Volvo has, since the ’70s all but owned “safety” in the automotive segment. Not a bad place to be…do you know anyone who’d prefer an unsafe car?
Brilliant work by Scali, McCabe, Sloves took Volvo from the choice of professors in tweed jackets to the boomer choice for family hauling. The Volvo wagon was a staple in the suburbs on both coasts. Volvo was even featured in the movie “Crazy People” where Dudley Moore played an ad man who decided that being honest was a good idea and suggested that Volvos were “Boxy but good:
While the brand became part of popular culture and owned safety, it has struggled with that one-dimensional view for years. Volvo has its loyalists who love the brand and it’s products but it also has more than its share of detractors for whom the truth of “boxy but good” was a real barrier to purchase. The challenge has always been how do you retain and nurture the safety reputation while also convincing a broader swath of the car buying population that the brand is cool and emotionally appealing.
This challenge is not exclusive to Volvo. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have also worked hard to get “beyond” their reputations for engineering and performance respectively. The fact is that all these brands represent safety, engineering, performance, quality and luxury at very high levels. That said, when you’re lucky enough to “own” a reputation for one of the category’s real drivers, then it’s an asset you need to protect.
But it’s difficult. In Volvo’s case they have wanted to be respected for more than safety and conservative styling because they needed to appeal more broadly to sell more cars. Over the years they have improved the styling, offered a number of performance variants, expanded beyond sedans and wagons to include crossovers and convertibles. Yet, consumers, their perception of the brand and sales have not responded in kind. Part of the problem is that its safety position is so strong and so rational. Safety is critical and incredibly important to consumers but it is also not cool or sexy.
I believe that when you “own” a positioning, particularly a primary driver, you must “speak” through that lens about other topics or you risk creating dissonance with consumers. I think this is why Volvo’s efforts to convince us that they have performance credentials have seemed to fall on deaf ears. Performance conflicts with our expectation of safety.
Recently, Volvo has been running a campaign that I think has found an appropriate “voice” that allows the safety brand to get into more emotional areas without confusing us. The idea that there is something called a “Naughty Volvo” allows the brand to go a little beyond safety without asking us to re-jigger our entire perception of the brand. I think we all like and accept that people can be a little “naughty” from time to time without losing their essential character. I think the same holds true for Volvo:
While I like the “naughty” commercials, particularly the ascending levels of naughtiness, I must admit that Volvo’s recent effort to isolate Europe’s “naughtiest” city really got me thinking about the brand a bit differently:
What a nice way to communicate that there’s something unexpected about Volvo. Throw a party in multiple cities with the car at the heart of it, invite all the right people, give them an opportunity to be a little naughty and see what happens. A good combination of young, cool, contemporary, fun, a few good natured national stereotypes, and just a bit of naughty results in Paris being crowned the “Naughtiest City” in Europe.
What’s the point? Everybody has a naughty side. Including Volvo.