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Volvo Undertakes Industry-First Online Car Launch

Volvo Cars of North America is set to roll out a campaign in support of its new S60 sedan on Thursday.

The catch? Save for a few ads in automotive trades, marketing supporting the vehicle's initial launch will be done entirely online.

Indeed, in a time of increasing debate over the value of Web advertising, luxury auto manufacturer's Volvo's decision to tap the Internet as its chief marketing medium -- over national TV, radio and consumer print publications -- for what it expects to be a "core product" in its lineup, is a first in the automotive industry, long criticized for a slowness to innovate.

In addition to banner ads, the "Revolvolution" campaign -- designed by agency of record Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, and MVBMS integrated marketing communications unit FUEL North America -- will include a joint promotion with America Online. Through the promotion, AOL members -- a lucrative 24 million strong -- who purchase a Volvo S60 will be offered $2,100 in accessories.

Ads supporting the promotion and launch will appear throughout AOL's Auto Channel and elsewhere on the service, as well as on various related AOL properties like MapQuest and Digital City sites, the companies said.

Volvo will also direct-mail 500,000 interactive CD-Roms, the company said.

The promotions will aim to direct traffic to the vehicle's launch site, www.revolvolution.com, which offers promotional downloadable applications including screen savers and PDA programs.

Spending was not disclosed on the campaign.

Volvo North America, a unit of Ford-owned Volvo Car Corporation of Sweden, is taking quite a gamble with the "Revolvolution" campaign, banking that the efforts will drive sales in its 328 retailers and resellers in the U.S. -- who will have to eat the cost of unsold S60's, if unsuccessful.

Volvo move pre-empts the manufacturers most likely to do market online: Volkswagen and Toyota, both of which sell certain cars exclusively online, still market those cars using predominantly traditional media buys.

Also no strangers to sizable online marketing spends are GM, which made headlines with industry-first properties like its GM BuyPower consumer information site, and Ford -- which earlier this year gambled heavily on a Web-centric TV ad campaign in support of its new Focus sedan.

Experts might have also tabbed either Ford's and GM's partners in the controversial Covisint online B2B market venture, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan or Renault as likely to first advertise exclusively online.

Volvo's only real innovation in Internet marketing is that it was one of the first automotive manufacturers to create a Web site, in 1994.

But Bienert is dismissive of these campaigns. "Those campaigns, I wouldn't necessarily call anything other than the regular launch -- backed up with millions of dollars in television spending," he said.

But the company says the rationale behind throwing almost its entire vehicle launch budget into a controversial medium -- where its own work to date has been limited to site design and banner ads -- is simply a matter of branding.

Volvo said the campaign mirrors and reinforces manufacturing and production efforts -- the S60 incorporates the company's sleeker, sportier vehicle design -- to change consumers' view of its brand.

The decision to launch the S60 online "started with the campaign idea," said Volvo North America's e-business manager Phil Bienert.

"'Revolution' is a rallying cry for all the changes going on around Volvo. Where our products used to be consider a nice rational choice for people interested in safety. We still have the legendary Volvo safety, but on top of that, we have excellent styling and excellent driving dynamics.

"We're no longer the boxy Volvos that people remember. It's time to start looking at a different way to start marketing our cars."

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