Astonishing Tales of Content Marketing: Volvo Gets Flexible

May 5, 2016

Editor’s Note: In the Astonishing Tales of Content Marketing series, we reflect on the visionaries past and present who excel at content marketing. Last time, we learned how Michelin became as well-known for its travel guide as it is for its tires. This time, we look at a recent award-winning B2B campaign from Volvo.

Remember that iconic scene in “On the Waterfront” when Marlon Brando drives up in his Volvo?

No? How about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic line in Terminator 2: “I need your clothes, your boots, and your Volvo?”

Surely you remember that classic Prince (RIP) song, “Little Red Volvo?”

Okay, so maybe if you listed Volvo’s exceptional qualities, “cool” would historically not be one of them. Their cars and trucks are safe, superbly-made mechanical marvels. But no one says they’re the hippest thing on the planet.

Now, combine Volvo’s somewhat staid reputation with B2B marketing, which is also not known for its thrill-a-minute coolness. Add an aging action star and some adult contemporary music, and it doesn’t seem like a recipe for one of the hottest viral videos of 2015, does it?

And yet…

So how did Volvo simultaneously make its trucks, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Enya cool? Here’s the story.

Closing a Generation Gap

It had been 20 years since Volvo released a major update to their line of commercial trucks. Back in 1995, print ads might have been the best way to reach Volvo’s target audience. (Although it's true that Volvo Trucks did advertise on the Super Bowl in 1998). But for 2015, the company needed a new way to connect not just with commercial truck buyers, but the people who influence buying decisions: truck drivers and their families.

Volvo’s target market is hard to reach with traditional advertising. They also had a budget to work with, so media saturation via pricey television ads was out of the question. This traditional company needed to run a very modern campaign if they were to raise awareness of their new line.

Volvo tapped Swedish ad agency Forsman & Bodenfors to create a campaign that would stretch the company outside of its comfort zone, but without compromising their core branding.

Turning Features into Stunts

The new line of trucks had a solid list of features that directly addressed trucker’s pain points: higher ground clearance, easier steering, and improved handling, among many others. Forsman & Bodenfors suggested it would be better to show these features in action than talk about them. What’s more, they wanted the demonstrations to feature drama, suspense, even very dry wit. Ideally, the videos would showcase the features in a way that would compel non-truckers to like and share as well as the target audience.

Under the agency’s direction, each feature inspired a real-life stunt. The videos make it clear they were filmed live, with no special effects added.

So to demonstrate enhanced ground clearance, Volvo ran a truck over an engineer buried up to his neck in sand:

They put a hamster behind the wheel of a truck to show how easy it was to steer:

And put a ballerina on a slack line between two speeding trucks to show how precise their handling was:

Each video is edited for maximum dramatic tension, not hiding the moments where the whole stunt almost goes off the rails. Each one is vastly entertaining for the casual browser, while still showing experienced truckers the value of each feature.

For the last video in the series, though, Forsman & Bodenfors stripped the concept down even further, reducing the complexity and run-time, but adding an undeniable human element.

Retro Cool, with Genuine Heart

As a general rule, driving a big rig in reverse is far more complicated than going forward. For their last video, Volvo had planned to demonstrate how smoothly their new trucks operated in reverse. But it took the spot’s director, Andreas Nilsson, to add the heart that makes the Epic Split video unforgettable.

Jean-Claude Van Damme was at least 15 years past his prime as an action star. Until the video, his recent appearances were mostly for comedic effect, full of self-deprecating humor. Nilsson saw another side of Van Damme, though. For Nilsson, Van Damme was an older man in prime physical condition, his body a precision machine. He was at peace with his place in the universe, but still able to teach young upstarts a thing or two.  In other words, a perfect analogue for the Volvo brand.

Forsman & Bodenfors made the critical decision to make Van Damme the focal point of the spot. Rather than a voice-over about Volvo trucks, Van Damme would speak from the heart about his philosophy on life. Most critically, there’s not a single wink or ironic nudge. It’s just Van Damme, his face serene, glowing in the setting sun, casually performing an incredibly difficult stunt thanks to Volvo’s engineering.

Even if you start watching with an ironic smirk, the actual stunt is jaw-dropping. It’s genuinely beautiful, almost art. It’s no surprise the creative team ended up with a full trophy case of industry awards.

Viral Video a Victory for Volvo

The Epic Split video stands at over 86 million views. It quickly became a pop culture touchstone, parodied, passed-around, and discussed on late-night talk shows. But all of that wouldn’t matter if it failed to do the one thing it was supposed to: spark interest in Volvo’s new line of trucks.

Volvo conducted a survey of 2,200 commercial truck owners and buyers to gauge the video’s impact. They found that almost half of those who saw the videos said they were more likely to choose Volvo for their next purchase. A third of the respondents had already contacted a dealer or visited Volvo’s website after watching the videos.

Volvo’s Takeaways:

  • Keep your message relevant. The stunts may have been dramatic, but they weren’t random. Each video clearly demonstrated a feature relevant to Volvo’s audience.
  • Bring some drama. Each video has edge-of-your-seat moments, and each tells a triumphant story in five minutes or less.
  • Be genuine. Part of what makes the Epic Split video so compelling is it treats Van Damme with dignity and respect. The lack of ironic detachment makes it easier to connect with the story being told.
  • Bring your personality and passion. The reason Van Damme ended up on those trucks is the director was a genuine fan of the actor. Nilsson lobbied for including Van Damme and treating the action star with the respect Nilsson believed he deserved.

With a minimal budget, an eye for a good story, and a flexible actor, Volvo got the entire Internet talking about commercial trucks. They pulled in casual viewers for viral success while still engaging their target audience with relevant information. That’s a truly astonishing feat of content marketing.

For more content marketing inspiration, check out The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Content Marketing.