If you want an example of what can happen if your brand loses its focus and doesn’t go “all-in” to stand for something meaningful, unique and true, consider the case of Volvo.
Back in the early 1970s, Volvo’s agency, Scali McCabe & Sloves (SMS) of New York, was tasked with developing a campaign that would elevate what until then had been a quirky Swedish car company that became the poster child for the “boxy” (unsexy) sedan.
SMS talked to scores of drivers who swore by their Volvos, and in the end, one piece of insight stuck out. Rabid Volvo fans tended to be better educated, more liberal and tended to make decisions less on emotion and more on cold hard facts (at least that’s what they reported). If Mercedes was the brand for the Wall Streeter, and BMW for the aspirational mid-level exec, then Volvo was for the college professor.
The agency then created a campaign (mainly in magazines and newspapers) around the “facts” that seemed important to Volvo’s buyers. The campaign was built around the tagline “The car for people who think.”
For more than fifteen years, Volvo held to this position, and over time, became known for its uncompromising commitment to safety, as exemplified by such things as crash-resistant passenger cages and rear windshield wipers. For time, they actually used crash test dummies as the brand’s “spokespeople.” Volvo was seen (and actually was) as the carmaker who was on the cutting edge of safety technology.
Volvo’s ads unapologetically featured long copy, and were designed to “look like” the vehicles themselves, eschewing fancy lifestyle or performance photos and stylish, contemporary fonts. With a fraction of the budget that most European automakers boasted, Volvo not only carved out a meaningful niche for itself, but also saw sales rise impressively, topping out around 140,000 vehicles. Drivers who bought Volvos did so because they thought of themselves (and wanted to be seen) as thoughtful people who weren’t swayed by “less significant” things like styling and performance. Volvos became huge with the Chai Tea-drinking, NPR-listening, pipe-smoking, Utne Reader-reading, “Twin Peaks”-watching “leather elbow patch crowd.”
Then, starting in the 1990s, Volvo inexplicably made a dramatic turn. Management made the decision to compete head-on with the fast-growing German marques. They started turning out more “stylish” models. Added turbo-powered performance. And basically, chose to compete with the Germans on their turf, instead of forcing them to play defense on the whole “safety” position.
Volvo definitely paid the price for trying to be like everyone else. Their sales have fallen by half since 2004. The company has gone through a couple of ownership changes, first sold to Ford Motor Co., then recently to Geeley Automotive of China in 2010.
Besides losing their safety positioning, Volvo also lost their safety edge. None of their models have showed up in the top ten of the National Highway Safety Board crash tests for many years. Younger drivers likely have no feeling about the brand, if they are aware of it at all.
But perhaps, Volvo died for you. It stands as an example of what happens when you have a strong position that is meaningful to a decent percentage of the category’s buyers, and then fail to invest in it, both through an operational and marketing standpoint.
Given the tough comeptitive landscape of the auto industry, it’s hard to see Volvo making any kind of dramatic comeback in the near future, at least here in the states. There are a quarter of a billion drivers in China, though, and that may prove to be Volvo’s next hunting ground.
Posted by Mickey