During the Great Depression, Volvo faced a challenge from General Motors Corp., which in 1931, positioned Chevrolet as "Swedish made" in an industry magazine. Volvo quickly countered, claiming its car was "the Swedish car."
During World War II, the Swedish government funded Volvo's development activities. The period produced strong product innovation, laying the foundations for postwar expansion. In 1944, Volvo installed laminated windshields as standard equipment in all its cars 25 years before the U.S. government required that standard.
Volvo's reputation and image were dominated by the founders through the 1950s. Volvo cars won endurance races around the world, and the marketer's reputation soared. In the mid-1950s, Volvo, confident of the durability of its car, introduced a five-year warranty for its PV444; the company was promptly sued by the Swedish insurance industry. The suit was dismissed, but Volvo featured the warranty prominently in its advertising.
Entering the U.S. market
In 1955, Volvo entered the U.S. market on a test basis on the West Coast. The U.S. was a tempting market for many reasons, including the fact that it was the only nation with an auto industry that had no protective tariff. By that time, Volvo had become Sweden's No. 2 car manufacturer, with annual sales of $150 million. Within one year, its U.S. network expanded to 27 dealers with combined sales of about 500 units a month. By the end of 1956, franchises opened in Chicago and Milwaukee.
The U.S. launch was accomplished without advertising, which did not begin until the end of that year. The Ed Belford Agency of Studio City, Calif., handled advertising and public relations during the company's early years in the U.S., where its initial strategy had been to position the car as a second vehicle. With a sticker price of $2,000, however, Volvo turned out to be many owners' only car.
In August 1959, Volvo Import appointed Anderson & Cairns (subsequently Chirurg & Cairns) as its ad agency, with a budget of about $1 million. The campaign emphasized the quality of the vehicle, with price as a subtheme: "Volvo economy does not mean compromise," the headline promised.
In the early 1960s, however, Volvo, along with every import car brand, faced the onslaught of Volkswagen. In January 1961, Volvo moved its advertising to Sind & Sullivan, which continued Volvo's focus on quality, with the ultimate benefit of durability and long life.
Six months after moving to Sind, the automaker switched shops once again, becoming the first account of Carl Ally Inc. Ally moved Volvo onto TV and sharpened its durability theme with the promise that "Nine out of every 10 [Volvos] registered here [i.e., in Sweden] in the last 11 years are still on the road." The 11-year average life of the car became the basis of advertising for years to come.
The relationship with Ally lasted until June 1967, when the account moved again, becoming the first client of Scali, McCabe, Sloves, whose founding partners had supervised the Volvo business at Ally.
SMS continued the basic durability/longevity theme, comparing Volvo's strength to that of a tank while pointing out its comfort, space and gas mileage. Other ads took aim at the quick obsolescence of U.S. cars.
In a product placement coup, the Volvo P1800 sports coupe became the car driven by Roger Moore in the 1967 to 1969 TV spy series "The Saint." Ally promoted the car as "a souped-down Ferrari." By 1970, the automaker had sold 50,000 Volvos in the U.S.
As Volvo increased its export business, marketing and advertising were decentralized and managed locally, with many different agencies involved. While ads often looked different, core brand equities-solidity, durability and safety-remained consistent. In 1959, Volvo became the first car with a three-point safety belt, which later became standard on all cars.
During the 1960s, Volvo marketed the 122S, a less sporty model, with the slogan, "Stronger than dirt." Volvo was adding to a growing reputation for cars that lasted forever and emphasized that idea in an ad that read, "Your car is obsolete. Again."
In 1970, key ad campaigns by SMS in the U.S. and U.K. solidified Volvo's reputation as the owner of automotive safety with tags such as SMS' "It shouldn't take an act of Congress to make cars safe." In fact, in 1976 the U.S. government bought 24 Volvos and used them in the crash tests that formed the basis for all auto safety standards.
At the end of the 1970s, Volvo decided to split its car and truck businesses into separate subsidiaries. In the 1980s, Volvo introduced the 769 sedan with an ad that read, "The car that took 10 years to build." The message was consistent with its image of dedicated fine engineering and disdain for continual stylistic changes.
Volvo's relationship with SMS ended when the agency resigned in a dispute over a commercial. The spot, filmed in 1990, showed a monster truck crushing a row of cars, save the Volvo. While based on a true story, all the cars used in the spot had been doctored, including the Volvo. As a result of that incident, Scali and Volvo both entered into voluntary agreements with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and paid fines.
The late 1980s and early '90s saw dramatic changes in the global auto industry. Consolidation was rampant. Demographics changed and the baby boomer generation was aging. Other auto companies began to emphasize their own safety features, and Volvo's car sales plummeted. In 1991, Volvo hired Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer (later Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG), which began with a complete reassessment of the brand. Messner found that while Volvo was strongly identified with safety it also was seen as boxy, boring and tanklike.
In 1991, Volvo shifted its media focus to TV. In 1994, the automaker introduced a campaign called "Survivors" that featured real people who had survived car accidents and credited Volvo with saving their lives.
Volvo also extended its product line to cater to people in all stages of life, not just the young families it had previously targeted. Volvo worked to solidify this redefinition through striking new ad campaigns, including Messner's positioning of the 850 GLT, the first front-wheel-drive Volvo in the U.S., as a fun lifestyle choice. In 1996, it ran a spot showing an 850 Turbo Wagon outracing a BMW 328i. (BMW protested the ad, and the case went before the National Advertising Review Board.)
First global campaign
Volvo Car Corp. unleashed its first global ad campaign in 1998 to launch the C70 coupe and convertible. The automaker's strategy featured an emotional TV and print campaign with the tagline, "It will move you in ways Volvo never has." This new image was closely tied to the release of "The Saint," a Paramount Pictures film based on the TV series in which the title character drove a C70.
Volvo continued to redefine its image and its product line in a second global campaign created by British agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and launched the S80, Volvo's first foray into the luxury car segment.
In 1999, Ford Motor Co. purchased Volvo's automotive unit; trucks remained with AB Volvo. Ford used a single TV spot around the world that featured 13-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, and highlighted Volvo and Ford's six other brands.
In the same year, "Volvo for life" was introduced as a global tagline. This new slogan, created by Messner and Sweden-based Forsman & Bodenfors, incorporated both the theme of respect for life for which Volvo was already famous as well as the zest for life that became another hallmark of Volvo advertising.
In 2001, Ford spent $94.3 million advertising Volvo vehicles, down 9.5% over the previous year. In 2002, Volvo introduced its XC90 sport-utility vehicle to the U.S. with limited advertising from Euro RSCG MVBMS & Partners, New York. In 2003 and into 2004, the SUV buoyed Volvo sales. The marketer also attracted new buyers with more stylish cars.