I talked with Alan Bethke of Subaru to get his take on the auto industry and how his brand builds such strong customer loyalty.

What are the biggest changes in the auto industry that you've seen?

The industry is interesting because it has longstanding principles of companies producing vehicles and marketing departments creating new ways to communicate to the customer about these products that are sometimes oversupplied. The industry has some of the traditional trappings of deals, discounts and comparisons. We've moved out of that space to define our brand and get out in the market on our own terms. We did that through the lens of what makes Subaru different. It's finding what makes Subaru so special and sharing that message.

Digital technology from a deployment method, in my opinion, has accelerated this concept. It helps people become advocates of the Subaru brand, especially since we have such a loyal following.

How has mobile changed how you think about the buyer's journey?

I wouldn't say it's changed our messaging because those are foundational elements of our brand. But how we deploy our message has certainly evolved. Mobile allows us to reach people at different stages in the process. It has been tremendous and consumers have the ability to gain access to a ton of information. So we concern ourselves with delivering the right message at the right time - it's the deployment of the right message through the right media. We try to emotionally engage you before you come into the dealership. All car makers are aware that customers are still shopping when they're in the showroom. If we have emotionally engaged with them before they come into the store, we have a better chance of closing.

We want to be open to how and where they want to consume communications. Not everyone's ready to buy a car now, so some people consume media who are one year away from buying, some people who are three to six months away. Some are in the heavy research phase. So, we choose the deployment of our message based on where they are in the journey and use a platform agnostic strategy to reach them.

Are there any digital marketing trends you think will materialize more in the next three to five years?

I think digital changes so frequently it's hard to know exactly what will happen. One thing we're trying to do is get one-to-one personalized communications digitally - we know what they're about, what that consumer is interested in, so we can serve them better targeted communications. I think that will be part of our business, and time will tell if that's true for the automotive industry as well.

In terms of customer loyalty, it struck a chord with me when you said you're not targeting on demographics. Can you talk about how that extends to your owner loyalty?

Subaru has incredibly high owner loyalty, and we can thank our great product for that. These Subaru owners are so interesting because the vehicles are a part of their family, something that they really hold onto and cherish. They give them names, and hold onto them, and give them to their son or daughter. People have emotional experiences in our cars. That creates a lot of loyalty, if you think about something in your life that helps you do what you like to do. For people who own a Subaru, that matters. We like to talk about that, and fuel that fire. There's a lot of advocacy on behalf of Subaru owners, a lot of repeat purchases, and community around owning Subarus.

Is creating that right content no matter where a buyer might be in their journey a challenge for the industry?

If you just consume media, the chance of seeing a car commercial is high. The vast majority are about a sales event, and that gets back to those traditional trappings. Those things, when done so frequently, have little effect because there's no special meaning. The customer becomes a bit blind to what the manufacturer is trying to do. We try not to do that, and I think that makes our brand different. A lot of manufacturers target customers based on pure demographics. We try to go beyond that and find people who are likeminded who have the same interests or needs, the same passions Subaru has, to really find commonalities. That transcends demographics, it's really more psychographics.

We have a lot of visibility to the customer shopping process. If they follow traditional steps we know those, but if they reverse the process, digitally we have a lot of ways to watch and learn as well. We try to be mindful of where they are in the journey, where we can leverage many different technologies and partners.

How did you get into marketing?

It's always been a topic I've been interested in since high school and college. I was working in some sales related positions in retail, I sold credit cards over the phone, I sold shoes at a shoe store, and for me it was an interesting point in time when you're a young adult and exploring. There was a lot to learn. How to position what you're saying, who you are saying it to, and all of those tricks of the trade in a sales process. It was an interesting time of learning about dealing with people and communicating with them for the ultimate goal of selling something.

I attended Penn State and graduated with a marketing degree, and since then I've worked for three different national brands in two different industries. I enjoyed trying to figure out how to position myself and my product to try to be successful. I ended up moving out of a sales role and into a marketing role. I did that through a sales training position at Suzuki. That was my entry point into marketing. I got a lot more experience working in different departments - sponsorships, events, media, creative - all the departments of marketing. I was in various marketing positions for five years and then joined Subaru. I joined in a sales capacity, but I've been in the marketing department now for several years.

Alan Bethke is the Vice President, Marketing at Subaru of America. At Subaru, Alan provides strategic leadership over all marketing and advertising functions in order to create a strong and differentiated demand platform for the Subaru brand and all of the Subaru models.

Published on: Mar 1, 2016
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