The commercial begins with a box on four wheels rolling across the TV screen. It's a fairly accurate visual play on the way most consumers perceive Volvo. But the spot takes a sudden turn when the box is transformed into the new 850 GLT.
As the sedan goes sliding across the screen on wet pavement - in the kind of treatment usually reserved for sports cars - it becomes clear that big changes are afoot at the Swedish automaker. There are no scenes of car crashes or safety tests, and the only nod to Volvo's core audience comes with the 'Volvo, Drive Safely' tagline that closes out the spot.
After nearly a quarter-century of safe-and-sane advertising, the image of Volvo is getting a makeover.
This transformation to a sportier and (dare it be said?) hipper brand can be traced directly to the burgeoning partnership between Volvo and Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer. The teaming, which has just entered its third year, came about after the 1990 'Monster Truck' fiasco brought an end to Volvo's 24-year relationship with Scali, McCabe & Sloves.
Initially, there was talk in the industry that Messner Vetere snared Volvo simply because of Bob Schmetterer's friendship with Joe Nicolato, the carmaker's then-U.S. president. Schmetterer was a former head of research at Volvo with Nicolato before joining Scali, where he eventually became an account executive on Volvo. Although Schmetterer left Scali several years ago for Messner Vetere, he and Nicolato remained close. (Reportedly, the Volvo exec has long had use of Schmetterer's beach house.)
But time and Nicolato's retirement have quieted the grumbling and, more importantly, the new strategy and work seem to be achieving the desired results. Even in the face of a weak dollar and an equally weak economic recovery, all is glug and gravlax between Volvo and Messner Vetere. The carmaker's sales for the first four months of 1993 are up 10.5% from year-earlier figures, compared to a 6% increase over the same period for the rest of the industry.
That kind of performance leads both parties to say their second year together was anything but the Terrible Twos. 'We had the Teething Ones during the first year,' says Volvo director of communications Bob Austin, who oversees the company's advertising. 'But that is to be expected after changing agencies after 24 years.'
Austin admits the carmaker is walking a fine line by trying to reach a broader audience without alienating its bread-and-butter customer base. It's the same task that has all but paralyzed Subaru, a brand on which Volvo buyers have historically cut their teeth, and Subaru's woes have not been lost on Volvo.
But Austin realizes the strategy is necessary to move Volvo into the '90s. The 'Drive Safely' tagline is designed to keep the carmaker in touch with its longtime image, while Messner Vetere has seized the opportunity to put some sizzle - or at least fun - into the brand. 'We have to evolve a bit beyond safety,' says Austin, 'but there's no way would we ever leave safety behind.'
The change in Volvo's voice began in earnest in 1992, when Messner Vetere launched a 'family values' campaign, a flight of retail ads that positioned Volvos as real family values, compared with what the likes of vice president Quayle and candidate Clinton were espousing at the time. Volvo revisited the political theme with a retail campaign last January, 'The Economic Act,' which hawked value and low finance rates. 'I'd say our first 100 days of that program was better than President Clinton's,' says Austin.
Such irreverence is the kind of thing that Austin hopes will widen Volvo's audience. 'There are too many people who think they aren't allowed to buy a Volvo unless they are married and have two kids under the age of 12,' he says.
The 850 GLT, easily the best and liveliest Volvo ever, is key to Volvo's image evolution. It features a peppier engine and stiffer ride, and it's the first front-wheel-drive Volvo to reach the U.S. It's also the model that the automaker hopes will help it retain those upper-income, politically correct parent-types even after the kids have moved on or the marriages have splintered.
If there is an irony in Volvo's transformation, it is that former agency Scali is now using the safety-first pitch for new client Mercedes-Benz. Volvo seems comfortable, though, that the many years of preaching safety make it almost immune from competitors - even the formidable Germans - in that product area. Indeed, a recent Messner Vetere offering appears to sum up the carmaker's new philosophy. The ad says simply, 'It's not your Uncle Olaf's Volvo anymore.'
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)