Volvo Cars of North America is set to roll out a campaign in support of its new S60 sedan on Thursday.
The catch? Save for a few ads in automotive trades, marketing supporting the vehicle's initial launch will be done entirely online.
Indeed, in a time of increasing debate over the value of Web advertising, luxury auto manufacturer's Volvo's decision to tap the Internet as its chief marketing medium -- over national TV, radio and consumer print publications -- for what it expects to be a "core product" in its lineup, is a first in the automotive industry, long criticized for a slowness to innovate.
In addition to banner ads, the "Revolvolution" campaign -- designed by agency of record Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, and MVBMS integrated marketing communications unit FUEL North America -- will include a joint promotion with America Online. Through the promotion, AOL members -- a lucrative 24 million strong -- who purchase a Volvo S60 will be offered $2,100 in accessories.
Ads supporting the promotion and launch will appear throughout AOL's Auto Channel and elsewhere on the service, as well as on various related AOL properties like MapQuest and Digital City sites, the companies said.
Volvo will also direct-mail 500,000 interactive CD-Roms, the company said.
The promotions will aim to direct traffic to the vehicle's launch site, www.revolvolution.com, which offers promotional downloadable applications including screen savers and PDA programs.
Spending was not disclosed on the campaign.
Volvo North America, a unit of Ford-owned Volvo Car Corporation of Sweden, is taking quite a gamble with the "Revolvolution" campaign, banking that the efforts will drive sales in its 328 retailers and resellers in the U.S. -- who will have to eat the cost of unsold S60's, if unsuccessful.
Volvo move pre-empts the manufacturers most likely to do market online: Volkswagen and Toyota, both of which sell certain cars exclusively online, still market those cars using predominantly traditional media buys.
Also no strangers to sizable online marketing spends are GM, which made headlines with industry-first properties like its GM BuyPower consumer information site, and Ford -- which earlier this year gambled heavily on a Web-centric TV ad campaign in support of its new Focus sedan.
Experts might have also tabbed either Ford's and GM's partners in the controversial Covisint online B2B market venture, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan or Renault as likely to first advertise exclusively online.
Volvo's only real innovation in Internet marketing is that it was one of the first automotive manufacturers to create a Web site, in 1994.
But Bienert is dismissive of these campaigns. "Those campaigns, I wouldn't necessarily call anything other than the regular launch -- backed up with millions of dollars in television spending," he said.
But the company says the rationale behind throwing almost its entire vehicle launch budget into a controversial medium -- where its own work to date has been limited to site design and banner ads -- is simply a matter of branding.
Volvo said the campaign mirrors and reinforces manufacturing and production efforts -- the S60 incorporates the company's sleeker, sportier vehicle design -- to change consumers' view of its brand.
The decision to launch the S60 online "started with the campaign idea," said Volvo North America's e-business manager Phil Bienert.
"'Revolution' is a rallying cry for all the changes going on around Volvo. Where our products used to be consider a nice rational choice for people interested in safety. We still have the legendary Volvo safety, but on top of that, we have excellent styling and excellent driving dynamics.
"We're no longer the boxy Volvos that people remember. It's time to start looking at a different way to start marketing our cars."
In fact, everything about the vehicle's marketing is going to be different. Following the S60's initial debut, Volvo will continue supporting its new vehicle -- in a break from typical practice.
"Our industry tends to take a 'launch and abandon' approach to marketing," Bienert said. "The [Ford] Focus is a great example. It was a great campaign with an intense period of one or two months. Then, that was it. The vehicle was on its own."
"This is going to be different," he said. "It will be a sustained launch."
Volvo will continue using AOL exclusively through January, when Bienert said it would launch a heavy print run. Overall, the company will ultimately continue supporting the vehicle "well into the second quarter of 2000."
There are some added advantages of an online launch. Web marketing reaches most of the company's customers -- Bienert said the company's data suggests that 85 percent of Volvo owners are active Internet users.
But perhaps just as importantly for the company's brand, the S60 is the third new North American car launch this year. In an industry traditionally characterized by slowness in new product rollout, that could mean a lot of marketing clutter if handled in the usual channels.
For its part, AOL -- and, in fact, the online marketing industry -- has a lot riding on the campaign as well. The industry giant is tacitly banking that Volvo's high-profile gamble proves the Internet's value as a serious marketing medium -- especially critical in a time when dot-com online advertising and marketing is slowing, and the white knight of brick-and-mortar spending has yet to sweep in.
Bienert said these concerns "absolutely" impacted Volvo's campaign thinking.
"That's why we partnered with AOL, as opposed to just buying ads across the Internet," he said. "AOL is a premium service, on top of being the number one online service. They're not the cheapest service in town, they're a premium service that gives value to their customers. "Based on who they are and who their customers are, they are a good company to partner with."
Execs from AOL said they are optimistic.
"We are delighted that Volvo chose to work with AOL in such an innovative way to launch their latest car," said AOL president of interactive marketing Myer Berlow.
"Consumers are going online more than ever to both research and buy cars, and we're pleased to collaborate with Volvo, a brand our members know and trust, on such a unique marketing program."
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