By banning fuel-only cars, Volvo has future-proofed its ‘safety first’ strategy

Brand strategy director Brent Heatley argues that Volvo’s decision to ditch fossil fuel-only SUVs is about a brand staying true to its core values, while maintaining its personality.

By this time next year, Volvo will officially be out of the petrol/diesel-only car business. All Volvo SUVs will be electrified – either fully electric or hybrid. 

Far from a brand renaissance, I reckon such a courageous, sector-leading move is Volvo just giving us more of the same.

With its long history of innovation of passenger car safety and protection – world firsts in seatbelts, side airbags and rollover protection – Volvo’s heart has always been in the right place.

Trouble is, the brand has long been plagued by the downside of this virtuous commitment.

Since way back, common perceptions of the brand linked Volvo cars having their lights permanently on, even in broad daylight, with not unreasonable beliefs that Volvo drivers possessed limited awareness of other vehicles on the road.

Along the way, through its 2003 ‘Bloody Volvo driver!’ comms strategy, Volvo Australia tried to flip the pejorative – taking insights from its overly cautious driver stereotype and aligning them with values of safety and protection that young families strongly associate with.  

As recently as a year ago, and despite the arrival of edgier, more driver-focused models, it was reported that safe-and-boring still haunts the Swedish brand – particularly in the 45+ age bracket.

Through all this, at a fundamental strategic level, Volvo has remained true to its core values – only now it looks like safety and protection of a different kind: helping to leave our kids’ kids with reasonably clean air to breathe, and helping to reduce some of the causal effects of our planet cooking itself.

So is Volvo’s all-electric decision a crazy-brave strategic move? I can only imagine some of the massive cost/benefit issues their brains must have wrangled with.

For instance, would the brand risk losing customer loyalty built over years of offering petrol and diesel only? Or by actively demonstrating brand leadership, will it win new customers who are hungry to embrace technological inevitability earlier than other brands in this sector?

Would it risk being outshone by all-electric brands like Tesla? Or will competition be a non-issue – with Volvo SUVs being more about function than form, more about families and active lifestyles than deep-pocketed statement-making individuals?

Would it risk losing differentiation among Euro rivals Audi and BMW in the prestige SUV sector? Or, while those brands are still hedging their bets with mixed energy product line-ups, will Volvo simply steal their thunder?

It looks like the courage to innovate has outweighed the risks. But how to build a robust, refreshed brand strategy from this?

Anchored in a virtuous purpose, driven by a realistic vision, differentiated by a compelling value proposition, and supported by heritage values – it ticks all the right boxes.

And in an increasingly homogenised sector, Volvo retains its strong and enduring brand personality – a kind of honest likeable cool, born in a country whose climatic conditions tend to bring out similar qualities in its people.

It’ll be interesting to see how this new kind of ‘safe’ plays out across Volvo’s comms.

Brent Heatley is a consulting brand strategy director.

Disclosure statement: The author does not drive a Volvo or have any emotional connection with the brand aside from a family member using two ancient models as surfing transport.


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