Memo to Volvo: Who R You?

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Time and time again, automakers flush with cash decide to grow their business by expanding their model lineup. Which is a bit like trying to improve a gourmet meal by adding more menu choices. That’s not to say brand extensions can’t be done, and done well. Volvo’s XC SUV’s were a logical and successful addition to the company’s safety-themed vehicles. But a performance tuned Volvo station wagon or sedan? Uh, no. At long last, the company has reached the same conclusion— for all the wrong reasons.

Automotive News (AN) confirms that the 2007 R-Series Volvos will be the last of the breed; Volvo’s dropping performance variants from its roster. According to Volvo NA’s executive vice president of sales and retail ops, continuing to spend money on R model development, marketing and sales doesn’t make financial sense. “For the return we get,” Doug Speck told AN, “It just wasn't good enough."

Ya think? When Volvo launched the “R” sub-brand, the company estimated that 2500 examples would find buyers in the North American market on a yearly basis, helping to deliver 7k sales worldwide. Scanning AN's account of the R sub-brand's cancellation, it's clear Volvo’s been busy re-writing history downsizing their R-badged expectations. Volvo claimed it built the business case for the barking mad R-Series based on total annual sales of 3800 units. In any case, the automaker fell well short of the marque.

Last year, Ford’s Swedish subsidiary shifted just 1098 S60Rs and 538 V70Rs. As today’s V70R review indicates, there isn’t much wrong with the product itself. The problem is that “performance” and “Volvo” go together like “Porsche” and “towing capacity.” Oh wait, the Cayenne. Yes, well, the point remains the same: even great products can’t surmount a brand’s inherent limitations. At least not for long.

As Al Reis and Jack Trout wrote in their classic marketing tome “Positioning,” “the mind rejects new information that doesn’t ‘compute.’ It accepts only that new information which matches its current state of mind. It filters out everything else.” For a brand positioned in the consumer’s mind as “the ultimate driving machine,” an M-tuned 3-Series makes perfect sense. For a brand best known for protecting your family from death, a V70R is an anomaly, a cynical and forgettable joke.

While I’m delighted that there were 1098 perverted pistonheads who “got it,” it’s deeply worrying that it took Volvo’s marketing mavens 12 years– from the launch of the bright yellow T-5R wagon in 1995 to this week– to understand that building a high performance Volvo (not to mention racing it) was the branding equivalent of wearing a speedo to a PTA meeting.

Equally worrying: Ford’s hard-nosed beancounters– rather than Volvo’s executive stewards– killed the R division. In fact, Volvo CEO Redrik Arptold told AN that his employer isn’t abandoning the afterburner-oriented enthusiast market. They’re simply “deleting the moniker.” For evidence that Volvo is still interested in “fun-to-drive cars,” Arptold misdirected the reporter’s attention to the forthcoming C30 hatchback and S80 V8. "We are working on the next phase,” Arptold said, “but it will not be immediate."

Fans of the Volvo’s corporate mothership can only hope. Although Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom campaign and “fun-to-drive” products are successfully transforming the Japanese automaker’s economy car image, Volvo and Land Rover are Ford’s only truly coherent car brands. Ford is everything and nothing, Lincoln is everything and nothing with extra chrome, Mercury is nothing and Jaguar was something (and now isn’t). With environmental consciousness hemming in Land Rover, Volvo is the company’s best hope.

While there will always be pistonheads up for accelerative and handling hotness, no one wants to die. Truth to tell, the only vehicle category that doesn’t jibe with Volvo’s built-in brand promise to preserve your genetics is… sports cars. Which means Volvo’s growth potential is virtually unlimited– provided they put this R business behind them and keep their eye on the Nerf ball. If Volvo continues to devote every possible resource, every last krona, to maintaining the company’s lead in passenger car safety, they will thrive.

So Redrik, where’s the Volvo minivan? When Ford ditched their Freestar (Windstar? Deathstar?), I felt sure they were clearing they way for a Volvo minivan, a machine that would easily conquer all before it. I mean, what Mom wouldn’t buy a Volvo minivan? Ford Flex? Yeah right. And yet Volvo’s boss is pleading with the world not to slip back into the “old” idea of boring Volvos. Because? Honestly, I don’t have a clue.

If Volvo plays its cards right, it could replace Ford. Seriously. When Ford and its amorphous product line goes belly-up, the conglomerate is free to sell– or not sell– anything they like. Which brand has more oomph in Ford’s portfolio (if not at the driven wheels) than Volvo? None.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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