Corporate Case Study: World-class aspirations fuel Volvo's branding efforts

Volvo's PR group balances creativity with measurement not just to sell cars, but to be first-rate communicators. And having a consistently strong brand and message to work with doesn't hurt.

Volvo's PR group balances creativity with measurement not just to sell cars, but to be first-rate communicators. And having a consistently strong brand and message to work with doesn't hurt.

Roger Ormisher, VP of public affairs for Volvo Cars of North America, doesn't want to sell you a car. Selling cars, after all, is a boring job. And for years, Volvo had a reputation for selling, well, boring-looking cars. Granted, Volvo has always been known as a leader in safety and reliability, but as far as consumers had long been concerned, there was little to differentiate the experience of owning a Volvo from owning some other four-door sedan or wagon. More or less, the brand was stuck in neutral. But Volvo has begun to put cars on its lots that not only live up to - and, in some cases, exceed - the company's standards of environmental friendliness, safety, and reliability, but are just as sleek and stylish as cars in the lots of BMW and Mercedes dealers. Aside from traditional marketing methods, Volvo's ability to sell its current lineup of cars - not to mention the sleeker, safer models of the future, like the XC90 SUV due to roll out this fall - hinges on two major factors. The first is the development of a world-class PR department that has the support of senior management. And the second is that world-class PR department's ability to take risks to communicate the "Volvo for Life message in bigger and better ways - essentially, selling the experience of owning a Volvo is now the way of selling the car itself. Independence under Ford Fortunately, such efforts are not hindered by parent company Ford, or by Volvo's status as a member of Ford's Premier Auto Group (PAG), which consists of Volvo, Aston Martin, Land Rover, and Jaguar. Though the PAG brands do compete with each other, they also come together as Ford Motor Company at major auto shows. Yet all the PAG members have individual product messages and communications, while Ford remains relatively hands-off. "We need to be aware of our position within the Ford Motor Company, but it's also important that we remain very independent, and keep the brand's integrity, Ormisher explains. "The brand's strength is much more than our sales performance would indicate, he adds, as compared to the same period last year, sales for May-June of 2002 were down 24.5% (most likely due to the slow economy). Ormisher came to his current post nearly two years ago by way of Volvo in the UK, joining Soren Johansson, manager of corporate communications. "Our task when we came here - Ormisher hails from England, Johansson from corporate headquarters in Sweden - "was to rebuild for the future of Volvo North America, and use measurement to refine the process already in place here, says Ormisher. "We started about 18 months ago, and we're now really in the middle of the process." The roots of that process extend back five years, to 1997, when the SVP of PR in Sweden commissioned research that became known as the World-Class Communications Study. From FedEx to Chrysler to Honda to Mercedes, and even two Swedish nuclear-power companies, Volvo looked at how they communicated, and spent a day or two with each of them, asking questions and observing how they worked. They even interviewed the journalists who covered those companies - as well as industry experts - to gain internal, external, and independent points of view. "There weren't any surprises in there, but what it did was give us a background, says Ormisher. "It was a ladder of excellence to achieve what would hopefully be world-class communications. We found out that senior management drives PR at world-class companies, and the PR managers saw themselves as an integral part of the company - they weren't just communicators. They understood the whole business, and how they fit into the whole thing, across all levels." "The study let us create a model for building a successful PR organization, adds Johansson, the creative point man of the team. "If you picture a ladder, you have the sides, and they represent the core values of the company - in our case, the environment, quality, care, and safety. And then you have the steps, which tie them together, he explains. "But you won't reach world class by doing that. You have to pull out the next ladder - that strong idea. And a strong idea you always bounce back to your core values." With that structure and process - not to mention the attention of senior management - in place, Ormisher relies on the multitasking ability of his staff. "Once an idea develops, we choose a project leader, who develops a plan for how they're going to roll out that communications message over the next six to eight months, he says, adding that everyone else in the department can contribute and help develop the idea even further. "If I get hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, I have faith that every member of the team has the ability to understand each other's jobs, he says, pointing out that the manager of e-communications is also currently handling two product launches. But even a world-class staff can only manage so much work. Johansson attributes their perseverance to their ability "to laugh a lot, but Volvo does work with several agencies. However, Volvo always makes sure that the firms it retains operate as an extension of the brand. Any ideas executed by agencies on Volvo's behalf begin at Volvo, never at its outside PR firms. "They realize that a key part of PR is finding inspirational stories - ordinary people doing extraordinary things, says Fred Haberman, founder of Minneapolis-based PR firm Haberman & Associates. His firm handled one of Volvo's most successful events ever a few months ago: the Times Square celebration of the company's 75th anniversary, which not only included performances by Suzanne Vega and Sugar Ray, but proud Volvo owner Irv Gordon logging the 2-millionth mile on his 1966 Volvo P1800 as he literally drove his car into the middle of the party. "They make an emotional connection with their audience, Haberman adds. "We're lucky, because Volvo's such a strong brand to work with," Ormisher claims. "We have a natural advantage." Staying on message In fact, it's hard to find a PR activity of Volvo's that isn't tied to the "Volvo for Life tagline. That motto has three underpinnings: long life, enjoy life, and protect life. That's precisely what allows Ormisher's team to push the envelope, staging events such as Irv Gordon's arrival in Times Square (long life), or sponsoring high-profile events such as the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race (enjoy life), or taking the Safety Concept Car on a national tour (protect life). It's worth noting that there's an Adventure Concept Car and Performance Concept Car as well. "Those categories are open enough that you can stretch them to a point where you are always on message, Ormisher claims. And while he's quick to laud the creativity of his team, he maintains the importance of striking the right balance between creativity and measurement, harkening back to the World-Class Communications Study. "You have to have a process and measurement, he says, "but you should never let it get in the way of the creativity. If you totally relied on measurement all the time, you'd never take the risk, and you'd pay the consequences." "When you try to move a brand, you can't look three inches out," Johansson adds. "You have to go all the way to the edge and look down. In order to do this job well, you should not be afraid of losing your job - every day." That doesn't seem likely to happen, especially in the eyes of LA Daily News auto reporter Ted Biederman. "Volvo is in the upper tier of corporate PR in the auto business, he says. "They understand who the customer is, which a lot of agencies and other staffs don't. And they've been very inclusive for the other papers to make sure we're all getting looks at new vehicles, and helping us do our jobs better." In other words, Volvo's communications team sweats the small stuff and big stuff alike, taking nothing for granted. "We're not here to sell cars, Ormisher says. "We're here to develop a world-class communications exercise." --------- VOLVO CARS N. AMERICA VP, Public affairs: Roger Ormisher Manager of PR: Soren Johansson Product communications manager: James Hope E-communications manager: Stephen Bohannon Media communications support manager: Kathy Schinas East Coast PR consultant: Dan Johnston Exec. admin. assistant: Robin March Agencies: Haberman & Associates; CooperKatz; Freeman/McCue; Fitzgerald Brunetti Productions; Summit Events; International Promotions

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