One thing Volvo has going for it is a strong loyalty base and an unimpeachable brand reputation around safety and understated elegance. Now the company is looking to make the most out of its core assets with a laser focus on its target consumer, albeit with a limited budget. What has hurt the brand more than anything is simple discontinuity.
On a brutally cold day a couple of weeks back, I met Bodil Eriksson, EVP Volvo Cars North America. We talked about the brand's opportunities in the U.S., and how the company can drive to those goals. The obvious first issue, beside product, is simply building, or re-building awareness and, consequently, consideration. Volvo is, and was, a niche brand in the U.S. The automaker has been light on product and low on marketing dollars. Still, Volvo has been inventive with what it has. Take the Super Bowl "interception" that it did without spending a dollar on air time. Volvo's AOR in the U.S. is Grey New York.
Eriksson told me that the SB venture trended three times on Twitter, and garnered something like 52,000 tweets to #VolvoContest. She says the Super Bowl effort came out of a challenge to AOR Grey to come up with out-of-the-box ideas. "So the idea was to intercept car ads during the big game and ask people to tweet during the commercial telling us about a person that has meant a lot to them, someone who has inspired them."
Eriksson says the idea going forward is to focus expansion more toward SUVs and wagons than cars. They have seven vehicles — two of which are cars — including the just-launched XC90 large SUV. Execs never talk future product, but she says Volvo will have, essentially, a totally renewed showroom in three or four years. "But we have fallen out of sight and mind. But this past year we have increased brand consideration, and there is strong affinity around the brand."
It is a brutal market and growing the base means conquesting. If you have huge volume, word of mouth is, to some degree, an automatic marketing engine. If you have comparatively small volume you struggle: your vehicles aren't top of mind because they probably parked on the street and your friends probably don't own one. I've spoken to auto marketers who insist that cost of manufacture and delivery makes niche-market status in the winner-take-all U.S. a tough proposition. Brands are either rising or falling, there's no such thing as long-term stasis. The other argument is that niche-brand status works for a global brand like Volvo, which also has a commercial arm, because targeted marketing is comparatively cheap, and market-by-market variances balance out.
Eriksson tells me Volvo's growth opportunity here is around the change-in-life consumers who aren't obsessed with the nameplate. “We are an understated brand, and we are a niche company, so we aren't talking to the entire U.S. population," she says. "The Americans we are talking to are a relatively narrow group, and psychographics play into that. We can narrow it down, and we know in a broad sense who we should target. And that's important from a media buy efficiency perspective."
Volvo also exists in the increasingly contentious, and risky, twilight region between mass and luxury.The conquest opportunities are European brands, but also Japanese brands like Acura, Infiniti and Lexus."And we are looking at move-ups from brands like Toyota, and also the top range of Subaru. Today we are not seen as a fully premium luxury brand. But we are more than a 'tweener brand." She says Volvo's aspiration is to move up to luxury. "But it is important for us not to copy what others are doing in the category. For us it's recognizing a niche and doing things differently. In particular, we have huge opportunities around our heritage and Scandinavian design, which is aspirational."
Right now, Volvo has a small shop in Rutherford, N.J. "We are a very small team, with just 20 people," she says. A sharper vision, including strong digital strategy, core demographic, and renewed focus on the products for which it is best known, might keep its 300 U.S. showrooms full.