Volvo revs up on road to racier style

Marketing: Hold on to your seats, the Swedish car manufacturer is determined to shed its 'dull but safe' reputation

FEW would disagree that Volvo is renowned for safety. Equally, few would quibble with the opinion that the company's cars are rather dull.

Volvo's desire to modify its image by improving styling without sacrificing peace of mind is at the root of its marketing campaign.

This year, it is spending £12m on advertising the 850 range. Earlier this month, the latest in a series of television commercials was screened. In an effort to cut a swath through the overcrowded car advertising field, it is shot in an eye-catching style by one of America's leading directors and has a dramatic theme.

But it is not just the look that is different. Like the other commercials, it is based on the idea that the driver - in this case a meteorologist tracking a tornado - is a professional who must take caculated risks. The viewer sees the scientist swerving and cornering to avoid flying debris as he tries to get as close as possible to the eye of the storm.

Craig Fabian, marketing and communications manager at Volvo Car UK, says: "The treatment is designed to highlight the dynamic handling and performance of the Volvo 850."

Those features are also being exhibited in the even more testing arena of the British Touring Car Championship, which the company is leading.

If the idea of a staid family car winning races seems odd, so does the idea of significant numbers of Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and BMW drivers switching to the marque. But Mr Fabian insists that is what is happening. According to his research, 83 per cent of buyers of the 850 T5R limited- edition, high-performance model aimed at enthusiasts are completely new to Volvo.

There is also evidence that the range is attracting younger buyers, with people between 35 and 40 particularly responsive. It is no coincidence that the latest commercial was first screened during NYPD Blue, the latest television series to be popular with thirtysomething audiences.

Mr Fabian, pointing out that the commercial had been tailored to attract a new target audience, said: "Our television advertising approach over the past year appears to have had the right effect on the right people. To date, tracking research has shown 70 per cent awareness of our television advertising."

Press adverts are also appearing in such formerly unlikely places as GQ. The intention, Mr Fabian adds, is to make a pitch for those who have just acquired a family and those whose offspring have just left home.

The introduction of the 800 series, a notably more stylish product than its predecessors, is a central part of that policy. But Mr Fabian insists that it will not end there. It is just the first step in a strategy aimed at pitting Volvo against the marques that the T5R has won buyers from - BMW, Audi, Mercedes and, in certain markets, the Lexus. Indeed, the company maintains that its aim is to be "the world's most desired and successful speciality car brand". On the other hand, Volvo has seen its still-dominant position in the estate car field affected by the vogue for 4x4 and "people carrier" vehicles.

While stressing that the company is not complacent, Mr Fabian suggests that it has not followed suit because it regards such vehicles as fashion accessories that may soon go out of style. Moreover, in keeping with the decision not to replace the none-too-exciting 300 series - which was abandoned some years ago - the company says it has no intention of seeking additonal sales by becoming a volume-car marque.

This would appear to be a brave strategy. Although the 400 series approaches the volume category, sales of the 800 series amounted to just 11,000 and those of the top-of-the-range 960 to 6,200 in 1994, compared with a total British figure of 80,000 in the boom year of the mid-1980s.

But it is a result of the sort of refocusing that is becoming commonplace in businesses of all sorts. It is also not unconnected with what Mr Fabian refers to as a period of "dislocation". There have been some significant management changes associated with the failure of the planned merger with Renault and the move of the British sales operation from a semi-independent existence to within the UK company.

An element in the process was the decision by Swedish senior management to encourage individual territories to look at their markets and feed conclusions into a business plan.

One result was to focus the company more closely on sales and marketing - hence the 850 campaign. And the public should prepare to have any remaining preconceptions of Volvo shattered. Coups and cabriolets, similar to those produced by fellow Swedish manufacturer Saab, are apparently not ruled out.

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