A view from James Quilter

Brand Health Check: Volvo

With safety no longer a key differentiating factor, the marque is struggling to make its products stand out.

In the days when safety didn't come as standard, Volvo created a niche for itself as a brand that consumers could literally trust with their lives. When it came to designing cars with an emphasis on protecting the passenger, the Swedish marque was, historically, without parallel.

However, safety has been transformed; every model is now able to point to their credentials in this area, thanks to regulations such as the European New Car Assessment Program, introduced in 1997.

As a result, Volvo, which is now owned by Ford, has shifted its own positioning and sought to align itself with quality marques such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes by manufacturing more attractive cars. This change in focus was made clear with the launch of the C30 hatchback last September, aimed at the market occupied by the Audi A3 and the BMW 1 Series. Quite apart from its looks and obvious safety attributes, the C30 is based on the successful chassis of Ford's mid-market Focus.

However, some car experts claim Volvo's cars are too expensive, pointing out that its C70 cabriolet is £3000 more than the VW Eos, despite some suggestions that the VW is superior.

Consumers certainly seem to be turning away from the marque. In 2006 Volvo posted a 20% fall in sales, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Although total car sales were down 3% last year, BMW, Audi and Mercedes were all able to outperform the market.

Still one of the more reliable profit-centres in the Ford group, Volvo is evolving to address its perceived weaknesses. It is to axe its sporty R performance range in the wake of poor sales and is rolling out a discounting strategy across some of its other models.

Furthermore, earlier this year Steve Mattin, the marque's design director, said it would look to move even further away from its 'boxy' past with more emphasis on 'emotional' design. The next model to embody this philosophy will be the XC60 SUV, due to be launched in 2008.

Can Volvo realistically maintain its premium status in a sector that is becoming ever-more crowded? We asked Tom Morton, head of planning, of Nissan's ad agency, TBWA\London, and Richard Gillingwater, automotive specialist and director of brand consultancy Lloyd Northover.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - TOM MORTON HEAD OF PLANNING, TBWA\LONDON

It is too easy to dust off the cliches about Volvo's boxy vehicles and safety image. It is more constructive to ask why Volvo isn't more desirable; after all, today's social trends all work in its favour, and it could be one of the most desirable marques if it harnessed them.

We live in a culture of safety, but also of adventure. Our desire to protect our children and insulate our lives is strong, but so is our desire to explore. Volvo is one of the few brands that could unite these two competing needs.

We love Scandinavian design - visit Skandium and see how attractive utility and function can be. Also, while SUVs are gaining a bad reputation, Volvo's chunky estates and XCs could meet desire for big, solid vehicles without the social stigma.

Volvo has waited long enough to fight the cliches that have overshadowed its reputation. New models and prevailing trends offer a perfect chance to get back on track. The growing importance of utility marketing also offers Volvo an opportunity to reposition itself via useful actions for consumers and through communications.

REMEDY

- Reclaim safety as something that enables consumers to do more.

- Enable people's appetite for safety and adventure through initiatives such as weekend tents in the boot, mountain-bike repairs in showrooms and mapping tools for planning trips in the wild.

- Discover a Scandinavian design aesthetic for showrooms and communication.

- Lobby Ford's group engineers for a hybrid or biofuel estate - perfect Volvo territory.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - RICHARD GILLINGWATER DIRECTOR, LLOYD NORTHOVER

Volvo is the Marmite of the car industry - you either love it or hate it.

By trying to make the marque more emotionally appealing, it has moved into direct competition with major players that already have strong brands in the 'sexy' car market. Volvo has not maintained a point of difference or spent enough to convince us that it has a right to sell style and excitement.

Volvo's focus on improved styling over safety innovation has allowed brands such as Lexus to steal its market. Lexus now has a stronger safety proposition than Volvo, achieved through a range of technological advancements within a clear premium-market positioning. It has pulled together safety and comfort, while Volvo's sexy and safe just don't go together.

If Volvo were a person, it would be Bill Oddie in drag. However, unlike Bill, who has managed to evolve into Mr Wildlife, Volvo has failed to connect with customers in a relevant way. This is sad, as the brand can still boast one of the clearest propositions in the market, and with it, a feeling of trust second to none.

REMEDY

- Don't be afraid to be different; the product and marketing strategy need a non-mass-market, clear positioning. Volvo's strength is that it has always been niche.

- Do not ignore safety. As Ford struggles to sort out many of its other brands, Volvo's safety proposition doesn't need ditching, it just needs to be made relevant.

- Bring in emotion and safety throughout the ownership of the car to reconnect with customers.

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