CAMPAIGN-I: SPOTLIGHT ON: internet-based advertising - Volvo teams up with AOL for an internet-only advertising push. Ford-Volvo is counting on web-literate buyers for its new work

The word, apparently, is reVOLVOlution. Quite. Those radical people at Volvo have been trying to convince us for some time now that they are in charge of a groovy kind of car company.

The problem is that for as long as anyone can remember, its enormously effective brand communications have succeeded in driving home (sorry, no pun intended) the message that Volvo is about safety. End of story.

Volvo may want to be sexy but we all know it will always be safe sexy.

Or do we? Last week, Volvo announced something that could be genuinely revolutionary. The launch campaign for the S60 model in the US will be wholly online.

The main plank in the strategy is a partnership with AOL. There will be banner placements across the whole service plus substantial editorial tie-ups, particularly relating to an exclusive offer of free accessories worth dollars 2,100 for AOL subscribers who are persuaded to buy the new model.

There will also be a widely promoted competition, top prize being a trip to Sweden to pick up your new car as it comes off the production line.

This web-only launch strategy is billed in many quarters as a big 'thumbs up' for the web as an ad medium. The web has to work, doesn't it, if it's being used by grown-up advertisers such as Ford-Volvo?

On the other hand, perhaps Volvo's ownership by a mega corporation may be a clue. Isn't this merely evidence that Volvo is now one of the quirkier of the smaller marques owned by Ford - an outpost of the empire where you can afford to take learning-curve risks?

Perhaps. But, according to Bill Bienert, the manager of e-business at Volvo, this works at whatever level you want to analyse it. It's innovative - and Volvo wants to be seen as leading edge - but, actually, it's potentially very effective because 85 per cent of Volvo customers in the US are online.

That's the highest score of any car company. And its target market for the S60 is, by definition, to be found among the open-minded, risk-taking, early adopters who are to be best targeted online.

Bienert says: 'The company is going through changes in North America and we are looking at different ways to market our cars. We've known for a while that we had a competitive advantage in the fact that so many of our customers were online, but we've not taken advantage of it before.'

The AOL activity is, of course, designed to channel people through to the Volvo site where there is some rich media. And there will be lots more rich media on a CD-Rom sent out to 500,000 Volvo customers - both current and potential. There will also be supporting e-mail activity.

It all seems to add up. But surely this represents an enormous risk.

This is uncharted territory, after all. Will Volvo be downgrading its sales expectations? Not one bit, Bienert reveals. 'We expect it to drive sales from the beginning. The purpose of the S60 site is to allow people to configure the vehicle of their choice very quickly and then there is a close relationship between the site and the dealership network,' he says.

Is this a strategy appropriate for other car companies? Another European manufacturer with a pioneering spirit where the web is concerned is BMW. Its rich-media superstitial for the Series 5 is being hailed by many as the future of online advertising.

But would BMW ever contemplate a purely online strategy? Steve Vranakis, the former interactive creative director of e-brands at WCRS, says you have to applaud what Volvo is doing, but he has some reservations.

'The advantage of online is that it is more targeted and you are able to do more relevant work. If you want to reach early adopters, it is worth spending money in this space. But my feeling is that above-the-line communications are equally important. Until the web produces a lot more content and thus a lot more eyeballs, I think you will need a media mix,' he explains.

But Vranakis, like many observers, says that it will be an extremely interesting experiment. There could be lessons to be learned here - and not just for the US market. If the strategy is successful, could it work elsewhere?

Bienert has grave doubts. He says: 'When we first went to AOL, we looked at ways to wrap Canada in too, but the challenge is finding an effective partner. In the US, AOL is the largest (with 24 million subscribers) so it made a lot of sense. The difficulty elsewhere is in finding who the equivalent partners should be. It's difficult to be effective online if you have to spread your presence too thinly.'

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