Unbound Edition. Meaningful conversations about brand, from Davis Brand Capital.

Volvo’s 20/20 Vision for a Fatality-Free Future

Social Agenda Marketing Hits the Auto Category

“Buy Volvos. They’re boxy, but they’re good. We know they’re not sexy. This is not a smart time to be sexy anyway, with so many diseases going around.”

The 1990 comedy “Crazy People”summed up Volvo’s brand positioning arguably better than any Swedish executive of the era could manage. A lackluster film starring alcohol-addled Dudley Moore was equal parts funny, terrible, racist and honest. But its lampooning of the advertising industry had its brilliant moments, and the spoofed Volvo ad is one of them.

After briefly flirting with its “naughty” positioning, Volvo is getting back to its safety roots. The nameplate’s “Vision 2020” aims to eliminate serious injuries and deaths in its new models within six years – a bold commitment to the brand’s heritage and a clear goal for the future.

Whether or not it’s feasible remains to be seen, but the chutzpah of the claim has serious backing. And it puts Volvo squarely among the class of brands like Chipotle, Patagonia, Whole Foods, TOMS, Progressive and others that have paired fundamental operational promises with their core brand positioning to establish social agenda marketing (SAM) platforms. Unlike mere cause-related marketing, SAM is integral to the very essence of the brand and the business, not just episodically associated with them for marketing purposes.

Volvo has partnered with the Swedish government and European Union on AstaZero, a world-leading test track for autonomous vehicles that mimics real-world situations ranging from dense fog to darting deer. They will crash 100 real vehicles and computer-simulate 30,000 crashes before releasing a new model. (If you’re worried about flipping your SUV, watch this video and buy an XC90). And they have a radically different take on the future of autonomous driving: in the foreseeable future it will be a pure safety feature, not intended to relinquish control for relaxation or multitasking.

China-based Geely’s acquisition of Volvo was painful for fans of the quirky Swedish brand. (For some loyalists, it even became litigious). Many feared the beloved badge would lose its way.

As CEO Håkan Samuelsson told the Wall Street Journal: “A few years ago, we thought that [safety] was something that might not be so attractive in the future…this whole recall discussion is a sign that the market is far from uninterested in safety.”

After what can only be generously described as a rough patch, the brand is reestablishing what originally made it great, and globally it’s showing some signs of improvement. However, things still look troubling for Volvo. The brand has pulled out of all but four global auto shows and reduced its sponsorships.

But beyond a mere marketing claim, Volvo is demonstrating leadership for the industry. Will they meet their goal by 2020? It seems unlikely. Despite its feasibility, with 1.2 million traffic fatalities globally in 2013, Volvo has set a meaningful social agenda. It’s raising the bar higher for the competition and for public expectations regarding safety. (And with content marketing like its remarkable “Ignition” short film, Volvo clearly hasn’t lost sight of the romance and passion that can be found behind the wheel.)

Founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson would be proud. In the company’s early beginnings, they allegedly stated: “Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is – and must remain – safety.” As we forge onward into the new era of ultra-high-tech autos, Volvo is continues to drive the founders’ timeless vision.

Ultimately, whether or not Volvo survives long enough to meet its seemingly radical objectives may have more to do with geopolitical branding. Good things are happening in Sweden. But if Geely decides to move some production to China, a country with a less-than-stellar reputation for safety and manufacturing standards, will the relatively weak Volvo brand be able to overcome this potential stigma? Perhaps the long-term play is broader Chinese penetration for the country’s burgeoning middle class, which seems a risky gamble at best.

Volvo is undoubtedly “swinging for the fences” on several fronts. But without ambitious goals, we’d still be riding horses to work. And who doesn’t like to root for the underdog – especially one with so much character?


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