Inside Subaru Canada’s heartfelt thank you to Canada’s front-line workers

It’s a car ad, but it’s missing a car. In fact, the only nod to driving in Subaru Canada’s newest spot is an empty road lined by trees, mountains rising in the distance, partly illuminated by rays of sun breaking through the clouds.

It’s a road practically begging to be driven on—but not right now. The rest of the spot is a reminder of the sacrifices people are making to keep Canadian society running during a difficult time.

The voiceover states “We originally paid to air our Subaru car commercial in this time slot, but instead we’d like to use the next 30 seconds to thank those who keep us safe, those who keep us fed and those who keep us protected.”

Created by Zulu Alpha Kilo, “A heartfelt thanks from Subaru Canada” then transitions to a series of images that have become commonplace on TV screens across the nation in the past two weeks: beleaguered doctors, paramedics, emergency services workers and food service employees singlehandedly keeping the country going during the virtual lockdown stemming from the COVID crisis.

Subaru is one of just a handful of brands that has introduced new advertising during the public health crisis. We spoke with Ted Lalka, the car company’s vice-president of marketing and product management, about how the campaign came together, the tone, and how the car brand pivoted from the irreverence that is a core part of its brand DNA to solemnity.

Like many brands, you were probably scheduled to be in market with a regular campaign. Tell us about how you pivoted to this creative approach.

“We had a very strong campaign in place to promote our brand and our products, but the situation changed very quickly from the time we committed to getting the media and creating the spots. We had the space and the campaign ready to go, but frankly it just didn’t feel right with everyone talking about their concerns about COVID—whether it was concern about catching it themselves to how it was impacting their family, or people being stuck outside of Canada and trying to get back in.

We didn’t feel like it was the right time to be saying ‘Get out there and enjoy the country in your new Subaru.’ It wasn’t a line we thought that was really important.”

On the new spot and how it came together

“We put it together in an unbelievably short period of time. The key was seeing what we could do to help the situation. First and foremost we wanted to thank all the front-line workers across the country that are keeping us safe and healthy and allowing us to have food on the table. From the original phone call to ZAK that we wanted to produce something, to actual production was probably not much more than a week.

“We knew that we wanted to convey a sense of gratitude and appreciation, but you can’t go out and film anything. We knew we needed to do something quickly because we had these ads that were going to be on air (the original plan was to air the this year’s “Cure Boredom” campaign promoting the Impreza and last year’s “Runaway Canoe” spot promoting the Forester). Both of those campaigns are very strong and very well received, but they just didn’t feel right for today.

“Those campaigns were talking about our brand—a great vehicle to go out and enjoy life, look for adventures and have fun. That’s just not the situation we have today, so we felt they needed to be saved for another time when it’s more appropriate. We wanted to come out with a message we thought would be important to all Canadians.”

Did you learn anything from the process?

“We’ve received an awful lot of very positive comments from people, and what it reinforced is the importance of communicating something that’s relevant to people. There’s a time to be promoting vehicles, a time and a place to promote the brand overall, and in this particular case it was all about the importance of communicating something appropriate for the time.”

Irreverence and humour have long been part of Subaru’s brand DNA. What was it like to step outside of your comfort zone? Did it feel like something of a tightrope walk?

“Not at all. It felt very natural. Because we had a very clear vision in our mind of what we needed to do: a sincere thank you. It was easy to change it up. It also helped that our partners at ZAK were of a like mind. Humour can be really effective if it’s done well, but this just felt right and natural. There was no real added effort required on our part, and it didn’t feel uncomfortable.”

You’re one of the few brands that has introduced advertising directly addressing COVID. Do you have any guidance for brands contemplating and wondering about how best to go to market?

“I hate to be offering advice to so many great professionals out there that know their craft so well. I would just say identify what’s really important to your audience, believe in what you’re saying, and keep the message simple.”

Everything’s kind of up in the air right now, but how are you feeling about the marketing side of the business right now? Do you feel it’s still important and have you contemplating pulling back at all?

“The reality is that a lot of dealerships across the country are working at best with limited capacity. This is not the time for people to be going out and be making a major purchase. Our investments have been hit pretty severely, there are people who have lost their jobs and others feeling uncertain.

“I don’t think this is a time when people are going to be going out and making major purchases, unless they absolutely have to, so I think the prudent thing would be to scale back as much as you can right now. If you are communicating, say something that’s relevant for the time and get ready for when things get back to so-called normal. There will be a time, and it can’t be soon enough for me, that we will be having to get back into market and continue with business.”

How is working from home going for you personally?

“It’s taking some adjustment. I’ve never worked from home. I’ve heard friends talk about some of the advantages of working from home, but I can tell you that I’m on the phone and the computer all day long, working longer hours than ever. It’s very intense as we work to keep the business going and do what needs to be done. This thing will pass, and we need to be in a position of strength to move forward.”

Chris Powell