Volvo plans ad campaign to clarify automaker's image

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Volvo Cars of North America expects to introduce a new ad campaign early next year to clarify its brand image.

The Swedish importer has used product-focused campaigns since it started expanding its lineup in spring 1997 with sportier and less expensive models.

Volvo's own research shows consumers still think of the brand primarily in terms of safety but are unclear whether the cars are luxury vehicles, what their average prices are and who the brand's target is, said Bob Austin, director of marketing communications at the carmaker. "There's a little less clarity about Volvo now than when we had one car and one wagon," he said. "We're going to explain to people what we are."

The new effort, still in the planning stages, is handled by Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, the agency for the $82 million U.S. account. Messner Vetere also recently won Volvo's global account, which totals more than $150 million annually.

MARRIED WITH AFFLUENCE

"It used to be if you were affluent and married with two kids, you were a Volvo owner," Mr. Austin said. But the S40 sedan and V40 wagon, which arrived a year ago, are aimed at 28-to-35-year-old buyers. Volvo introduced those vehicles online, months before they reached dealerships, via a separate Web site, banner ads and in-theater spots.

Jim Hossack, VP-senior consultant at consultancy Auto Pacific, said it's easier to have a more focused brand image when you have a narrow product range. But niche carmakers need to prosper and grow to survive in today's competitive industry. "So by definition, you're less focused" when you add new models to your lineup, he said.

`ON A DEAD-END STREET'

Volvo was on a "dead-end street and had a pretty narrow product range," he said. The brand needed an all-wheel-drive vehicle like the V70 XC wagon, also called Cross Country, which debuted in early 1999 to compete with sport-utility vehicles.

The carmaker in early 1997 announced it planned to reposition itself with new products with less-boxy styling and livelier, more fun advertising. The C70 coupe bowed in TV ads that March for Paramount Pictures' movie "The Saint." At the time, the average age of a Volvo owner was 48; that has since dropped to 46.

The C70 got its biggest push the following spring when its sibling C70 convertible bowed. The mostly print push was radically different for Volvo -- sexy, sensual ads with a fashion look shot by celebrity photographer Albert Watson. Last year, the S40 sedan and V40 wagon debuted, aimed at 30-year-olds.

This year has been a busy one for Volvo. Commercials in January for the top-of-the-line S80 sedan touted the pollution-fighting radiator. Spots airing now for the V70 XC show a couple saving a sea turtle during a storm along a rocky European coast. The carmaker starts launching the all-new, 2001-model S60 sedan via a promotion on America Online Oct. 15. Messner handled the Internet campaign for the S60, which targets 35-to-38-year-olds. Blue Dingo, New York, handled last year's Internet push for the S40 and V40.

Volvo was acquired by Ford Motor Co. in March 1999. Volvo announced last week it sold 93,963 vehicles during the first nine months of 2000 vs. 83,836 units the same period a year ago.

GLOBAL ADS

Mr. Austin said even if the commercial actors' strike had been settled, Volvo still would launch the S60 online. Volvo wasn't part of Ford's ban on crossing the actors' picket line because the marketer is based in Sweden, he said. "Our launch ads [for the S60] are global, and we are and have been shooting [spots] in Europe," he said. Unfortunately, he added, Volvo in the U.S. is unable to use its longstanding TV commercial narrator, actor Donald Sutherland, who is refusing to cross the picket line.

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