LOS ANGELES - After experimenting with the idea that Volvo could sell itself as stylish as well as safe, the automaker is returning to its safety-first message - with a twist.
The company's advertising in the last three years has emphasized safety and performance alternately.
Now, seeking a balanced message, Volvo next month will air a sequence of TV commercials to convey the idea that, "When you feel safe, you can do anything," says Thomas Andersson, executive vice president of marketing.
Volvo is in a Catch-22 when it comes to advertising its safety message, Andersson says. If Volvo sells itself as a savvy purchase with clever design, people forget about the safety angle and categorize Volvo with the other European luxury brands.
But if the Swedish automaker promotes safety too much, "consumers won't even look at the new styling and just think it's the same old, boxy Volvo," he says.
"There should always be something in there about safety," Andersson says. "That wasn't clear when we launched the S60, which was more about performance and style."
He hopes the two TV commercials in September will walk that fine line and increase brand awareness.
Sharks and sky diving
In the first spot, ocean divers are in a cage surrounded by sharks - real sharks, as filmed this month off South Africa. As the camera pulls back, it becomes apparent that the cage has the same construction as the XC90. The cage then morphs into the actual vehicle.
The second spot shows a plunging sky diver, his fall slowed by a parachute shaped like an S40 sedan.
Volvo created a shark cage in the shape of a Volvo XC90. The cage was used in a TV commercial to demonstrate that safety can be exciting.
"We're trying to say that if you are not secure, you cannot enjoy life to the fullest," Andersson says. "These vehicles give people freedom. We need to show Volvos are exciting because they are safe."
A recent report by marketing consultancy Millward Brown USA Inc., based in Naperville, Ill., shows 80 percent of those surveyed made a connection between the Volvo brand and safety. No other luxury brand scored higher than 50 percent. The problem is getting more people to notice Volvo in the first place, Andersson says.
This sketch shows the resemblance between the car and the cage.
Volvo in a bind
Volvo also is in a media-buying bind. With an annual advertising budget that has fluctuated between $60 million and $90 million, Volvo spends the least - in aggregate and per-vehicle-sold - of any major luxury brand, Andersson says.
"With limited money, we have to make a bold statement," he says. "Having a small budget only works when you have a vehicle that draws people to the showroom. When that fades, you have to invest to get awareness and consideration."
Volvo plans to spread its fall advertising buy across network shows such as "Will & Grace" as well as major cable shows.
The ads will be modified so they can be used for regional advertising associations.