CAMPAIGNS: Volvo builds its brand by honoring everyday heroes

Volvo underscored the values of its brand by honoring ordinary people who've done extraordinary things for individuals and communities who needed help.

Volvo underscored the values of its brand by honoring ordinary people who've done extraordinary things for individuals and communities who needed help.

For the past two years, Volvo Cars of North America has held a large-scale event in Times Square during the New York Auto Show. But this year, the company wanted to try something a little different. "I was keen to see something that had longevity, something that could be nurtured and grown over a number of years," explains Roger Ormisher, Volvo's VP of public affairs. Fortunately, Volvo and outside firms Haberman & Associates (H&A) and Fitzgerald Brunetti (a.k.a. FBI Productions) had been batting around an idea along those lines for the past few years: a corporate-citizenship program called the Volvo for Life Awards, applauding inspiring individuals. But rather than travel too far too fast, this year's awards would serve as a pilot program - one that Volvo could use to not only officially launch the Volvo for Life Awards in the US next year, but to serve as a paradigm for Volvo's marketing operations in other countries around the world. Strategy The overall idea was to have the awards serve as an exercise to show what the brand stands for. "Volvo wanted to develop a program that would embody its values of safety, quality, and the environment, and do it in a way that would inspire people all across America," explains Fred Haberman, founder of H&A. "It's creating sympathy for the brand and, in the long term, will draw more people into the Volvo family," adds Soren Johansson, Volvo's manager of corporate communications. Tactics The program kicked off in December 2002 with a press conference in New York, where three people who fulfilled Volvo's criteria, so-called "charter heroes" were unveiled to the media in attendance. H&A found them through an extensive national search through news clippings, online research, and various nonprofit groups. "We looked for people in certain categories," says H&A's Eric Davis. "Someone who'd done something heroic in the area of safety, the environment, and improving quality of life." All of the people the agency targeted participated in the launch, and each gave a presentation about their work in the community. The heroes were introduced at the press conference by Volvo CEO Vic Doolan, who also announced that a national search was underway for similar heroes through a new Volvo for Life Awards website, which was created and maintained by FBI. People from across the country would be encouraged to nominate heroes, who would then be judged by a panel of celebrity heroes including Sen. Bill Bradley, Paul Newman, Hank Aaron, Maya Lin, Dr. Jane Goodall, Sally Ride, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to name a few. To encourage nominations, H&A began promoting the charter heroes in their local media. And as nominations of other heroes started to roll in, the firm also contacted their local media. "The best tool that we had were powerful stories that [the media] was not aware of," says Davis. "These were unique, powerful stories that the media was hungry for," adds Haberman. "You have the recipe for getting local coverage, while at the same time promoting the brand attributes of Volvo." Meanwhile, FBI handled all other day-to-day management of the grassroots program. "We were the champions of making sure it was real and authentic from beginning to end," says John Fitzgerald, president of FBI. At one point in the program, FBI found that nominations had come from all but four of the 50 states. So H&A then performed some last-minute media relations in those markets, and heroes from those states were nominated within 48 hours. FBI set about validating each of the heroes' stories, while H&A promoted as many of them as possible in their local media. The judges ultimately narrowed the list down to 10 winners, each of whom received a $10,000 prize. Of those, the top three were awarded $50,000 for the charity of their choice, and a trip to the Times Square unveiling of the top winner, who would receive a new Volvo every three years for the rest of his or her life. The three winners were Pamela Stack of Miami, a domestic-abuse advocate; Bao Xiong of Wausau, WI, who helps Hmong refugee women learn English and find jobs here in the US; and Robert Young of Bellevue, WA who helps impoverished Native Americans build cheap, energy-efficient homes. FBI visited each winner to film vignettes, as well as one of honorary winner Alexandra Scott, a seven-year-old cancer patient who operates a front-yard lemonade stand to raise money for other children with cancer. At the Times Square event, hosted by Jim Belushi, Hank Aaron revealed Young as the top winner to the guests and media in attendance. The evening also featured performances by Heather Headley, the Wallflowers, and Los Lobos. Results In all, more than 2,000 heroes were nominated, and more than 650 newspaper stories were generated around the country between the December launch and the April event, and during the headline-grabbing war in Iraq. "Fortunately, we set out to create a grassroots PR program that would focus largely on local and weekly newspapers that wouldn't be as affected by war coverage," says Haberman. Fitzgerald and Johansson are quick to add that the website is still experiencing traffic, and many long-lead and national outlets - such as Oprah and the Today show - are preparing to devote more coverage to the program and the everyday heroes it discovered. "I think we underestimated the power of it," says Johansson. "There's more to this than we expected it to be." For example, Dr. Goodall is beginning to work with Young, and more than 100 nonprofit organizations have included mentions of the program in their own newsletters and websites. What's more, Ormisher claims to have a pile of letters on his desk that is "just people saying 'Thank you. Thank you for doing this.'" Future Plans are already underway for next year's Volvo for Life Awards, and Volvo, H&A, and FBI are all reviewing ways they can make the program better for its official launch, in addition to thinking of how to get retailers and employees involved - and perhaps even expand the program to other countries. "We're only just opening some of the doors and looking around the corner," says Ormisher. "Overnight globalization is not going to be a very easy thing to do," he contends, because different countries' cultures may not respond similarly to the emotional element of the program. "We need to grow it organically, slowly, and carefully, so we don't damage what we've already done here in America."

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