International Motors chose to tackle the British rally championship - and won it outright with Subarus in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
As a result, Subaru in Japan began to realize the motorsport potential of the marque. The Impreza was developed, a Subaru works team was set up - and the world rally title was won in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
'In the UK, we have capitalized on rallying more than any other country in Europe,' said Jon Nealon, marketing director of Subaru UK.
'Although we have only 0.48 percent of the UK market, we are continually asked to explain to Subaru conferences worldwide how to use rallying to advertise the brand.'
It was not always so. Before Impreza and rallying, the solidly workaday station wagon range had been the essence of Subaru's appeal in UK. The target audience was rural and based professionally in agricultural or country pursuits. Buyers were aged from the mid-40s upward. They had high disposable incomes, comfortable social profiles and were traditionally Volvo owners. Subaru dealers were also located only in rural areas.
'As Volvo stood high in that market, it seemed the obvious one to aim at,' said Nealon. 'But the appeal of Subaru station wagons was based on reliable, go-anywhere virtues. What Subaru did not have was any social cachet or kudos. Subaru was not sexy.' For 15 years until 1993, Subaru advertised selectively in country magazines. The range started to appeal to people who needed all-wheel-drive station wagons to negotiate muddy terrain.
'We took from Volvo, Peugeot, Audi and Citroen, and we also attracted people who were fed up with the size of the Land Rover Discovery,' said Nealon. 'It was not a fashion thing.'
With rally successes and the arrival of the Impreza, Subaru augmented its range with cars that appealed to younger buyers. The brand targeted males in their mid-30s who were interested in high-performance vehicles.
'Our advertising moved into the performance and motorsport areas.' Said Nealon. 'Impreza's main conquests have been BMW 3 series, Audi, Honda and Mitsubishi owners. You always pick up a mixed bag of conquests.'
Last year Subaru sold 11,200 units in the UK. Its UK advertising budget was around A6 million. It will be the same this year. The effects of UK government pricing reports and market uncertainties 'mean that the situation doesn't look particularly beneficial,' admits Nealon.
Print accounts for 80 percent of Subaru's UK advertising spend. Favored publications for its station wagon range include country magazines such as Country Life and The Field, quality Sunday newspaper colour supplements, and lately even The Economist. Male lifestyle publications such as Esquire and GQ promote the Impreza to younger consumers.
The rest of Subaru's UK advertising spend goes on radio and occasional strategic TV spots - usually screened immediately after J.D. Power and rally successes. Nealon said Subaru does not use cinema 'because audiences are too young for our product.'
Subaru has used the Birmingham-based Wallis Tomlinson agency for all its UK campaigns.