I learned quite a bit from this Priceonomics story about Subaru, a company that very much led the way for LGBTQ equality in the 90's when they discovered their most avid and dependable vehicle owners were lesbians.
How do you advertise a car that journalists describe as “sturdy, if drab”?
That was the question faced by Subaru of America executives in the 1990s. After attempts to reinvigorate the company’s declining sales with a sports car and a hip, young ad agency failed, they turned to their niche marketing strategy.
“That was and still is a unique approach,” says Tim Bennett, who worked as Director of Advertising. “I’m always amazed that no one copied it.” Instead of fighting every other car company over the same demographic of white, 18- to 35-year-olds living in the suburbs, Subaru would target niche groups of people who particularly liked Subarus.
In the 1990s, Subaru’s unique characteristic was that the company increasingly made all-wheel-drive standard on all its cars. When Subaru marketers went searching for people willing to pay a premium for all-wheel-drive, they identified four core groups who were responsible for half of the company’s American sales: teachers and educators, healthcare professionals, IT professionals, and “rugged individualists” (outdoorsy types).
Then they discovered a 5th: lesbians.
“When we did the research, we found pockets of the country like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon, where the head of the household would be a single person—and often a women,” says Bennett. When Subaru marketers talked to these customers, they realized these women buying Subarus were lesbian.
“There was such an alignment of feeling, like [Subaru cars] fit with what they did,” says Paul Poux, who later conducted focus groups for Subaru. The marketers found that lesbian Subaru owners liked that the cars were good for outdoor trips, and that they were good for hauling stuff without being as large as a truck or SUV. (In a line some women may not like as much, marketers also said Subaru’s dependability was a good fit for lesbians since they didn’t have a man who could fix car problems.) “They felt it fit them and wasn’t too flashy,” says Poux.
Many of them even felt an affinity with the name.
‘Subaru’ is the Japanese name for the Pleiades, a six-star constellation. When Kenji Kita, the CEO of Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, chose the name in 1954, he chose it to represent how six Japanese companies had merged to form Fuji Heavy Industries. But in English, the constellation is also known as the Seven Sisters—the same name as a group of American women’s colleges.
And so Subaru went after lesbian car owners with fervor, introduced domestic partner benefits for workers long before that was "cool" and worked to target clever ads to the people who already loved their cars.
In other words, it made social, economic, and business sense, long before the era of social media and targeted advertising.