At the International Auto Show on March 24, Volvo Cars announced it would fling Doug Ramsburg of Northglenn, Colorado into space.
Ramsburg had won the Swedish automaker's Boldly Go sweepstakes, which scored him an expenses-paid suborbital space jaunt on Virgin Galactic, a carrier aiming to debut commercial space flight by 2008. The cosmic instant win game, mentioned in the company's Super Bowl spot for the XC90 V8 SUV, was among the wildest promotional stunts in recent memory. And it worked. More than 135,000 people registered on BoldlyGo.com, the spot's accompanying Web site.
It's tempting to chalk the experiment up to marketer desperation in an era of pervasive media clutter. But to do so would be to deny a rich history of interactive innovation.
Volvo, a division of Ford Motor Company, has long been at the forefront of interactive marketing, from the first banner ads straight through to podcast sponsorships. Like the space travel sweepstakes, its online marketing schemes have dabbled with concepts that haven't quite arrived. It's very edgy, in a Swedish fringe sort of way, but what's the point?
Safety Can be Dangerous
To understand the role online has played in Volvo's media strategy, you must first consider the position Volvo cars occupy in the minds of consumers. Certainly the company is unchallenged on safety. But owning that value opens vulnerabilities in other areas, such as performance and power.
Volvo's integrated Boldly Go promo ("Powerful enough to get you into space") for the XC90 V8 tried to boost its association with these traits, as have other TV spots depicting parachutists and professional divers facing sharks from within underwater cages.
John Maloney, VP of communications for Volvo Cars of North America, is the gatekeeper for all marketing strategy in this hemisphere.
"We have no intention of giving up our safety leadership, but it can lead to associations that aren't necessarily [what we want]," he said. "What we're trying to do is reposition safety in a different light. It's not about timid drivers. If you're confident in your equipment, you can do anything. "
Since "safety" has connotations of bulk and unwieldiness, Volvo hopes its experimentation with new technologies and communication channels helps it layer in other brand attributes.
Most recently, its nose for untapped media led Volvo to advertise on blogs. Last week, the company signed a deal with MSN Spaces to sponsor the portal's new blogging platform. Volvo's "For Life" branding will appear on all Spaces blogs through 2005. And back in February, the company became the first marketer to attach itself to podcasting, when Autoblog signed it as the launch sponsor on its new car-related podcast.
But the Weblog placements were only the latest examples of Volvo getting there first.
A History of Firsts
Volvo has been into digital marketing from the get-go. The company's prototypical online ad appeared on HotWired (now Wired.com) in October 1994, along with pioneering banners from AT&T, Sprint, MCI, ZIMA, and Club Med.
"I was flipping through some online advertising textbook, and it was in there," said Anna Papadopoulos, Euro RSCG's interactive media director on the Volvo account.
Papadopoulos has been working on the account for five years, and wasn't around when the marketer became among the first try out banners. She said the move fits with Volvo's long range interactive strategy.
"That's been our overall strategy with digital media," she said. "We have a long tradition of utilizing emerging media -- finding out what the next big thing will be."
Other Volvo online marketing firsts include the first online-only automotive launch in 2000, for the S60; the first integrated digital media campaign, which ran on the Internet, iTV and wireless devices in 2001; a concept car site in 2002; and the first "custom solution" branded content package ever to run on MSN. That effort, called Digital Garage, appeared on MSN Autos in 2001. Later, based partly on its success, MSN rolled out a custom solutions division.
All these digital marketing firsts point to a bold marketing machine, willing to take risks and put the brand on the line. But behind all this experimentation lies a rather conservative marketer, Maloney says.
"By being small, and having limited resources, sometimes you're forced to experiment," he said. "We're probably the lowest spender out there, not only on a total basis, but even on a per-car basis."
Even the online-only launch of the S60 was not the crazy experiment the advertising trade press portrayed it to be at the time.
"The reason it came down that way was out of necessity," Maloney explained. "It was the end of the year, the third new car we'd launched that year. There wasn't enough money left to do a full-blown launch. The decision we had to make was, 'Ok, we can do all these things in a very minor way, or we can do one of them in a big way."
"For what it was, it worked brilliantly," he said. "It would've worked better with other elements around it."
Add demographic targeting to Volvo's reasons for obsessing about online. Affluents, Volvo's target audience, are major consumers of Web media. "It usually happens to be where our audience is," said Papadopoulos.
JupiterResearch automotive analyst Julie Ask notes Volvo is the ideal sort of auto marketer for the Web.
"Lower volume, aspirational vehicles are a really good niche for online," she said. "They tend to have a tech-savier audience that's more likely to be online. Volvo must know that some of their owners have iPods, wi-fi homes and broadband. If you can afford a car that costs $30,000 or $40,000, you're likely to have broadband at home."
The company is, of course, aware of its target buyer's likely iPod fetish. In addition to its sponsorship of podcasts, Volvo and Apple built two iPod connectivity options into the automaker's entire 2005 line. And in keeping with its Swedish roots, it's offering free downloads of Nordic bands on an iTunes destination dubbed "Nu."
Volvo plans to continue reaching out to its target through podcasting sponsorships.
"I think we're going to continue feeling out the podcasting space. We've been doing it on a very niche basis with Autoblog, and we're looking at how that's going to grow," said Papadopoulos.
As with many marketers, measurement turns out to be one of the main draws of the Internet for Volvo, according to Maloney. But even in the sometimes bland area of online metrics, the company is getting experimental, testing the PR and buzz measurement services offered by Intelliseek.
While it's not measuring buzz year-round, Volvo plans to contract with the firm to listen to Weblogs during its biggest promotions. It did this for the first airing of the "Boldly Go" spot during the Super Bowl.
Maloney grew animated talking about it. "I was at home," he enthused. "I had the TV on and my online hook-up. I was looking at what people were saying, what they liked, what they didn't like. "
He said Volvo measured 750 incidents of media coverage over the life cycle of the promotion, 150 of which were on broadcast TV. He estimates the value of the media was about $8 million worth of PR, well exceeding the spot's production cost.
Generating this kind of buzz is increasingly important to the company's marketing strategy. Maloney said the pitches he's seeing for next year's launches so far haven't included a big idea that'll garner those news stories, and the blog buzz.
"In viewing proposals, one of the things I see missing is the PR/media idea that has the multiplier effect. For the moment, I'm not seeing them and I'm saying, 'I'm not agreeing to this.'"
What will Maloney agree to next? One can be certain that whether the company is placing the first banner ad, sponsoring citizens' media, or shooting one lucky Colorado man into the great beyond, Volvo's marketing ideas will aim for the outer reaches.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.