Volvo – more upright, less up tight

13195_10151460597409489_20262807_n-1I’ve just been reading about the new Volvo ad campaign running in the USA. It seems Volvo is now nailing its identity, how it differs and how it’s relevant. And the economic conditions of the last few years mean it’s more relevant than it’s ever been.  In a world where culture is moving away from flashy displays of wealth and towards authenticity, the market has come towards Volvo.

The company has traditionally struggled to get a seat at the premium table. It’s been sub-premium, which is a mighty difficult position to communicate as a virtue, especially to potential new customers. So Volvo became stuck, and with the premium German brands entering lower-priced market segments its task became a lot more difficult. Over the past few years, however, it has realised that trying to compete on exactly the same terms with BMW, Audi and Mercedes is futile, and that it has more relevance as a brand whose products transcend traditional aspiration and perception – occupying its own lateral space, outside the vertical hierarchy. And its hands-off owner, Geely, is giving a great example of brand stewardship by allowing this to be articulated.

Today’s teaser shots of a new concept, a coupe which is exciting but retains Volvo’s solid design language courtesy of new chief designer Thomas Ingenlath, shows Volvo can be taken to new levels of desirability. And Volvo is about to become a leader brand with the launch at the Frankfurt motor show of a cutting-edge new engine family and platform. Yet for all the new sleekness and new-tech, the car which Volvo4has been the catalyst to Volvo’s recent brand journey is the decade-old XC90 SUV. It’s become the default family transport – even Jeremy Clarkson has owned them. As nicely executed as an Audi Q7 and more practical than even a  Discovery. The German brands have massively expanded their product ranges in recent years, inevitably going into SUVs, but range diversification works best if it’s based on real brand values, and the XC90 was an extension of Volvo’s undisputed practical-box-on-wheels principle, reinvented as a lifestyle package.

Volvo is a genuine lifestyle brand. The cars are a pleasure to use and to own, for real people – they’re even more usable than its estate cars of 25 years ago, but now in an aesthetically pleasing form with an increasingly authoritative use of Scandinavian design principles applied to comfortable, well equipped and well-made interiors, with cossetting safety. A Volvo is good place to be – like your living room on wheels, with everything just where you want it. It’s about practical style.

And there’s a kind of luxury in that, never mind just premium value – like a hotel which discreetly anticipates your needs rather than welcoming you with a magnum of Cristal. The cars are understated, work well and are satisfying to use, rather like Apple products. You may not have heard these two brands in the same sentence before, but Volvo, like Apple, is a classless brand. Drive one and you could be a business executive, architect, antique dealer, writer, farmer or housewife. Nobody will judge you and nobody will dislike you.

This is the point of the new ad campaign – http://youtu.be/umzNMC13QEk. A Volvo is less shouty than a Mercedes. A Merc announces itself loudly these days, with its body bulges and creases and its cabin-full of buttons and chrome. Volvo has become the antithesis of this. Ironically it’s now not that far from where Mercedes used be – well made cars with integrity and clean, modern design which become a friend to the owner. Volvo is The Killing, Mercedes more like a Jon Woo film.

Cars say a lot about their owners. But for Volvo what’s important is what they don’t say.

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