Brand lessons from Volvo and Saab

Two Swedish car companies, Volvo and Saab, have some great lessons in brand building.

Cars are one of the products which are definitely brand decisions. Audi, VW and Skoda share the same underlying platform but have radically different brand positions.

I drive a BMW sports car which my friends cruelly refer to as the Midlife Crisis Mobile. It was definitely a brand decision. However I purchased the cheapest possible insurance from a price comparison website which wasn’t a brand decision at all: it was a rational features, benefits, price based decision.

This is typical and it’s an important first consideration. Is the product you are selling a brand based decision (sometimes called System 1) or a price and features based decision such as car insurance (System 2)?

Going back to our Swedish automobiles let’s start with Saab. The legendary David Ogilvy, one of the real Mad Men came up with the positioning that Saab was “The car for winter”. There’s no particular factual basis for this positioning beyond the fact that Sweden can be quite cold. Nonetheless it worked well for many years and really struck a chord with consumers.

Even my mother, who likes to claim that adverts have no effect on her, was heard to say that Saabs are a great car for the winter.

I can confirm as a former Saab owner – of two different Saab 93’s – that it wasn’t a particularly good car for a Scottish winter anyway. The best selling convertible was particularly inappropriate for snow.

Now let’s turn to Volvo which was founded in 1927 by Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson. They said right at the start:

Cars are driven by people. Therefore the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo is – and must remain – safety.

This press release for Volvo’s 80th birthday goes into the history of safety at the carmaker.

In short, safety has been part of the DNA of Volvo from its founding consistently to today. This is what a brand value is all about.

Even an advertising genesis with Ogilvy’s talent can’t externally come up with a positioning that doesn’t exist in reality and expect it to be a long term success.

Today, Volvo is going from strength to strength while Saab has gone through a bankruptcy and is (currently at least) not producing cars.

Before leaving car brands, it’s worth ending on a positive note for David Ogilvy which was his brilliant advert for Rolls-Royce using two USP’s to reinforce each other:

At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.

This reads as well today as it did in 1959.

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  1. I was reading a tip from Drayton Bird this morning which contained the quote “Honesty is not only the best policy. It is rare enough nowadays to make you pleasantly conspicuous” from Charles H. Brower – another of the original Mad Men.

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