How Volvo Lost The Plot


Depending on your sense of history, you might remember when Volvos were deemed “boxy but nice.” Maybe even farther back you recall the sleek P1800. But no matter what era you’re from, you almost certainly equate Volvo with safety. And believe it or not, Volvo’s advertising hasn’t followed the plot in a long time, and through the disaster that was Ford’s ownership the brand is still trying to claw back to what it once was. Volvo’s advertising highs and lows are a direct window into how that happened. 

In the late 1980s, the car world was changing as Acura, Lexus and Infiniti were just coming on the scene and Volvo was a small, standalone car company selling a lot of station wagons to families.

Volvo’s advertising used great visuals that highlighted the strength of the car in crashes, as well performance-oriented messages that said things like, “until Ferrari makes a station wagon, this is it.” The company tagline was “A Car You Can Believe In.” 

At that time, Volvos were practical, and generally defined as a “need to have car.” In fact, if you were a new parent, a college professor or just saw yourself as responsible, when it came time to buy a new car, your DNA probably said, “I guess I HAVE to check out a Volvo.”

In 1990, Volvo was selling 90,000 cars per year in the U.S. and spending $40 million on advertising to do it. Its agency at that time, Scali McCabe Sloves, only had to worry about print, TV, and radio as there was no internet—or at least, not as we know it today.

Volvo Starts The 1990s With A Crisis

As the saying goes, “shit happens.” Around 1989, someone connected to Scali attended a monster truck event and took note that a row of cars that were crushed included a Volvo sedan. What struck this person was that the Volvo was much less deformed than all the other cars. What a great idea for a Volvo ad, he decided. 

Scali went to Volvo and sold them on the idea that the visual of the Volvo, uncrushed among all the crushed cars, would make a great TV and print ad to highlight Volvo’s vehicular strength. Volvo agreed.

So Scali’s creatives went about staging a monster truck event that would be the centerpiece of a new ad. It is worthwhile noting that the commercial was staged at a real monster truck event, set up and filmed before the real event started, with the actual audience for the event in their seats. 

Agency creatives realized that the Volvo they had put in the line of cars for the ad would stand out MORE if it didn’t deform at all, while the other cars were flattened. So, to achieve this dramatic effect, all the pillars of the cars to be run over were weakened, with the exception of the Volvo. It received a welded-in rollcage.

All of this modification occurred in front of the audience, but one or more people in attendance were apparently disgruntled Volvo or Scali employees who took careful note of what they were seeing. Bear Foot, the famed monster truck, drove over everything perfectly. The results were obvious as the Volvo was still standing, almost untouched. Perfection! So all the creatives went out that night on Volvo’s account, and had a pleasant expensed dinner and congratulated themselves on a job well done. 

Little did the agency realize that this commercial would become the basis of a shitstorm destined to become infamous.

Let me digress for a moment and tell you that while creatives everywhere who worked on ads dreamed up all kinds of supernatural fantasy things we could show a car doing, a client rarely approved it as they were afraid of liability. On the occasion it was approved, we knew to have a disclaimer saying something to the effect of “closed course, professional driver, do not try this yourself.” You see these in ads all the time. There were no exceptions to using that disclaimer because years before, Honda had shown an ATV going up the side of a barn in an ad and some idiot tried that, killing himself in the process. His relatives sued Honda and I assumed they settled. 

The fate of the failure of the Scali and Volvo relationship was sealed when the “Monster Truck” ad was produced and published… with no disclaimer. The reason for that seems lost to history but its presence was lacking in both the TV and print ads. So, the idea that it was just a mistake is highly improbable, and serves as a teaching moment for all creatives since.

When the ads came out, “our” angry employees took note and filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General, where the ad had been shot. That office started a case which resulted in Volvo having to a pay a substantial fine. 

As one might imagine, Volvo was blindsided and “A Car You Can Believe In” seemed less genuine, to say the least. Major news outlets picked up the story. The negative coverage had the momentum of a freight train, seemingly unstoppable. The result of this clusterfuck was predictable; the account went into review in 1991 and Scali was not invited to defend it.

A New Start

The winner was a young, upstart agency, whose name was tough to pronounce unless your dad happens to be some kind of Count: it was Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer. British born agency creative Michael Lee led the effort. In looking at Swedish culture, newly renamed MVBMS discovered that people in Sweden routinely said “Drive Safely” to their loved ones as they were headed out the door in the morning. A new tagline was born. 

Creative direction was finalized, support music developed and a strong voice-over actor was chosen to represent the brand: Donald Sutherland. This combination would serve Volvo for over 10 years. Between 1991 and 2004, sales grew in the U.S. to 139,000 units a year, gross spending on media grew to $94 million, and MVBMS, now renamed Euro RSCG and owned by agency holding company Havas, had the North American account, European business, and Pan Asian business. The account was now worth $250 million worldwide.

During that decade, the campaign changed to “Volvo for Life” with a global message of “Revolvolution” when the convertible version of the C70 was released. At the same time, Volvo Cars’ design language evolved from boxy to more rounded, and so did the public’s view of them. The public liked what they saw. They did not just need a Volvo, they now wanted a Volvo. And, with the introduction of the C70 convertible, people felt they could have a car that did it all. In industry-speak, Volvo had produced its first “desire to have” car.

In that period, every car maker started to talk about safety and include messages about anti-lock brakes and safety cages, airbags and more. Euro RSCG and Volvo looked at abandoning safety as a message, but it was deemed integral to their DNA, so instead they doubled down. The ads started to show people living wonderful lives where they relied on the car to get them where they needed to go, safely.

During that time, “A Volvo Saved My Life” campaign, and club, would be started. People who had been in horrific, threatening crashes, and survived because they were in a Volvo, were highlighted. It was nothing short of moving. 

Then, shit happened again, in the form of Ford.

Enter Ford

You see, that scrappy car company was doing so well that in 1999 it caught the eye of Ford, who was creating the Premier Automotive Group, simply called, inelegantly, PAG. 

PAG was an umbrella corporation that included Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, Lincoln and, as of 2000, Volvo. It was all run by a guy whose name sounded like European royalty: Wolfgang Rietzle. Then CEO of Ford, Jacques Nasser, wanted Volvo so badly, he paid $6 billion with Ford family money for it.

In 2001, people I had known for years were gone and replaced with Ford people, and they saw Volvo as part of the collective PAG group, which I deemed to be lacking some soul. That soul was replaced with chaos that I experiences personally. At the time I produced a presentation for an executive that was to be sent to PAG executives in London. 

The slot to present it, on the day of the presentation, was pushed aside to discuss the future of aromatherapy and lifestyle accessories. This was followed by Volvo’s sponsorship of hip-hop artist Ghostface Killa. Volvo even decided that sponsoring video games made sense. My last Volvo client left soon thereafter, or was institutionalized, and I was on the outside looking in.

Can Volvo Beat BMW And Audi?

Between then and 2009, Volvo introduced the XC90, XC60, C30, S40, XC70 and much more. Yet Ford, and the marketing people it hired, felt that safety was really of no interest as a talking point. All those people who had been trained to buy a Volvo were thrown under the bus. A new direction was taken.

Ford executives felt that Volvo was competitive with BMW, Audi and Mercedes, perhaps simply because they wished it to be so. Yet everyone who had worked on the Volvo business knew something that Ford did not know, even though Ford had that data in their files: people who buy BMW, Audi and Mercedes do not cross shop Volvo unless they are purely looking to save money and want a really cheap lease, if it is made available. Volvo people wanted a Volvo. Otherwise, Acura and Lincoln people would “step up” and buy a Volvo as their first European car. 

That was a critical difference that was ignored as sales declines would reflect. And a model for selling Swedish cars at fire sale prices already existed in Saab; it was losing $300 million per year and ultimately went under.

A New Start (Again)

The 2008 banking crisis created its own fire sale situation at Ford. Cash was needed, since the Ford family chose not to file bankruptcy with General Motors and Chrysler, keeping the company afloat with private loans instead.

Volvo was an asset worth some money, but its sales were sinking like the Titanic because it had been starved of money for product development. By 2010, Volvo sales would sink to 54,000 units—a 62 percent dump compared to 2004 sales. Ford would sell off Land Rover and Jaguar to Tata, Aston Martin to a private equity fund and Volvo to Chinese company Geely. They would thankfully send Wolfgang back to wherever someone named Wolfgang comes from. Geely paid $1.3 billion and the sale was completed in 2010. That’s a loss of $4.7 billion to Ford.

To its credit, Geely agreed to leave the Swedes alone and not send a bunch of suits to run the place. Volvo shrunk its offerings by dropping the S40 and V40, C30, C70, V70 and let the S80 age out gracefully. They committed $11 billion for development and the first examples of how that money was spent is seen in the new XC90, S90 and V90, and the newest generation XC60 that has just been launched. Meanwhile, with the elimination of the C30, Volvo killed its least expensive car and abandoned the lower end of the market, one that Subaru has now conveniently picked up. Take note that Subaru has a whole campaign that highlights how people survived horrific crashes because they bought one of their cars. Smart, as it worked for us way back when. 

Yet in the advertising world, even as Volvo’s sales picked up with these new products, not everything has been sunshine and roses for the automaker.

Musical Chairs

As of 2013, Volvo announced it had hired agency Grey London as its global agency of record. Ostensibly, this was to prepare for the onslaught of new product coming and the need to establish a clear brand identity, because Ford never did. In fact, in a June 2013 article in Ad Age, Edmunds.com analyst Michelle Krebs noted that Volvo had an “identity crisis.” Grey London’s position with Volvo lasted just two years without that direction coming about in the U.S.

By June of 2015, Grey London was out and three agencies were named to work on Volvo: Grey NY, Grey Shanghai, and upstart Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors, who just happened to be in Gothenburg, the same town as Volvo. A mere six months later in December, Volvo sent out a press release noting that F&B was now the lead Global Creative agency. Surprise, Grey! 

Ad agencies are simply empty buildings filled with people. And a car account displaces a lot of support infrastructure. If a car client does not like the creative work coming out of an agency, it is easier to simply switch creative groups, not agencies. So, when you see this kind of move, it has a political component that can be interpreted as a vote of “no confidence” at some level. It is not an unusual move, but it is not a first go-to either.

Total year sales for 2016 Volvo were just under 83,000 sales—still 10 percent less than where they were in 1991.

It was now three years after Krebs made that observation, and big agencies with brilliant creative talent had come and gone, but the quote was still quite applicable. Remember, once upon a time, Volvo knew exactly what it was and so did everyone else, and not by accident. Today’s Volvo vehicles are nice and incredibly high-tech, but aside from the XC90/S90/V90 being the “new shiny thing”, what do you associate with the brand?


It is here where I would like to give you a mercifully short take on how to potentially view all of this and be an instant expert. You see, car ads fall into three categories: 1.) a message that builds the brand through something called a “brand narrative”, 2.) a hybrid ad which talks about the brand but specifically tries to help a potential customer to relate at a personal level to the brand while also reaching out to an existing owner to reinforce that being part of the brand family is smart or cool, making them feel better about their purchase, and, 3.) a pure retail ad that shows you some competitive price to just get you to go buy something. 

In an interview for this article, Creative Director Michael Lee referred to this as “activation.” Any of those ads will try to balance some emotion with product attributes. The balance is key. If the ad is all product attributes, it might as well be a toaster. If it is all emotion, you are selling a fragrance.

Grey NY produced two key ads that have been running in the U.S. in various edited forms, brand or brand with retail, to highlight the XC90 and the new S90. If you have not seen them, I would be beyond surprised. The XC90 ad is titled “Wedding” and the S90 ad is titled “Song of the Open Road.”

The “Wedding” ad is supposed to be from the viewpoint of the father of the bride, except he does not look remotely like her.

The “Song” ad is voiced-over by Josh Brolin reading Walt Whitman. The character has the voice of Hemingway. (And, of course Hemingway would drive a conventional sedan instead of a vintage convertible.)

I watched both ads and thought them to be richly produced, but I found myself asking “what the fuck?” So, I sent them to some peers who shot me back emails saying the same. Interestingly, that response, or some variation on it, appears to be the goal of Grey NY. At the introduction of those ads, an August 2016 article in Adweek quoted Creative Director Matt O’Rourke:

“Some people say, ‘I don’t get it. I hate it,’ while others say, ‘I don’t get it. I love it’. That’s the goal: creating a conversation. If it makes people have opinions, I think we’re doing a good job.”

It appears “what the fuck?” is a perfect response, since it came out of a conversation with other people. As a reference point for what F&S produces for Volvo in the rest of the world, here is an ad that involves an XC90. I will preface this by noting that this ad is part of Volvo’s 2020 Vision initiative. This initiative says that no one will be killed or seriously injured, while riding in a Volvo, by the year 2020. You be the judge:

If you found the ad strange for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the grating narration where a little girl gets deeply philosophical about the mission of automakers, you are not alone.

And, here is an interesting kicker for you. Volvo’s sales in 2017 are generally only slightly better than, or about on par with, what we’ve seen over the last seven years. At the same time, Volvo announced it was moving the existing VP of Marketing to elsewhere in the company. This says that perhaps Volvo feels the call is coming from inside the house. That guy’s replacement is Bob Jacobs, a veteran of Procter and Gamble and the hotel world, and he’s clearly here to flesh out what makes the Volvo brand special, create a narrative and communicate the message in a manner that has not been done in nearly two decades. You be the judge of how significant a challenge that is. (By the way, Volvo and Jacobs declined to comment for this story.)

Volvo’s saga over the past 30 years has seen billions of dollars invested or lost. Ford killed what Volvo stood and the brand has yet to recapture its original focus, despite the tinkering of too many people to count. Thousands of people are employed by Volvo, and its dealers have invested in beautiful new dealerships, on the main streets of well-heeled cities. Volvo is driving this to accommodate the perceived onslaught of buyers that will be coming in the next few years as new product is introduced. To top it all off, Volvo wants to double global sales to 800,000 by 2020.

All this is supposed to lead to a very simple result: one person (or couple) see or hear some message from Volvo which gets them thinking. If Volvo and its agencies have done their job, a Volvo goes on their shopping list and they sit down with one sales person at one dealer and buy one car.

For all those thinking I forgot price, my statement assumes that Volvo has priced the product correctly and allowed for competitive price options for a cash purchase, lease and loan.

We can all agree that Volvo needs to think carefully moving forward, or more immediate past performance will denote future performance. It is my experience that Volvo is a brand that is loved and should worry less about share of market and focus instead on being more authentic. Lee said it best to me: “Volvo needs to win share of a voice.”

It continues to baffle me, and all the folks I worked with on Volvo, that waves of people over the last two decades years have failed to understand why people love the Volvo brand and thus incorporate that reason for love in the work itself.

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