How Volvo Own the Word Safety

Since a visual has more emotional impact than a verbal, it’s logical to assume that the first decision a marketer needs to make is what visual to use in its marketing program. Not so. That’s a paradox that is bound to confuse many marketing people. While a visual hammer can be effective in building a brand, that’s not the objective of a marketing program. The objective of a marketing program is to “own a word in the in mind”.

But if the objective is to own a word in the mind, why fool around with a visual hammer? Why not just focus your brand’s entire marketing effects on a verbal approach?  Consider a nail and a hammer. If the objective is to nail two pieces of wood together, why fool around with a hammer? Why not focus all your efforts on putting the two pieces of wood together with a nail? That’s the essential problem of marketing. Your most important tool is a hammer which is redundant once you have nailed your positioning idea into prospects’ minds. Well, not exactly. The three rules to advertising are 1) Repetition, 2) Repetition, 3) Repetition.  So, you need to hammer away, not just for years, but for decades. And not just in your advertising but in everything you do from websites to business cards to annual reports.

Many marketing slogans are ineffective for one simple reason. They might express an important benefit of the brand, but unless they can be reinforced by a visual hammer, they are useless. What do consumers look for when they buy an automobile? Among other things, they look for reliability, good fuel mileage, good looks, nice interiors, drivability and the right size. The first mistake automobile manufacturers make is to advertise all the features. That’s logical. That’s what consumers want. Big mistake. When you advertise everything, your prospects remember nothing. The second mistake is to pick your brand’s most important feature. But that only works if that feature can be turned into a visual hammer. Tale Volvo, for example. Years ago, the company latched onto “safety” as its verbal nail and then hammered that idea with dramatic TV commercials featuring crash tests.

In order to increase sales, Volvo even tried to promote performance. Volvo introduced sports cars, even Volvo convertibles. As Volvo’s director of global advertising once said: “safety on its own is not enough.” That’s the left-brain thinking. Logic suggests consumers don’t buy cars just because they’re safe, they look for a lot of other things before they buy a vehicle. But unless a vehicle brand gets into the consumer’s mind and unless the consumer gets into a dealer’s showroom, logical thinking is useless. In marketing, everything else is secondary to the job of getting into consumers’ minds. And without a powerful visual hammer, that job is exceedingly difficult to do.

Since its initial launch 62 years ago, Marlboro has never run an ad, a commercial or an in-store promotion without using cowboy imagery. Nor has Marlboro ever used a woman in its “cowboy” advertising. Many brands have tried to copy the success of Marlboro cowboy. Pick up a magazine, look at a newspaper, turn on your television set, surf the internet and you’ll find hundreds of visuals that try to mimic the success of the cowboy. Monkeys, donkeys, dogs, kids, babies, sexy women, old women, hot men, old men, celebrities and many other visuals.

Most of these visuals never become hammers. Why is this? Because art directors select visuals that are funny, serious, cute, sexy or famous without first considering what the verbal ought to be. You need two things to build a brand. A visual hammer and a verbal nail. And the nails come first. At the time of Marlboro’s introduction, the majority of competitive brands were “uni-sex”. Cigarette brands that made classic mistakes of appealing to everybody. Marlboro was the first masculine cigarette, that’s a verbal nail. And what could be more masculine than a cowboy?

When your idea is a high-level abstraction or a concept that is broad and general, it's almost impossible to find a visual hammer that will dive the idea into prospects' minds. Effective visual hammers need narrow nails like driving and safety. How can anyone find a visual hammer that symbolises democracy, loyalty, trust and other high-level abstractions? Consumers tend to take verbal ideas like “Find new roads” literally. It sounds like an advertising slogan for Range Rover, whose owners often get off the roads to explore the backcountry. Abstract ideas need to be brought down to earth before they can be turned into visual hammers.

-Visual Hammer / Laura Ries