Volvo to Reclaim Safety Heritage Under New Owner

CEO Jacoby: Luxury, Simplicity Is in, Global Tagline Is out

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When Stefan Jacoby, a self-described "brand guy," took over as CEO of Volvo last summer, he put a deep-dive brand audit at the top of his list. "Unfortunately," he said, "I must have gotten 20,000 different opinions about what Volvo is, which told what the problem is."

And the solution for Volvo, at least so far, is to emphasize its safety heritage, bring more simplicity into its design, push its positioning further into the luxury bracket and, quite likely, forsake an advertising tagline. What it won't change is its agency, nor will Volvo adopt a single global marketing strategy.

All these strategies stemmed from the audit, conducted by Team Volvo, a dedicated ad shop formed last fall from Havas agencies Arnold and Euro RSCG that is based in Amsterdam and tasked with coordinating global advertising from Boston to Beijing through its affiliated ad shops. Along the way, Richard Monturo, executive director of Miami and Buenos Aires agency La Communidad, was brought in as a consultant; he was named global marketing chief last month.

Mr. Jacoby said he's not ready to fully detail the outcome of the brand study, but said the major finding is that Volvo must redefine its legacy of leadership in safety by not only keeping up structural and design safety in its cars, but also blaze a new trail of safety when it comes to onboard electronics and communications.

"My 18-month-old son can navigate using an iPad," Mr. Jacoby said. "I think Volvo can, and should, become the model for such simplicity and ease of use, which will, of course, translate to safety in a new way." Feature packages in the future can be simply branded as "Volvo Safe."

Mr. Jacoby was part of an effort at Volkswagen that forced the global "Das Auto" theme on VW's business around the world. But he admits he is no fan of the strategy, and does not intend to bring it to Volvo. "I don't think it makes sense to run the same thing in every market and ignore the cultural differences," he said. He said he has not made a final decision on a change of creative, but that he is heavily leaning toward not having any taglines. "I think just saying 'Volvo' is enough, and will be more effective than trying to get complicated with different lines, or running the same line worldwide and hoping that it works."

Could an agency review be part of the new regime? Mr. Jacoby said no. "The work is as good as the brief and our agency hasn't had a good brand brief to work from for some time."

Volvo is not seen as true luxury in the U.S. or even in its home market of Sweden. The brand is viewed as more "premium," along the lines of what Buick has tried to stand for in the U.S. That is changing under Mr. Jacoby, who said Volvo must stand for luxury globally, and he is going to push products, features and designs that can compete head to head with BMW and Mercedes-Benz without copying either one.

"We are going to embrace true Scandinavian design aesthetics when it comes to colors, materials and design, and our communications will reflect that as well," Mr. Jacoby said.

Industry analysts see Volvo as living too long without knowing what came after its strong safety-driven ad campaigns of the 1980s. "Volvo owned safe driving, and I think that has to be a strong part of what they do next, otherwise there isn't much of a base to work from," said auto marketing consultant Cameron McNaughton of McNaughton Automotive Perspectives.

Volvo's growth plans are ambitious. The company said it plans to more than double sales from 373,000 worldwide last year to 800,000 by 2020, with half that total expected to come from China.

Chinese automaker Geely bought Volvo last year for $1.8 billion from Ford a decade after the Dearborn, Mich., automaker bought it for $6.5 billion. Volvo had been in something of a holding pattern in many areas since 2007 when Ford first announced it was putting Volvo up for sale and 2010, when it finally closed on a sale. "You don't look very good after you have been for sale for three years, but that's going to change very fast," Mr. Jacoby said.

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