Big corporations usually stay well out of politics, but Volvo has come steaming out today with furious reaction to the leaked documents that reveal the Labour Party plot to replace Tony Blair with Gordon Brown was known as ‘Project Volvo’.
Peter Rask, regional president of Volvo Car UK, Ireland and Iceland, is quoted as saying: “If only the Labour Party had been like today's Volvos - dynamic, agile and innovative - perhaps the UK economy would have been in a better place than it finds itself today!”
Rask, or Volvo’s press team, blame out-of-touch Labour politicians for using the Volvo brand to sum up Brown’s negative (‘dependable, robust but dour) character traits. But Volvo should not be blaming the alleged plotters. Brown’s private pollster Deborah Mattinson put together the paper entitled ‘Project Volvo’ based on research with focus groups. The page summing up the focus group view of Brown is headed “GB unprompted responses”.
So, when asked to compare the then-chancellor with a car, the focus group called him a “Volvo or British Rover….steadfast, robust, strong…honest, trustworthy, integrity….old fashioned, set in his ways”.
These unprompted responses are very bad news for Volvo’s strenuous and, as far as I’m concerned, entirely admirable attempts to reinvent itself. It seems nearly two decades of effort have failed to shift perceptions, in the UK at least.
The re-make of the Swedish brand began back in the early 1990s with the front-drive 850, a car that was ground-up new. The T5 and T-5R were genuinely exciting machines. The XC90 really did break the mould. But the signs the UK market - and others - cannot drop the image of the lumbering, square-cut, 700- and 900-series estates.
Indeed, shortly after the C30 was launched, a Volvo insider told me that sales were not reaching the expected targets. Potential buyers were coming to dealerships, driving the car and liking it. But when it came to signing on the dotted line, the punters couldn’t do it. “But it’s a Volvo” some of them said, probably thinking about explaining to friends and neighbours just why they’d bought a Volvo.
It’s hard to know what Volvo can do to change its image, especially when are streets are still lined with its old-school and long-lived estates. I once turned over this thorny problem with a senior Volvo executive. He jokingly suggested buying up all the old Volvos and taking then off the streets.
Still, if it was bad for Volvo, it was worse for Brown. He was also compared with Rover, which had gone bust just 10 months before this research was carried out.