More effective brand communications required to build the Volvo brand in Malaysia

Building a brand in any country requires more than a series of tactical initiatives to create awareness and ‘get the name out there’. It takes a meticulously planned and integrated strategy that incorporates the participation of numerous stakeholders and initiatives, both internal and external. Internally to ensure the whole organisation is on brand and externally to ensure communications and content resonates with target markets and are communicated via relevant channels. There’s more but for the purpose of this article that’s enough for now.

And what if the brand is to penetrate other markets? There was a time when all it took to do this was a continuation of the positioning tactics carried out in the home country, perhaps with a few language changes in print media and perhaps some dubbing of TV commercials (TVCs). An over simplification perhaps, but essentially correct.

But as we all know, the world is very different today.

Building western brands in Asia
To build a Western brand in Asia today, as many international brands are finding out the hard way, takes an even more robust and integrated brand strategy that has at its core organisational excellence. Only once has that strategy been developed can the brand strategy be executed. And part of the brand strategy, a small but critical part, is the communications campaign.

This is particularly true of the automotive industry that has seen a number of well known European and other Western brands find it hard to repeat the successes at home in new Asian markets. There are other issues such as high duties etc but many European brands perform below expectations, despite large marketing budgets.

One of those is Volvo. Despite an extensive presence across most media, in 2009, out of a total industry volume (TIV) of just under 537,000 units, Volvo only sold 600 cars in Malaysia, South East Asia’s largest passenger market. This gives Volvo about 0.15% of the market. Although this is a slight increase over 2008 when Volvo sold 524 cars, it is way below the 2007 total of 752 units. Interestingly, in 1999 Volvo sold 839 cars, giving it 0.3% of the market. So Volvo’s market share of the Malaysian passenger car market has halved in 10 years. I think I know why.

Last Thursday, 28th January 2010, a half page full colour ad in the New Straits Times, (NST) Malaysia’s ‘premium’ newspaper caught my eye. The ad features the Volvo V50 and a headline “There’s more to life with Volvo.” The ad goes on to sell space and luxury using images of a kayak, a windsurfer and a mountain bike. The ad lists, in really small print, a number of dealers in key cities. There is no website address.

Last Friday 29th January 2010, Volvo ran another half page ad in the same publication, this time a spot colour ad. This ad features a Volvo XC60 parked on a snow covered road with the occupants, a man and a woman in warm fur collared winter parkas sitting in a pile of snow staring out at a snow covered landscape. This time the headline is “Volvo owners get more out of life!”

If I’m not mistaken, the traditional rule of thumb has it that you have approximately 3 seconds to grab a readers attention with a print ad headline, perhaps less in today’s noisy, cluttered world. I don’t know how effective the Volvo ads have been but I did notice that the offer in the second ad has been extended, rarely a good sign. I also noticed that there is no tracking mechanism in the copy. And, in case you can’t read it, the tagline in the print ad reads “Volvo owners get more out of life!” So the ad is targetting both existing and potential customers.

Coincidentally, there is a Volvo billboard outside my office, at the busy intersection of a very busy highway. The billboard ad features the Volvo XC90 Diesel. This time the headline is “Winner of fuel efficiency award.”

Sitting in my office in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur where the recent hot spell has seen the temperature top 40 degrees centigrade on more than one occassion and the humidity is often around 90%, I tried to figure out a couple of things.

1) What was the relevance of these communications to potential and existing Volvo owners in Malaysia?
2) Why are they using images featuring snow to sell a service in the tropics?
3) Why is an ad targetted at existing Volvo owners also trying to get the attention of non Volvo owners?
4) Where is the consistency?
5) Is this part of a planned out, integrated strategy or a series of one off tactics?
6) Why would anyone get out of a nice warm car and sit on wet cold snow to admire the view?

OK, ignore the last one.

Hemorrhoids and Frost bite
Well as far as I can tell, more out of life for the couple featured in the second ad is likely to be hemorrhoids and frost bite. I don’t mean to be fecetious, but what is the relevance to the Malaysian market? There are some marketers who insist that to build a brand you need to be first in a category and perhaps Volvo wants to be first in the frost bite category but I think not.

More confusing is the content. The main copy of the ad is encouraging existing Volvo owners to bring their cars in for servicing, repairs or to buy accessories and be entered into a competition to win vouchers that can be redeemed for more accessories and parts. Shooting off on a brief tangent, the takeaways I get from that copy, as a non Volvo owner are, in roughly equal amounts:

1) you are going to be spending a lot on parts and accessories so here’s a little help or
2) these cars are built so well that you will never actually win anything because nothing needs to be repaired but the model sold is so basic you’ll be spending a lot on accessories. Interestingly Volvo also offers a 3 year warranty/100,000km for cars sold in Malaysia so if you’ve got a new car you may have to wait 3 years to receive your prize!

Seriously though, The Volvo communications are confusing. Furthermore, according to the Star newspaper, 86% of Malaysians don’t trust advertising. So that means the print ads mentioned earlier are targetted at only 14% of Malaysians. Moreover, with an entry level Volvo S40 at around RM170,000 (US$48,000) it is off the radar of the average Malaysian so a mass media approach is a waste of valuable funds.

There are a number of other things Volvo can do to halt the slide in its market share and build a profitable brand in Malaysia.

1) Separate the acquisition strategy from that of the retention strategy.
2) An indifference to retention branding is short-sighted. Michigan State University estimated that US$1 spent on acquisition generates US$5 in revenue, while every dollar spent on retention creates US$60 in revenue. Bain and Co has estimated that increasing retention by 5% can increase profits by 25%. Companies have a 5 – 15% of selling something to a new customer, but a 50% chance when selling to an existing customer. But retention branding requires a completely different strategy to acquisition branding.
3) In the mass economy the brand communications goal was to increase awareness. This evolved into persuasion but the ultimate goal today is adoption. Adoption ensures the brand is seen as the best or, better still, the only choice. But adoption of a brand is not an event it is a process built on the back of organisational excellence and reinforced by the ability to deliver relevant solutions on customer terms.
4) Volvo cannot expect adoption if messaging is inconsistent and fragmented. If print campaigns and billboards are to be part of the brand communications, keep them consistent. Announcing fuel efficiency awards is not going to drive traffic to showrooms.
5) Review communication tools and explore social media options. I believe there is no benefit at all for a luxury product like Volvo to advertise in a daily newspaper in Asia.
6) Understand social media is for communities and those communities must be relevant. The only opportunity for interaction on the Volvo website leads the viewer to an international site. Volvo owners in Malaysia will want to be part of a community here, and learn about issues and opportunities in Malaysia, not in Istanbul.

The purpose of this article is not to embarrass Volvo. So if anyone from Volvo reads this article, please view my comments as feedback, not criticism. There are a number of automotive manufacturers making similar mistakes but Volvo caught my eye!


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