Volvo is a Swedish manufacturing company. Volvo Cars was sold to Ford Motor Company in 1999, and since 2010 it has been owned by the Geely Holding Group, a Chinese multinational company.
NB: the production, distribution and sale of trucks, buses and construction equipment is still in Swedish hands. Remarkably, both companies share the same logo. In this article I look at the brand, which sometimes belongs to Cars and sometimes to Trucks.
The Volvo Group website states: ‘We are passionate about diversity at Volvo Group! Seriously, when we talk about passion as a core value, we’re talking about how Volvo’s diverse and inclusive work environment fuels our passion. We are a pioneer among European industrial technology companies. Our global V-Eagle LGBT+ network was first established in our sector 15 years ago. In the US, we launched the recognition of same-sex couples and relevant benefits before legal status existed. We know that work and private life are increasingly intersecting, and we should all be free to share who we are, both at work and outside of it.”
Last year, for Pride month, the corporate website explained which flags were used. I knew that the rainbow comes in many colors (see also my article ‘Rainbows’), but I actually learned that there are two more that I didn’t know:
It immediately added, “However, some believe that straight pride events are simply the latest manifestation of anti-LGBT bigotry.” So the flag was only there for completeness.
The Dutch website states: ‘Family Bond of Volvo Cars is our policy for paid parental leave for everyone. This general policy applies to both parents in all possible family situations. Consider, for example, adoptive and foster care families, surrogacy and non-biological parents in same-sex couples.’
Volvo began testing the gay market in June 2001as a sponsor of the GLAAD Media Awards, and with a one time mainstream ad for the S60. In July of that year Volvo placed the ad in Genre magazine and had a promotional presence with the magazine in the West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade. They provided three convertible S60s to carry Genre cover men Bill Brochtrup, of ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” Alec Mapa, of CBS’s “Some of My Best Friends,” and another for magazine publisher Richard Settles. Cars were made available more often, in Pride parades in other cities as well.
The mainstream print ad for the S60 shows a man’s shirtless torso in the foreground, as he looks at the champagne-colored car. The text says: “Lust and logic. Don’t they make a lovely couple?”. “The ad was part of a local initiative by Volvo in the San Francisco area, where the company sponsored a gay pride parade,” Scott Druian, Western Regional Brand Manager for Volvo, told AdWeek. While the Volvo ad was a one-time effort for that year, publisher Settles said Volvo was considering Genre for more truly national ads in 2002.
The next year, a new campaign made Volvo one of few car companies to create tailored gay market advertising, following Subaru.
Still, those were a very different tone than the racy ads carried for Volvo in Australia. In 2001, in the Australian Blue magazine a Volvo ad announced, “Volvo’s are no longer straight. Because 90% of Australian roads aren’t”.
The 2003 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras program book carried an image of a phallic-looking parking brake handle in the “erect” position with the headline, “We’re just as excited as you.”. They were awarded the prestigious David Ogilvy Award by the Advertising Research Foundation for this print ad campaign. They also won the 2004 Multicultural Excellence Award from the Association of National Advertisers, the first year the ANA carried a Gay & Lesbian category.
In that year they also supported the Human Rights Campaign with an ad, which played on guessing whether the man in the picture was gay — “All these years and you never even suspected” — as well as the attributes to the car. On the second page of the spread it takes the premise a step further when it adds, “It wasn’t obvious, but the signs were there.”
It’s a Swedish thing…
Volvo adopted IKEA’s stance on ‘family’ and treated lesbians and gays just like any other customer. They took “their heritage of safety and family appeal a step further by introducing its new SUV with the first national car ad picturing happy gay couples posed with a child or dog”.
Volvo’s owner Ford discovered that the gay community was more inclined to SUV’s than the general population: 30% as to 23%. According to Jan Valentic, vice president of global marketing at Ford Motor, this is why the XC90 was co-star in Volvo’s gay families ad.
Behind the campaign
So, the choice that Volvo made was not a gut feeling, but based on extensive market research, both qualitative and quantitative. Witeck-Combs Communications (public relations and marketing communications), Harris Interactive (market research and consulting), and creative agency Prime Access, were commissioned by Volvo to develop new strategies to reach this largely untapped consumer market.
“We wanted to better understand how to leverage the buying power of this very brand loyal market. We did so by further analyzing this market via one of the most comprehensive studies of LGBT consumers,” stated Vic Doolan, President and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America. “As a result, we crafted a compelling story effectively communicating the core values of the Volvo brand while speaking credibly and intelligently to this unique consumer segment. The ‘Starting a Family’ campaign speaks directly to LGBT consumers about Volvo’s diverse family of vehicles, with a goal to increase consideration and appreciation.”
About those families
While in 2001 the ad said: “Whether you’re starting a family, or creating one as you go”, showing six same sex couples, along with two models of a Volvo. In 2003, the text read: “Some families are carefully planned. Others, you just meet along the way. Whoever makes up your family, think about making Volvo a part of it.” The ad also said Volvo would donate USD 500 to the Human Rights Campaign when a vehicle was purchased or leased. “For us, it was very natural to address gay families,” said Thomas Andersson, executive vice president of Volvo Cars North America. “We’re targeting people with modern family values. It’s a value set and the Volvo-minded consumer is very diverse. ‘Family’ is much more than the traditional family.”
The ad targets men and women ages 40-50 and ran from May to August in Out Magazine and The Advocate. It was the second phase of a campaign for the XC90 that began in February 2003 — the first time a new car was introduced in gay media and mainstream media simultaneously.
The “Starting a Family” print ads ran in national LGBT publications beginning May 2003 and continue to run for the next years. The print campaign was accompanied by an integrated online initiative called “Volvo Family Portraits” on Advocate.com in the fall of 2003.
“The notion of the chosen family is very strong in the gay and lesbian community,” notes Howard Buford, president of Prime Access, which created the Volvo ads. “Gay focus groups indicate a strong preference for direct messages that show who they are. When advertisers usually talk about families, the gay mindset is, ‘They don’t really mean our families.’ It’s a message of exclusion unless it is direct.”
Here come the conservatives
A print ad on the back cover of Advocate magazine in 2006 – with the tagline: ”Ford Motor Company. Standing strong with America’s families and communities” – got the religious fanatics (AFA) all revved up. The front cover listed an article on “Polygamy”, so the AFA concluded “Ford’s support for the magazine’s promotion of homosexual polygamy leaves no doubt that Ford means to continue pushing the homosexual agenda, even including homosexual polygamy.” Ford’s Customer Relationship Center said their support was ”a strong commitment we intend to carry forward with no exception.”
In 2007 a similar “coincidence” appeared when the ad “Life is better lived together” was placed opposite an article about Tom Ford in Out magazine, that include a frisky shower scene. The AFA once again tried to protest, but as one website observed: “The increasingly irrelevant American Family Association is trying to resurge their failing Ford boycott by lashing out against the automaker”.
Of course, in Sweden they supported the Pride events as well, for instance in 2009 with a reception in the showroom and customized cars.
In 2008, drivers in Sweden could choose to personalize the color of their C30 with a number of designs, one of which was a rainbow. It was dubbed a “gay pride car by one website, but the design was not meant as such – or not used in that respect anyway.
An appearance of a rainbow Volvo in a video game was fun, but not part of the company’s campaign.
A first: the commercial
In 2017, for the first time a gay aspect was included in a commercial. The redesigned XC60 compact SUV wasn’t the star of this new ad; active, happy people, the bright lights of city skylines and green, rolling hills were featured most prominently. And for a brief moment a man and his boyfriend shared a quiet moment that conveyed love, contentment, and the embrace of equality.
Although the moment was brief, the press was raving: “Gay Couple Appear In Chic New Volvo Commercial”, “Gay couple star in Volvo’s epic new car advert”, “Right there in the midst of Volvo’s posh new commercial is a handsome gay couple having a quiet moment.”
London Pride: The New Family Model
Together with advertising agency Gray London, the new parking signs for families were unveiled in 2018, on the occasion of London Pride. These showed non-traditional families, including two women with a baby in a stroller, a single man with two children and an elderly person with a baby. Traditionally, British signs showed a male/female couple with a baby.
Volvo also aired the TV commercial called ‘The New Family Model’, which interviewed same-sex couples.
“According to the Office of National Statistics, 65% of British families are non-traditional,” Gray London Creative Director Joseph Ernst said in a press release. ‘But the family iconography we see every day still doesn’t reflect this. To launch Volvo’s ultimate family car, the new V60, we wanted to represent all types of families.’
“We are a truly family-oriented car brand,” Volvo UK representative Georgina Williams said in a commercial. “Families have evolved to all shapes and sizes, and we are evolving with this latest version of the V60.”
Europride and other parties
In 2018 they were bronze sponsor of Europride, which was held in Stockholm and Gothenburg that year.
In 2019, a few more posts were posted on Facebook:
- ‘Gothenburg, the home city of Volvo Trucks, organizes West Pride. We are proud supporters (they still are in 2023).’ This post (right) had no fewer than 628 comments, many of them very negative, most from the US, who vowed never to buy a Volvo again.
- ‘Focus on your career or your family? From now on you can do both at Volvo Cars, because we offer employees within the EMEA region six months of paid parental leave, regardless of their gender.’ (middle picture)
- The photo on the left shows a family with two fathers. This was a promotion by an American Volvo dealer.
In 2019, Volvo Poland supported a local LGBT organization and showed this, among other things, via the screens within the company. To this, Grzegorz Zachara, head of the Solidarność union at the company, responded: ‘We leave our sexuality, our views at the gate of the factory. At work we are equal, we have the same shirts, we do not discuss our sexual preferences, political preferences, religious preferences, so as not to introduce additional divisions or conflicts. So that no one would be discriminated against.’ But he added, “We are not against minorities.” Good thing, too.
Volvo has been criticized for LGBT issues before, but even then from the community. The criticism came in response to an advertisement that Volvo placed. It was published in two versions, the English version featured a same-sex couple looking at a little girl in a toy car, while the Polish version featured a man and a woman looking at a little boy in a toy car. The skin color of the people in the ad was also lighter in the Polish version. Speaking of diversity…
2021 Rock ‘n Roll & drag queens
Rock n’ Roll Playhouse is a series of family concerts in New York, presented by Volvo every summer Saturday. There is a rotating range of artists for children, but also for adults. The core target group is children aged 10 and younger. In 2021 there was a Pride Edition, with music by Queen. 100% of ticket sales were donated to the controversial Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH). This is exactly what it sounds like: drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools and bookstores. “DQSH captures the imagination and play of childhood gender fluidity and gives children glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models.”
Pride 2023: more sustainable
The iconic Copenhagen Pride Parade became the first Pride Parade in the world to switch to 100% electric vehicles. This was a big step towards making the event more sustainable and promoting human rights and LGBT+ equality at the same time. And it was achieved through partnerships with DFDS, Volvo Trucks and PrideUP, Copenhagen Pride’s internal agency.
A total of 30 trucks were deployed for the parade, complete with trailer and safety equipment by TIP. These could power the entire parade with sound systems, toilets and DJs powered by the truck’s battery, all with zero emissions. These types of trucks were also used in Italy. Equality + pride + sustainability = win-win-win.
Volvo Car Thailand partnered with Megabangna to organize the ‘Mega Pride: The Rainbow Panorama’ campaign. A specially decorated Volvo C40 RECHARGE PURE ELECTRIC model was presented at the event.
The brand’s actions continue consistently. This year they conveyed the message on social media: ‘We want to leave society in a better condition for future generations. This applies to our transport solutions and to the way we collaborate with people, employees and partners. We raised rainbow flags on several continents at Volvo locations in Sweden, India, the US and Belgium 🏳️🌈 #pridemonth’.
That there are people who respond to such a post with: ‘WHAT? Has it been a whole month now? Where is the attention for veterans?’ or ‘Does Volvo also have such sympathy for the indigenous peoples of North America, whose land you are stealing and occupying?’. Well… you can drag everything into by the hairs. Relevance, people!
Volvo Cars has also been working with the Netherlands’ only gay glossy Winq for years, through advertorials, reports and product placement.
Volvo started rainbow marketing early and continues happily in both Cars and Trucks – the two different companies that continue to share the same name. From explicit sponsorship of events, coincidental combinations with naughty articles, funny images and puns, to casual inclusion in a beautiful lifestyle commercial. Volvo scores a big 9/10.
This article was last updated Nov 7, 2023