Can Safety Be Sexy?
Updated: Jul 28
For a guy who grew up loving cars and a 16-year-old who spent 18 months in Sweden as part of an exchange program, working with Volvo was in many ways “destiny.” This is a story about meeting a Herculean challenge using the tools and know-how you have at hand.
“Impossible” can be a galvanizing challenge
Adapting & applying lessons from one category can serve another
Find ways to make your story compelling to the target (may vary depending on audience)
Find & focus on what’s unique to your story to captivate
‘Fish out of water’ tales always work!
Let brand history work in your favor vs against you
“I want to see Volvo in Vogue,” said Jim Borsh, the head of North American
Communications for the then Swedish automotive brand.
This scene from Dudley Moore’s 1990 movie “Crazy People” ran through my mind –
where ad exec Paul Riser cites his ad for the brand: Volvo: They’re Boxy but Good!
On the verge of debuting the C70 Convertible, Volvo’s first-ever drop-top design, Boxy
but Good does not grab Vogue’s attention. Gulp.
Confession: I am a car lover – grew up collecting Matchbox and Hot Wheels; built
models as a teen and still frequent antique car shows. I also went to school in Sweden,
so working with Volvo was an unparalleled opportunity for me, personally.
But a Volvo Convertible?
The C70 Convertible was the next generation of the C70 Coupe which debuted in the Val
Kilmer re-make of The Saint: The original 1960s TV show featured the Volvo P1800 (the
brand’s ‘other’ sports car).
To introduce new models, typically car companies offer automotive journalists an
advance test drive. So, we had the tactic – strategy was our hurdle: how to motivate
consumer publications to engage and cover something they do not typically write
The answer: We had to make safety sexy. No other brand (let alone automotive brand) represents safety like Volvo. Internally it was called “the soul of the brand.” Hence, Boxy but Good still loomed large.
Everybody knows sex sells. In this instance, HOW to deploy that marketing tool was the
paramount consideration. You can’t just wave a magic wand and instantly change brand
perception. Use what you got to get what you don’t got. Volvo could not go from
‘frumpy’ to Marilyn Monroe with a pen stroke. But it could be fun, humorous, and invite
folks to ‘take a peek’ at the new offering….
So our campaign centered around a tongue-in-cheek approach to the arrival – with
Volvo is taking its top off! We want you to see it all.
Witness the Sexual Re-Volvo-lution
Topless Swede Takes Over Road
All the while, we had to reinforce the brand ‘soul’: safety. This came in the form of
including the new rollover technology developed by the brand as well as host of other
new safety features. This legitimized why and how a brand like Volvo could deliver a
We invited Vogue, GQ, Good Housekeeping, Esquire, Elle and a host of other writers to
the Sedona, Arizona test drive offering each a hand-crafted vehicle to take on the road.
Production cars were not yet available.
All the talk of sexy, Swedish and the twist coming from a brand known for ‘Boxy but
Good’ offered us the proverbial fish-out-of-water story hook.
Ultimately, Volvo landed in Vogue – full page with photo. And Esquire. And GQ. And the
list goes on…
Traditionally covered in auto press only, this wave of consumer media attention drove a
sell-out of the first shipment BEFORE IT ARRIVED ON US SHORES. The brand credited
the campaign for helping shift its image to a more design-centered approach. Moreover,
some consumer journalists who experienced the test drive literally changed beats after
this introduction to cover automotive.
Writer Jim Eber coined the perfect description likening the C70 Convertible to Audrey
Hepburn and the little black dress. Brilliant.
The epilogue to this was several consumer writers whom we invited and cultivated on
behalf of Volvo actually became car review journalists down the road – and thanked us
for opening up this new field for them!
I won’t lie this was a fun campaign. And the results speak for themselves.