LOS ANGELES – When Dean Evans was a dealership general manager, he disdained third-party online lead providers.

“I wanted everyone to go to my website,” he says, figuring people taking that direct route were hotter prospects than those submitting leads at non-dealership automotive sites.

But he’s revised that thinking since becoming the chief marketing officer at Dealer.com and now at Subaru of America.

“There are auto maker websites, dealer websites and third-party sites,” Evans says. “All three are very important. You need to make sure all are functioning well.”

At a conference here, he discusses that and Subaru’s customer-relationship management strategy based on what’s billed as a unique collaboration between marketing and information technology.

Subaru buys Internet leads from nearly every major lead aggregator, Brian Simmermon, chief information officer, tells the Automotive Customer Centricity Summit, hosted by Thought Leadership Summits.

The leads are consolidated, classified and distributed to dealers, who are expected to jump on them. Studies indicate faster lead times enhance closing rates. 

“We push dealers to respond to leads within 15 minutes,” Simmermon says. “We have the ability to track response time. If it is too slow, we can pull a lead and give it to another dealer.”

But that happens rarely, and Subaru has a strong working relationship with its 600 retailers, Evans says. “They are really engaged as a dealer body and true believers in the brand.”

The Japanese auto maker’s U.S. unit began a brand transformation in 2007, focusing on customers’ lifestyles and using data management to learn about their interests and match marketing to them.  

For instance, Subaru found that 90% of its buyers owned pets. So the auto maker formed a partnership with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.      

“Our dealerships have dog-adoption days,” Evans says. “Most customers don’t expect that from car dealers. We don’t just sponsor something. We get actively involved.”

On social-media websites, Subaru owners are urged to share their car experiences. Advertising pulls heartstrings and “shows enough of the car to make dealers happy,” Evans says, referring to a “Love” ad campaign that “connects our owners, their lifestyles and vehicles.”

George Glassman, a Subaru dealer in Southfield, MI, at first wasn’t a big fan of the “Love” ads. “I went from not liking, or even getting them, to liking them. It’s a cool campaign that resonates with people.”

His local advertising hypes Subaru’s all-wheel-drive, fuel economy and safety features. “Safety is a big deal with my customers.”

Subaru marketing tries to engage customers at three levels, Evans says. “First is the heart. It is getting people to ask, ‘Why could this brand be for me?’ Next is the brain, or ‘Why this is the right vehicle for me?’ Then the wallet, or ‘Why should I take action now?’”

It seems to be working. Although Subaru isn’t a major player in the U.S., it has doubled market share in four years, going from 1.1% to 2.3%.

It sold a record 150,000 units in the year’s first six months, up 19% over like-2011. “Subaru once had a hard time hitting 100,000 units a year,” Evans says.

He also touts a 60% customer-retention rate. “There are 1,500 people who each have owned 10 Subarus over the years. We corralled them, dubbed them ‘super-loyalists’ and got them to tell their stories” on social-media websites.

Subaru has done well in expanding its customer base, Glassman says. “They leased cars in 2008 and 2009 when General Motors and Chrysler all but stopped. That’s when we saw our explosion.”

Subaru customers tend to be educated, “without being professors,” he says. “Demographically, the Impreza appeals to young buyers, the Outback to someone who’s more wagonesque.

“For years, Subaru had a huge gay following,” Glassman says. “We want to keep that, but definitely keep on expanding the customer base.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com