Attitudes towards Net hurt Volvo

In light of Volvo's recent admission in The Wall Street Journal that the exclusive online launch of its S60 sedan was not as successful as the company had hoped and that they wouldn't be taking that route again, I think it's...

In light of Volvo’s recent admission in The Wall Street Journal that the exclusive online launch of its S60 sedan was not as successful as the company had hoped and that they wouldn’t be taking that route again, I think it’s worthwhile to consider what went wrong.

Strategically, the move made sense. Volvo buyers, after all, are Internet users. So the target group was there. Second, Volvo has traditionally marketed its products on a foundation of functional benefits such as quality of construction and safety – information that the Internet is a perfect vehicle for conveying. And finally, the company had built a Web site specific to this launch and, according to published reports, was successful in driving people to the site. So why wasn’t anybody buying?

The answer has more to do with consumers’ attitudes towards the Internet and how they use it than it does with who’s using it.

We have been tracking Canadian consumers’ Internet attitudes and behaviour since 1997. And what we’ve found is revealing.

For a start, Canadian adults buy into the Internet. Canadian per capita Internet access and usage is as high or higher than in any other country. More importantly, Canadians believe in the Internet. Over 70% of adult Canadians agree that the Internet is an essential part of life today. This is a higher share of the population than actually has access. However, this belief is in a fairly narrow context. The Internet isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ to Canadian consumers. It is valued for a number of specific reasons and not for others.

The majority of Canadians who have access to the Web don’t feel that the Internet has increased their quality of life, or is even an integral part of their lifestyle. Rather it is a utility, which is primarily used for e-mail, to search for specific information, or to go to specific Web sites for information.

Relatively few Canadians listen to the radio on the Internet, or watch video clips, or download music. Online chatting is big among teens but drops off quickly with age. The percentage of Canadians who have shopped online has not changed in the past six months and roughly two-thirds of Canadians are uncomfortable with online buying. This ‘comfort quotient’ has remained constant for the past year and a half. And this is despite the fact that Canadians have a good understanding of the different things that they can do on the Internet.

A number of years ago, I worked for an advertising agency that had a yacht manufacturer for a client. The ad campaign comprised double-page ads in magazines targeted to the yacht-buying public. The right side of the spread would typically be jammed with technical stuff: dimensions, sail material, maximum speed, onboard technical wizardry, and so on. The left side would be the lifestyle photo – beautiful people sipping fine wine as the sun set over the stern. As explained to me by the creatives, it was the yachting experience that sold the boat. The specs and technical stuff were there as justification to wives, bankers, and drinking buddies.

For the consumer, the Internet is the right side of the yacht ad. It is the rational support for an emotional decision. The Internet, at least as it is constituted today, simply can’t persuade and motivate at an emotional level. Nor do consumers expect it to. Television has been dubbed a lean-back medium while the Internet is a lean-forward medium. The Internet is interactive, television is passive, experts agree, and interactive is better than passive.

But great advertising thrives on passivity. It needs it to allow its recipient to be swept away, to dream, to laugh, to cry, or at the very least contemplate. You can’t sweep people away on the Internet. Yes, they are leaning forward, but by and large it’s not a positive lean. They’re trying to figure out where to click next, or they’re frustrated at yet another page of valueless content or are waiting for images to download, or waiting for the media player to load, or dealing with that fatal error that means you have to reboot yet again.

There’s no magic here. In fact, the Web is a relatively adversarial editorial environment, not the cornerstone of great branding. It just doesn’t get your mojo going.

Certainly the Internet can today and will increasingly affect the way products and services are marketed. Bob Schmetterer, chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide, said in a recent speech, ‘What advertisers have to understand is that the real power of the Internet lies in its ability to help deliver the brand experience and not in its use as an ad medium.’ I would endorse that sentiment.

Functionally, the Internet is very different than television, radio or any other marketing communications tool. Just as importantly, consumers react to and process these media very differently. It is risky to expect the Internet to do what television does well. But building the Internet and its evolving strengths into front-end brand strategy makes all the sense in the world.

Jeff Osborne is CEO of Comquest Research in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 445-8881 or by e-mail at