Swedish carmaker Volvo wanted to celebrate its 75th birthday in grand style. However, reaching the three-quarter-century mark isn't enough to attract mainstream media attention on its own. It's similarly difficult to get people to notice a company's anniversary unless it does something truly special that a diverse audience can appreciate.
"Human interest is so much of what we're about,
says Roger Ormisher, Volvo's VP of corporate communications. "It had to be a story about the people who drive the product, not just the product itself."
Ormisher's team - including manager of PR Soren Johansen - began brainstorming ways to throw a high-profile 75th birthday bash. And they wanted everything tied into the tagline "Volvo for Life."
"You can say it has three underpinnings,
says Johansen. "One is 'long life.' Two is 'protect life.' And three, 'enjoy life.' But you've got to fill those three elements with content."
And just as Volvos are built with as much function as form, the birthday party needed to serve as a celebration as much as to reinforce the aforementioned values. At the same time, Volvo wanted to attract a new generation of customers.
Volvo brought in Hayberman & Associates, a PR firm it had worked with on prior projects. Together, they decided to throw a party in the heart of Manhattan - in Times Square Studios, the home of ABC's Good Morning America.
"About 1.4 million people pass through Times Square every day, and we get a lot of them,
says Tim Hayes, manager of special events at Times Square Studios. "The studio is built so the walls can be removed, and it's very public."
In just hours, GMA's set was dismantled, the walls removed, and a stage and lights installed. A Volvo XC90 SUV - which won't be available until October - was rolled in for viewing. Suzanne Vega and Sugar Ray were scheduled to perform. Spokesman Donald Sutherland was also on hand, and the event was emceed by Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show.
Before the main acts took the stage, reporters, photographers, camera crews, and other guests awaited the arrival of Long Island native Irv Gordon, who would hit 2 million miles on his 1966 Volvo P1800 as he entered Times Square. He parked his car inside the studio, where he was presented with a certificate by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Sutherland took the microphone moments later, and told the story of how his own Volvo protected his life when the car was crushed by an oncoming truck. "On his own account, he went on about how Volvo saved his life.
That wasn't planned, but it was a welcome bonus,
Performances by Suzanne Vega and Sugar Ray came next, lighting up the Times Square jumbotron and attracting hundreds of young fans, who enjoyed the performances from the sidewalk.
"'Long life' was Irv Gordon: The car is pretty much the same as the day he bought it 37 years ago. 'Protect life' was Donald Sutherland, and also made use of our latest product, the XC90. 'Enjoy life' was the quality of the entertainment,
Hayberman & Associates principal and founder Fred Hayberman says the total impressions will be somewhere in the hundreds of millions, particularly as coverage of Gordon continues to roll. His story has been featured most prominently in USA Today and The New York Times, leading up to and after the party.
Television coverage included NBC's Today, the BBC, a station in mainland China, and "450 stations in the US,
says Johansen. The following week, Gordon and his car appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Overall ad-value equivalency in coverage related to the event was calculated at over eight figures.
"The story is still going,
exclaims Hayberman. "It really is amazing where the individual represents the messages of the company in terms of reliability, safety, endurance, and the sportiness of the vehicle."
Volvo celebrated its 75th birthday on April 14, as the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race stopped in Miami. There, the local Volvo owners club organized a rally, with their classic Volvos providing a backdrop for the ships sailing in. More celebrations were held in Baltimore on April 17 before the boats crossed the Atlantic.
This summer will see the "June for Safety
campaign, which will include a media tour for the driveable version of the safety concept car.
And Irv Gordon is still driving his Volvo all over America, stopping to eat, sleep, take in sights, and do interviews - and he isn't on Volvo's payroll.