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ROBERT AUSTIN VOLVO

By Published on .

When Robert Austin reads a letter from the son of two members of the Volvo Saved My Life Club, his voice cracks with emotion.

The club has become a powerful marketing idea, but that's not really what Mr. Austin had in mind when he initiated it.

Mr. Austin, director of marketing communications for Volvo Cars of North America, saw the club as a way to "recognize a very special group of people, and say thank you in a very respectful way."

Last year, agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, New York, crafted a notable campaign depicting club members.

"We wanted to do advertising that did not cheapen these people, or exploit them," says Mr. Austin, 47. "The tone had to come out as a celebration of life-you'd want to cry out of happiness, not out of fright."

For Volvo, the brand-building campaign is a way to separate the company from other car manufacturers that use safety as a marketing tool.

"We've gone away from the laundry list of product features like air bags and anti-lock brakes, to show the ultimate human benefit," Mr. Austin says.

Mr. Austin joined Volvo as a consumer affairs representative in 1970 and soon took note of the stream of customer letters that described major crashes. "The line that kept recurring ... was, `Volvo saved my life,"' he says.

So the club was formed in 1990, its first member being opera singer Robert Merrill, who survived when a car driving the opposite way jumped a divider and bounced off the roof of his Volvo. There are more than 100 members now, as determined by a six-member committee that reviews accident details.

"Every once in a while, you get to do something where everyone's a winner," Mr. Austin says. "It makes you feel good about being in the advertising business, and it makes you feel good as a human being."

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