The solution: a nine-month-long interactive, "choose your own adventure" video tied to the carmaker's name sponsorship of the Volvo Ocean Race. The global sailing competition is held every three years and lasts almost a year.
Lukas Dohle, global interactive campaign manager at Volvo, said last time the event was held, the automaker focused too many of its efforts on boat crew members. He challenged his digital shop, Euro RSCG 4D, Amsterdam, Netherlands, to expand consumer reach this time and drive excitement for the brand so it would be "perceived as a brand that does extraordinary things."
The agency created "Rush," an interactive rescue drama that takes a page from the Fox TV drama "24." A clock ticks off a four-minute deadline that Coast Guard staffers have to reach their rescue boat, anchored in a harbor, before it takes off to save a yacht in distress. Visitors to volvo.com and the Ocean Race site can experience the drama as a four-way split screen with videos showing each of the four rescuers or go to a full-screen view to focus on one of the four, making choices along the way that will lead to success or failure in the mission. Volvo's three special-edition Ocean Race models, the XC90, SX70 and V70, are integrated into the videos but aren't overly promoted.
The agency's challenge, said Bram de Rooij, creative director at Euro ESCG 4D, was to "tie a car on land to a boat race that has nothing to do with cars." The combination of the split screen and ticking clock "heightens the pressure and makes the whole experience more intense." All four rescuers need to work together, which fits with Volvo's overall ad theme of "Life is better lived together," he said.
He predicted that 4 million to 5 million people will check out the videos during the nine-month campaign. Only about 2% of participants will meet the four-minute deadline on the first try, he said, encouraging them to try multiple times to beat the clock. Visitors can see how their times compare with others,' but there's no posting of high scores and names, nor a contest with prizes.
Mr. de Rooij said he expects the audience to skew a bit younger (30- to 55-year-olds) and more female than the audience for Volvo's last online go-round tied to the Ocean Race.
"Rush" went live Oct. 11, the day the first leg of the race started in Alicante, Spain. A 30-second trailer for the drama lives on YouTube. Volvo is also buying online ads to drive traffic to the game. TV and print ads from Volvo's global agency team of Arnold and Nitro carry the theme of a sea rescue but don't mirror the online web drama.
Mr. Dohle said the rollout of the online videos and supporting ads will follow the race's course, which is why it started in Europe. The videos are in English, Spanish and Chinese, but local markets will do their own translations, including Russian, French and German, he said. He expects ads in the U.S. to coincide with the race's arrival there in the spring.
Volvo signed on as the global title sponsor of the 32,700-mile ocean contest in fall 2001, succeeding Whitbred, a U.K. beer maker.
Volvo, which is owned by Ford Motor Co., is struggling, posting an operating loss of $150 million in the first quarter. It is slashing its blue- and white-collar work forces. Volvo sold 458,323 new vehicles globally last year, 106,213 of those in the U.S. Sales are expected to fall to about 95,000 this year here, according to Automotive News.
Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts, had not seen the online drama but said it tied in to Volvo's safety image. When told Volvo was aiming to generate excitement for the brand, he said the automaker should stop trying to "be BMW" by focusing on excitement and performance and stick to its safety image.
"Volvo had an incredible image it owned with safety but lost some of it to other manufacturers," he said. "The day Volvo realizes it's better to be Volvo is the day they'll see an increase in sales."