What Volvo Can Teach Product Managers About Not Crashing Their Careers

by drjim on August 27, 2012

What does Volvo know about products that you should know?

What does Volvo know about products that you should know?

When I say “Volvo” to you, what do you think of first? I’m willing to bet that some form of the word “safety” comes to mind. Ok, now when I say your product’s name to you, what comes into your mind? Hmm, not quite the same – it looks like your product doesn’t have the same instant recognition that Volvo has. So much for adding that to your product manager resume. I wonder how they got such a strong association and I wonder how you could do the same for your product?

How It All Began For Volvo

All product managers would love to find some way to get their product to be so strongly associated with some positive characteristic just like Volvo has. If only this was a part of the product development definition. Where did all of this begin for Volvo?

It turns out that back in the day (the 1970’s), most cars were being promoted simply based on how pretty they looked. Car manufacturers were not really dealing with anything that really mattered – safety, gas economy, etc.

Volvo hired some very talented folks, their version of TV’s “Mad Men” such as Ed McCabe. These guys figured out that if you want your product to be successful, then you need to find out who your enemy is. In the case of Volvo they picked Detroit as their enemy. This meant that they wanted Volvos to stand for everything that Detroit was not – high quality, reliable cars.

The folks who were in charge of the Volvo message realized an important point right off the bat. That was that a weak product message was one that told your customers what you wanted them to know. A strong product message gets your customers to conclude what you want them to know.

Where Did The Safety Thing Come From?

When people who have bought a Volvo are asked why they selected this brand, they overwhelmingly say that safety was the #1 reason for their purchase. A lot of other things, such as the value of the car and any past experiences that they may have had, all come in second place.

The product managers over at Volvo didn’t just decide one day that they wanted their product to become synonymous with safety. Instead, what they set out to do was to associate the Volvo brand name with durability and reliability. At the time that the Volvo story started to be told to potential customers, cars were not very reliable. In fact, things were so bad that people were abandoning broken down cars by the sides of roads.

After Volvo had started this push, a series of events happened. The U.S. government got on a car safety kick and started to push for crash testing and the addition of air bags. Volvo started to stress just how safe their highly reliable cars were and things just took off from there.

The objective of your product’s message is to sell more of your product. You need to take the time to listen to what your customer is telling you and make sure that your product message reflects what they want to hear.

What All Of This Means For You

A Volvo is just another car. It is a product that competes in a very crowded field in which there are a lot of other firms with very deep pockets and very creative product managers working for them. Despite this, Volvo has been able to carve out a niche for itself.

The Volvo product managers responded to a market need for a reliable car, and as things evolved latched on to the idea of associating the Volvo with safety. Clearly the idea has stuck and stuck well.

As product managers, we need to take the time to listen to our customers and hear what issues are most important to them (isn’t this already a part of our product manager job description?) Don’t spend your time telling your customers about all the great things that your product does, instead tell them about which of their problems it will solve. Do this well and just maybe your product will be the first one that your customers think of the next time they have a problem that needs to be solved…

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What would be the best way to discover what solution your product could be associated with in your customer’s mind?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Just how old are you? If you’re not at least in your 40’s then the concept of inflation is probably something that you may have read about in some long forgotten economics class, but it’s not something that you’ve ever had to live with. Guess what – there’s a good chance that we’re getting ready to be hit by a wave of economic inflation. Despite the fact that you never planned for this in your product development definition, is your product going to be ready for it?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick Chin August 27, 2012 at 10:44 am

I agree 100% with Jim’s conclusion. First find out from customers what THEY think is important. And if there are strong emotions associated, even better. Then let this drive your product roadmap and positioning.

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Dr. Jim Anderson September 1, 2012 at 11:01 am

Rick: Although we can probably all agree that this is what we SHOULD be doing, it can be very, very hard to do it when we’ve got internal folks telling us that they think that they know exactly what the customer REALLY wants…!

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