What word comes to mind when you think of Volvo?

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.

But would Tony Stark drive one?

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.

Buick Lacrosse: Safer than a Volvo.

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.

Volvo’s brand heritage offers little inspiration. The name (it means “I roll” in Latin) was registered in 1911 by SKF, a Swedish manufacturer of ball bearings, for a new product line. The plan was shelved and the name was later resurrected for the construction of a vehicle for the Swedish market.

Volvo’s priapic logo, a circle with an arrow pointing diagonally upwards to the right, is an uneasy amalgam of symbolic references that includes the Swedish iron industry, Mars, the Roman God of War, and the male gender. Add a word that means ‘I roll’ and you have all the qualities you would want to avoid in a modern, luxury vehicle.

Geely has a dilemma. Safety in the Chinese market is not a compelling product attribute. For the rest of the world – a Chinese-owned brand positioned on safety? A hard sell.

The speculation is that Geely plans to sell Chinese-manufactured Volvos to rich Chinese and government and army officials, a ‘showcase’ segment currently dominated by Audi. Owned by Volkswagen, Audi is by far the No. 1 luxury vehicle brand in China. It sold 157,188 units last year, surpassing Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus.

Volkswagen was the first foreign automaker to set up a joint venture in China in 1984, long before others. Today, Audi is viewed as a made-in-China luxury brand among government officials.

Can Volvo unseat Audi, the vehicle of choice for Ironman Tony Stark, the epitome of technological cool? We should not underestimate the far-sighted Chinese and their almost endearing belief in the fungibility of brands.

After Nanjing Automobile Group acquired MG, the legendary British roadster brand, it decided to change the meaning of the famous initials to help promote the brand in its new home.

The letters MG are derived from ‘Morris Garages‘, the original 1923 manufacturing home of the MG in Britain. Nanjing has proclaimed it “wants Chinese consumers to know this brand as ‘Modern Gentleman’, to see that this brand represents grace and style.”

Modern Gentleman? Even Ries and Trout could not come up with that one. Maybe there’s hope still for Volvo.

Modern Gentleman, circa 1930
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