Volvo takes up racing

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Volvo Car Corp. is hitting the high seas.

The Swedish car marketer is taking on global title sponsorship of the 32,700-mile ocean contest formerly called the Whitbred Round the World Race, after the U.K. beermaker of the same name. The yearlong professional sailing event, beginning Sept. 23, has been renamed the Volvo Ocean Race.

The marketer, owned by Ford Motor Co., believes sailing connects well with its core brand values of safety, enjoyment and environmental consciousness, said Thomas Andersson, exec VP-marketing of Volvo Cars North America. Sponsorship of the grueling challenge is aimed at building Volvo's image, awareness and consumer aspiration.

The North American unit, because it handles Volvo's biggest market, is picking up roughly a third of the $35 million tab. Two of the skippers on the eight ships are Americans.

The price tag includes name sponsorship, overseeing operations for the race, two Web sites-( and ( local events in the cities where the 65-foot vessels dock. Global media costs will account for roughly $15 million of the total. Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN will air 12 TV programs about the race globally. The weekend afternoon shows, which vary from an hour to half-hour in duration, start Sept. 9. Sailing great Gary Jobson is the producer and narrator.

The auto marketer gets a trio of :30 ad slots per half-hour in the shows, said Peter Wexler, marketing manager of partnerships at Volvo. In the U.S., inserts created by Volvo's official Southampton, U.K., race office will appear in Sailing World and Cruising World magazines, he said. The commercials are from Volvo's agency, Havas Advertising's Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York.

Consumers can request daily e-mail updates about the race. Volvo is also planning an online promotional sweepstakes asking visitors to guess which boat will win-all the better for the brand to collect prospect data.

The starting point for the round-the-world challenge is Southampton, England. The contest ends in Kiel, Germany, expected early next September. Miami and Baltimore-Annapolis are among the race's 10 cities.

Mr. Andersson said Volvo wants to maximize the local stops, so consumers will be invited or can sign up for on-road test drives near those U.S. harbors when the ships anchor next April. The last time the race was held, in 1997, nearly 500,000 people came to each port to see the boats. The marketer wants to extend its reach for the test drives into the multicultural communities, but is still hammering out those details.

Volvo will sell 500 special limited edition Ocean Race vehicles, priced between $40,000 and $45,000; a V70 Cross Country wagon, in the U.S. Messner Vetere will create print ads featuring the aquamarine wagon.

The sponsorship will also play a key role in the launch of Volvo's all-new car-based sport utility, Mr. Andersson said. The unnamed SUV doesn't go on sale until late next year, but is expected to be displayed near the race ports next year. "Many people who sail drive our Cross Country wagon, and this new model gives us a new attractive vehicle with a higher ground clearance."

Volvo has successfully wooed younger buyers since it started a new positioning in 1997 with new styling and fun-to-drive models. The average age of owners of the three younger-targeted vehicles, the C70 coupe and S60 and S40 sedans, is between 40 and 45, said Mr. Andersson. Without those models, Volvo's average owner is between 45 and 50 years old.

Susan Jacobs, president of auto consultancy Jacobs & Associates, said it's difficult for marketers to find affluent sports to team with that provide a good differentiation. But Volvo seems to have found a good match with the Ocean Race. "This is not the kind of event that's going to have a mass appeal, but I can see why they're doing it. It is targeted."

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