Volvo outlines strategy for U.S. revival
Goal: 'Unique premium brand' that can rival German marques
Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
DETROIT -- Volvo Cars is rolling out a broad strategy aimed at reviving the brand in the United States after a decade of shrinking demand while nearly doubling sales globally.
The plan, shared with U.S. dealers on Tuesday, includes new powertrains, new vehicles, more leasing and fresh marketing under a new, global ad agency. Much of the initial effort will be geared toward the successful launch of a redesigned XC90 crossover late next year, the centerpiece of an $11 billion, five-year investment in new products and factories.
CEO Hakan Samuelsson is championing the changes as part of an effort to restore the Swedish automaker's heritage while positioning Volvo as a "unique premium brand" that can better compete with German luxury marques.
The 62-year old career-long trucking executive was hired 13 months ago by Volvo's Chinese owner, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Last month, Samuelsson named 26-year Volvo North America veteran Tony Nicolosi as his U.S. chief.
Nicolosi, who is keeping his role as head of Volvo Financial Services, is now working under his third Volvo owner, following the sale of the once-independent automaker by Ford Motor Co. to Geely in 2010.
Samuelsson said the pillars of the new Volvo will be attractive "Scandinavian" design, safety and environmental leadership, and "clever functionality" reflected in state of the art -- yet simple -- infotainment systems.
Samuelsson: The pillars of the new Volvo will be attractive “Scandinavian” design, safety and environmental leadership, and “clever functionality” reflected in state of the art -- yet simple -- infotainment systems.
Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
Volvo plans to boost global volume from a projected 450,000 units per year to around 800,000 before 2020.
Along the way, China is projected to surpass the United States as Volvo's largest market, with yearly volume of 200,000 units. Some Chinese-built vehicles may be shipped to the United States.
In a roundtable discussion with journalists in Detroit this week, Volvo executives wouldn't commit to a specific U.S. sales goal beyond 100,000 in the next three years. But eventually they expect to get back to their U.S. peak of 139,000, reached in 2004.
Through October, Volvo's U.S. sales have dropped 7 percent in a market that has risen 8 percent. Volvo is on track to sell about 60,000 units in the United States this year. Sales have fallen nearly every year since the 2004 high; the only significant gain came in 2011, when sales jumped 25 percent.
There are no plans to increase the U.S. dealer count beyond the current 308.
"The volume of sales is too low for the level of professionalism for our dealer network," said Alain Visser, senior vice president of sales, marketing and customer service. He and other executives concede that the dealer body is frustrated.
Nearly all aspects of the automaker's business will be getting an overhaul, including:
Advertising/social media: Volvo is close to naming a new ad agency to steer the company's global account. The shop will be charged with developing a global campaign that conveys to car buyers Volvo's traditional strength -- safety -- along with some new twists.
"Volvo should be premium, but in a different way from the Germans," Samuelsson said.
Two agencies are vying for the Volvo account. The incumbent, Arnold Worldwide, is not in the running, said Visser. A decision could come this month.
The new agency will be expected to deploy creative uses of social media. Volvo officials view social media as a cost-effective way for a small automaker to reach a large audience.
Leasing: Volvo will continue its aggressive return to leasing, said Nicolosi. Leasing volume declined during the recession to 10 percent of Volvo's volume, he said. This year, it will be in the 35 percent range, and he's shooting to top 40 percent next year.
Only 5,000 Volvo customers have leases that expire this year, Nicolosi said. "We made a decision to walk away from leasing, and that has hurt us. And it's one reason why dealers are unhappy. Leasing is the cornerstone of building a pipeline of return business."
The company is paying a price for steering away from leases.
Powertrains: Lex Kerssemakers, Volvo's senior vice president of product strategy and vehicle line management, said the company has begun replacing its entire powertrain lineup.
The new Volvo-designed and built engines will consist of three- and four-cylinder gasoline engines with and without turbochargers; three- and four-cylinder diesel engines based on the same architecture as gasoline engines; and hybrids that use an electric rear axle.
Volvo is developing new transmissions with Geely. Volvo uses engines bought from Ford and some of its own. The new engine lineup will allow Volvo to simplify production, Kerssemakers said, by using more common parts and manufacturing processes.
Products: The V60 sport wagon returns to Volvo's U.S. lineup in January. Unlike the boxy V50, which was dropped in 2011, the V60 will have curves and a sporty appearance. Volvo officials are not expecting big volumes -- perhaps 4,000 or so a year -- and expect the wagon to appeal to a core Volvo buyer.
The XC90 will be crucial to Volvo's future. It must be a home run because the scalable architecture is being designed to underpin Volvo's next stab at smaller, mid-sized C-segment cars.
Those vehicles, likely to be marketed under the 40 series badge, will be developed with Geely. The XC90 will be available with a hybrid powertrain that features an electric rear axle, which enables all-wheel drive. Some versions will deliver around 400 hp and the performance of a V-8 with better fuel economy.
Future technologies: Volvo engineers are working on autonomous cars; officials believe self-driving vehicles can greatly enhance safety. The company's goal is no driver or passenger deaths in its vehicles by 2020. Other technologies Volvo plans to offer include plug-in hybrids and advanced connectivity.
Manufacturing: There are no plans for vehicle assembly in the United States. Vehicles sold in the United States are imported from Europe.
The company recently opened an engine plant in China and its second assembly plant in that country began producing vehicles this month. Visser said some Chinese-made cars eventually could be exported to the United States.
Volvo officials say that even though China will become the company's largest market, the United States remains crucial, and there are no plans to exit or scale back.
"We are definitely not even thinking of reducing our presence in the U.S.," where Volvos have been sold since 1957, said Samuellson. "Volvo would not be Volvo without the U.S."
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