Swedish? Chinese? Boring? Anything?
It is a widely accepted axiom among brand consultants that leading brands can be identified by a single word or concept. BMW, for example, owns “driving” and Mercedes-Benz owns “prestige”.
Volvo supposedly owns “safety”.
The single word theory was first propounded by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their classic 1981 book ‘Positioning: The Battle for your Mind’. Their hugely successful theory (in book-sale terms, at least) has since been handed down from father to daughter, generation to generation, and has thus passed into blogosphere folklore where it is regurgitated wholesale as an immutable tenet of brand strategy.
It gets a bit squirly in the retelling. I have seen confident assertions that the Disney brand variously owns ‘magic’, ‘fun’, ‘happiness’ or ‘family entertainment’ without an ounce of substantiation. Well, which is it?
Can a brand really be associated with a single, dominant trait or concept? More importantly, should it be?
It has to be remembered, of course, that Messrs. Ries and Trout are former admen whose simplistic brand-building notions were formulated in those far off days of the pre-Internet era when the world was a much simpler place and a single media buy could reach a majority of America’s TV audience.
For Volvo, a rugged car built to withstand the rigors of Sweden’s weather and roads, safety was a reasonable advertising campaign “positioning” back then when safety standards were much less stringent and activist Ralph Nader was taking on the entire American automotive industry. Nader’s book, ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, revealed that many American automobiles were shockingly unsafe.
Enter Volvo. Built like a tank, drives like a tank. But it’s safe.
When all your competition is proven to be unsafe, that’s quite a differentiator.
Since then the world has turned several times. Technology has leveled the manufacturing playing field and vehicle safety standards are much more rigorous. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the safest cars for 2010 are the Buick LaCrosse (large cars), Audi A3 (midsize cars), and Honda Civic 4-door model (small cars).
Where’s Volvo? Nowhere.
Perhaps in perverse vindication of the Ries/Trout theory, and much to its disadvantage, Volvo cannot get beyond the lead weight of that word safety.
Design, styling, performance, quality and brand heritage are the essential ingredients of brand building in the automotive industry today, all of which are attuned to micro-segments of the market. Safe just isn’t sexy. It’s expected. What else have you got to offer?
It’s a problem Ford tried in vain to find an answer to for more than a decade, without success. After Ford purchased the Volvo in 1999 various attempts were made to spice up the brand in the US and pitch it to a younger audience. The kids were too busy driving their Scions to notice and the brand languished, unloved and ignored, except by a declining number of die-hard aficionados.
What the Volvo brand is and what it can be is no doubt preoccupying the collective minds its new owners, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Geely successfully marketed “the world’s cheapest car” to an emerging middle class in the country’s inland cities. Volvo represents an altogether different challenge.