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Jun 2011 16

once a Volvo always a Volvo?

Posted in blog

You could almost hear the collective spluttering into several dozen caramel lattes over at the Volvo marketing headquarters in Marlow.

On Friday, the Telegraph’s leaked Westminster papers uncovering a plot in 2007 to oust Tony Blair in favour of Gordon Brown were trumpeted in the media with particular jovial reference to GB being likened to a Volvo; so much so the plotters actually named the secret project after the car.  This was apparently in reference to him being seen as “dependable and robust, but dour” by the UK public.

To add insult to injury, the new leader of the Tory’s, David Cameron, was described as a “sports car, such as a BMW”.

“No fair!” Cried Volvo’s president of UK and Ireland operations, Peter Hask. “If only the Labour Party had been like today’s Volvos – dynamic, agile and innovative – perhaps the UK economy would have been in a better place than it finds itself today!”.

They clearly took it in good humour, and indeed the PR department probably saw it as a good way of shoehorning their current brand values into the media conversation.

However, this highlights one of the perennial problems with brand perceptions.  They are bloody hard to change.

Indeed, since we’re on the subject, let’s take the car industry…

Ah yes.  The Volvo.  My friend at school’s dad had a Volvo.  One of those classic old shaped estates in powder blue.  Pretty stereotypical he was too – shaggy unkempt hair, old worn out cotton jumpers with holes in the elbows, into yogurt weaving – that sort of thing. “Safety rather than style” was what I had always thought about Volvos.  And Swedes.

I never really thought much more about them after that until the end of the nineties, when Ford took them over and decided to inject a bit of luxury into the brand to compete with Mercedes and, ironically, BMW.  Astronauts returning from space to marvel at the new ‘Volvo’ parked on the tarmac is one campaign that sticks in mind.  “That’s a Volvo?”  They said with incredulity, coupled with a not so subtle admiration for its sleek new lines. Perceptions changing before your very eyes.

It’s been tried before of course in this industry.

Famously there is Skoda, bought by VW in 2000, which then ploughed millions into its self deprecating European advertising campaigns taking the mikey out of its newly acquired brand.  An honest, if risky, approach that has gradually paid off over the years and has seen sales rocket to over 750,000 units in 2010, a company record.

Many at the time thought they were bonkers, and advised completely rebranding the name entirely. What’s happened, of course, is that the core brand values of VW(quality of  German workmanship, reliability etc) have been allowed to seep into the Skoda brand over a period of time, because the justification is valid.  The same workshops and work standards are now simply being applied to a different model.  Skoda the product brand is now seen as from the VW stable, with all its positive perceptions. Ask yourself if Skoda would have been so successful trying to rebrand on their own?  Once a ‘Skoda’ always a Skoda?

So what’s the lesson for marketeers?  Only that if you’re going to try and change perceptions of an established brand, be prepared for a long battle.

Sometimes you might be better off playing to your strengths, no matter how dull they might seem, so long as there’s a market.  Otherwise kill the brand and start afresh.

The irony is that when you actually look into the project research rather than the journalist soundbites, many of the values that people were associating with Gordon Brown at the time were quite positive.  Strong / trustworthy / respected / good track record / experienced – to name but a few.

As a man heading for familydom myself, these are not altogether bad qualities to associate with a car.  I’m hardly going to be racing off the lights with a baby in the back.

Of course, with hindsight, everyone now equates Gordon Brown with being a bit of a loser, and no brand manager wants his or her product to be associated with a loser.

Perhaps they ought to get a nice respected family man on board to front some of their campaigns.  What about that nice Welsh footballer?  Oh, wait a minute…


Posted by:  Rob Paton, Director, The Marketing Box