How Volvo Trucks Pulled Off An Epic Split And A Game-Changing Campaign

Lars Terling, Volvo vice president marketing communications, and Anna Qvennerstedt and Björn Engström from agency Forsman & Bodenfors, reveal the key decisions that made a stunt—and a campaign—epic.

How do you get people worldwide to talk about trucks? And how do you get truckers interested in driving them? For Volvo Trucks, the answer was: think big. So in the series of viral films it created testing new features, the "Live Tests" involved were bold and—in the case of one of the hottest contenders for honors at Cannes Lions 2014—quite literally: epic.

"The Epic Split," in which Jean-Claude Van Damme performs a split between two reversing trucks to demonstrate the stability and precision of Volvo's dynamic steering, is the sixth in a series of "Live Test" films produced for the company by Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors. Volvo Trucks appointed the agency in 2010 ahead of the launch of its new European range in 2012—the company's first major launch in 20 years.

Previously, Volvo Trucks had taken a traditional approach in its launch marketing, according to Lars Terling, the company's vice president marketing communications. "Before the viral campaign, we had worked with many different types of traditional marketing communication, including PR, social media, films on YouTube, and printed marketing materials," he explains.

But the media landscape had fundamentally changed since its last major launch.

So, rather than approach an ad agency with experience in its sector, Volvo Trucks tapped Forsman & Bodenfors—one of Sweden's leading creative agencies, with a strong track record in creating ground-breaking consumer campaigns for brands including Ikea, E.ON, UNICEF, and Volvo Cars.

"We were surprised to be approached by Volvo Trucks because we felt at first maybe they needed a business to business specialist," Anna Qvennerstedt, the agency's senior partner and board chair, admits. "But then we realized they really did want to do things in a different way. Because it's the right attitude and it's people that matter most when it comes to creating great campaigns—not whether what you are doing is B2B or B2C."

Adds Terling: "We were looking for a strategic partner that could help us out-smart our competitors with an unconventional take."

The starting point was "lots of planning research into truck buyers and the new trucks' product features—what made them different, and how they worked," according to Forsman & Bodenfors senior partner and copywriter, Björn Engström.

"Ours is an agency where there are no Creative Directors, or Executive Creative Directors—just a tight group of creative people who work hand in hand with planners and account managers," he explains. "We have small, close-working teams working closely with clients on each account, and that's how it was with Volvo Trucks—we went into the company and conducted many interviews with people who worked there, including many engineers."

Two important early insights had a significant impact on the nature of the films produced.

The first was the emotional connection the team found truck drivers have with the trucks they drive—which got the creative thinking of how to present the new trucks in an emotionally engaging way.

The second was the volume of people who influence truck buying decisions—from the driver to his or her family and friends, colleagues and bosses, clients and the businesses whose products the trucks carry. "TV would have been too expensive to create a campaign with this wide a reach. Social media and viral, however, gave us the opportunity to reach a wider audience in a new way," says Engström.

Emotion is a powerful way to convey product benefits, he adds: "We wanted experienced truck drivers to be amazed by the precision of the driving while others could by amazed by the spectacular demonstration. We focused on a multi-level storytelling approach to cut across lots of different audiences."

From the outset, the aim was to make a number of different Live Test films.

"This was not about creating a traditional-looking ad—we wanted to get close to the product, documentary-style, but still have Hollywood-scale impact." says Engström. But there was also significant potential to add to this with supporting content—including detailed product information about each new truck and the technology innovations behind their features.

He adds: "The purpose of the films was to create awareness and pave the way for further marketing in Volvo Trucks' 140 local markets."

The creative team shortlisted key product features to promote for each new truck then brainstormed ideas that would best dramatise each. Live test ideas were then bounced back to Volvo Trucks to refine according to feedback from the engineers. And it was out of conversations between the creatives and the engineers themselves that a number of the films' ideas arose.

One engineer's claim he could steer one of the new trucks with his little finger led to the Hamster Stunt film. Another, who talked about reversing a truck and trailer at high speed thanks to the quality of the truck's steering, provided the inspiration for The Epic Split.

However, only after the launch in August 2012 of the first film "The Ballerina Stunt," directed by Henry Alex Rubin—in which world-record holding high-liner Faith Dickey walked across a wire between two speeding trucks—did the final strategy take shape.

"When you create for YouTube, you can't plan too much in advance because you really don't know how the audience will react—how popular an idea or piece of film will be," Engström explains. Emboldened by audience response to its first viral, Volvo Trucks commissioned a further five films. And the tests grew bolder.

"Ballerina" was followed by "The Technician"—in which a Volvo Truck drives over the head of an engineer buried to his neck in sand to demonstrate the 12 inch clearance between ground and undercarriage. In the third film, "The Hook," Volvo Trucks president Claes Nilsson demonstrates a front towing hook by standing on the end of a truck suspended 66 feet above a wind-swept Gothenburg harbor.

After the fourth film, "Hamster," came "The Chase"—in which a truck demonstrates maneuverability while being chased through an old Spanish city by a herd of bulls, and then "The Epic Split" released online in November 2013.

Between June 2012 and May 2014, Volvo Trucks' Live Test films generated 100m+ YouTube views and were shared nearly 8 million times.

Overall, according to the agency, the campaign generated 20,000 media reports worldwide equivalent to an estimated $172.6m USD /126m Euros. And in a recent survey of 2,200 owners of different truck brands, almost half of those who have seen the films say they are now more than likely to choose Volvo next time they buy a truck.

Central to the strategy's success was selecting stories with high relevance to both the products and the target audience, Terling believes. The product-relevance of each stunt also offset potential concern among Volvo Trucks employees that the campaign was frivolous—just a series of stunts for stunts' sake.

"Other factors were using multi-level storytelling to appeal also on an emotional level to both the general public and to truck experts and the fact that as an organization our PR, advertising, and online experts work together in an integrated way," he says.

Cultural compatibility, however, was also key.

"The people at Volvo Trucks have an informal way of working, just like we do at Forsman & Bodenfors," Engström explains. The agency, launched in Gothenburg in 1986 by four founders intent on challenging the Stockholm-focused Swedish ad business status quo, now has 28 equal partners and is owned by and run as a co-operative which, in turn, has given it stability and strengthened its focus on collaborative working.

He adds: "An open, non-hierarchical culture makes it easier to be innovative and be in the forefront when it comes to products and communication."

[Photos courtesy of Volvo]

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