DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- Think Volvo, and you think safety. It's a rock-solid association most advertisers would love to have, but Volvo thinks it's time to move on.
"Safety on its own is not enough," said Tim Ellis, global advertising manager for Volvo in Sweden.
While it's surely a smart selling position -- envied by rivals from Lexus to Honda and even Kia, which are trying to co-opt it -- safety tends to appeal to the left brain. And because car buying is a blend of emotional and rational reasoning, Volvo wants to add more right brain to its marketing.
In its global creative review, now down to only two contenders -- Havas' Arnold Worldwide, Boston, teamed with independent Nitro, London, and Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis and London -- the automaker is asking the agencies to create a more emotional association with the brand.
Euro RSCG elimination
Volvo had planned to announce a winner last week but instead eliminated incumbent Havas' Euro RSCG, London and New York, and Omnicom Group's 180, Amsterdam, and extended the review, calling for a shootout in mid-April.
It was too close to call between Arnold and Fallon, Mr. Ellis said, and since Volvo intends this to be the start of a long-term relationship, it has asked to see more "development work" from the agencies before making such an important decision.
The winner's mission will be to develop a "big global idea" for the brand that will be used in the U.S. and Europe but adapted with different expressions for smaller markets by local agencies this fall, Mr. Ellis said. Volvo wants to move from different product-by-product campaigns to an umbrella brand approach.
Veteran auto consultant Lincoln Merrihew, senior VP of TNS Automotive, said Volvo vehicles' strong body cages helped solidify the carmaker's safety positioning. But with rivals building safety into their products with air bags and other technology, he said, Volvo's "unique identity has eroded over time." He said Volvo is doing the right thing. "Rather than abandoning safety, they are trying to build on it by tweaking the recipe. That's an intelligent move."
Volvo's U.S. unit sales peaked in 2004, according to Automotive News, at 139,067 units. After that, sales slid to 123,587 in 2005 and 115,807 last year.
So how does Volvo sex up its safety positioning? Mr. Merrihew predicts it will tie its younger-skewing models, such as the C30, to fun-to-drive performance and associate its pricier products with luxury.
Volvo appears to be moving in that direction already. Its U.S. prelaunch for the C30 on volvocars.com invites visitors to "trick out" the entry-level premium hatchback. Meanwhile, U.S. TV commercials from Euro RSCG for the S80 sedan tout "the luxury of life" but also show off the car's accident-avoidance systems.
Volvo has been down this road before. When the marketer introduced its non-boxy vehicle styling in 1998, Euro RSCG's ads for the C70 coupe and convertible appealed to emotion and a sense of fashion. The C70 helped Volvo break 100,000 in annual unit sales in the U.S. for the first time.
The brand has always had limited ad spending, although in 2006 Volvo was backed with its heftiest budget, $87 million in measured U.S. media vs. $50 million a decade earlier, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Auto consultant John Bulcroft, president of Advisory Group, said Volvo has shifted its entire product line since then and can -- and should -- evolve. "It takes a long time to change images," he said, adding: "It could take Volvo another 10 years to get where it wants to be."
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the C70 helped Volvo break 1 million in annual unit sales in the U.S. for the first time. The correct figure is 100,000.