What Are Automakers Doing for Women? Part III: Volvo Has its Designs on Women

"When you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men."

When women's marketing expert Marti Barletta delivered that statement to Volvo employees during a 2001 workshop in Sweden, she inspired the idea for what became "Your Concept Car," or YCC, a car designed by women.

"We were sure [her idea] was right; that's why it served as our guiding light during the car's development," says Camilla Palmertz, a Volvo biomechanical engineer, who teamed with several female colleagues to test and develop the concept.

Women represent an important market segment for Volvo. In the U.S., Volvo Car's largest global market, women buyers, account for 54 percent of Volvo's sales. In Europe women account for only 14 percent of Volvo's sales, but the company says that figure is rising.

According to Volvo research, female buyers in the "premium" (near luxury) segment, where Volvo competes, want the same things as men when it comes to performance, prestige and style. But women want more than a safe, stylish car that goes fast.

"Her [car design] wish list is longer, which makes her the most demanding of all our customers," says Tatiana Butovitsch Temm, Volvo's YCC communications manager.

Volvo surveys show that women want a car that:

  • has plenty of storage
  • is easy to park
  • has good visibility
  • is easy to get in and out of
  • can be personalized
  • requires minimal maintenance

In 2002, Hans-Olov Olsson, president and CEO of Volvo Car Corporation, green-lighted the YCC project, and the team set out to create a car with all of the above attributes. More than 120 Volvo employees participated in the design, development and production of YCC, but all final decisions were made by nine women project leaders — two project managers, four designers, two technical project managers, and a communications manager — all employees of Volvo Car Corp. in Sweden.

The YCC made its world debut at the 2004 Geneva Motor Show. It features auto-opening gullwing doors (for easy ingress/egress), easy-clean paint, run-flat tires, an exterior washer-fluid filling point, interchangeable and washable seat covers, computerized parking assistance, automatic diagnostics and notification of needed service, a deep storage well between the front seats, a built-in wastebasket, and a customized seating position to give the driver excellent outward visibility.

From Geneva, the YCC team traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Boston's Wellesley College (an all-women's school), before embarking on a worldwide tour that includes Australia, Europe, Asia and, this fall, the Western U.S.

Based on 2,500 exhibit-goers' responses to a survey on which of the YCC's features they like the best, the top five favorites are:

Among women:

  1. Storage between the front seats
  2. Run-flat tires
  3. Easy-clean paint
  4. Exterior filling point for windshield-washer fluid
  5. Auto-opening doors

Among men:

  1. Easy-clean paint
  2. Storage between the front seats
  3. Run-flat tires
  4. Exterior filling point for windshield-washer fluid
  5. Storage in the door jams

"Interestingly enough, men and women seem to want the same things," says Butovitsch Temm, "which supports the thesis 'if you meet the expectations of women….'"

Volvo has no plans to put the YCC into production, but the company says many of its features will find their way into future cars (the details of which Volvo won't divulge). The YCC isn't intended to be driven, but to "introduce important automotive ideas to the marketplace and inspire other women — and men — to question traditional business methods and create positive change within organizations," says Butovitsch Temm.

"The YCC is about more than just a car," says Volvo spokesman Stephen Bohannon, who attended the Wellesley College event. "It's about a grassroots effort started by women within a company in a male-dominated industry. Hopefully the YCC project can serve as a beacon, an example for other young women to follow."

Women at the Wheel
In the male-dominated auto industry, the idea of granting a group of women free rein to produce a concept car could be perceived as either foolhardy or brilliant. If you asked Volvo Car Corp. CEO Olsson, he'd probably call it smart.

"[The YCC project] is a fantastic opportunity for us," Olsson said at the project's outset. "We can concentrate on the fast-growing group of women customers — without losing the men. Because I'm certain that our male customers will love this concept car."

Judging by the surveys, he was right.

Letting women develop a car is one thing. Putting a woman in charge of your company's largest global market is another. But that's what Olsson did last March when he appointed Anne Belec president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, a region that accounts for one-third of Volvo's global sales volume.

"Hans-Olov is very supportive of women, but he didn't appoint me to this position because I'm a woman. He knew I could do the job," says Belec, who spent 18 years in a variety of leadership positions at Ford before joining Volvo as vice president of sales operations in Sweden. "Volvo ensures that the women, and men, who rise to positions of power are completely ready to take on those responsibilities. The company trains and mentors us to ensure we are successful."

So how does it feel to be one of only three women running an automotive brand in the U.S.? (Women also run Hummer and Saturn.) "It feels great," says Belec. "But it's lonely. There aren't enough role models out there."

A Legacy of Listening
"Listening to what the customer wants is sound business," says Butovitsch Temm, "and Volvo has a long-standing tradition of listening carefully to what women want."

In the late 1980s, Volvo formed an internal women's reference group of employees (still active today) to test and assess new models in the early stages of development and offer suggestions for improvement. One feature initiated by the group is the color coding of fluid lids under the hood. Today, in every Volvo car, the oil lid is black, the coolant green, the washer fluid blue and the oil dipstick red. In addition, all lids are marked with the same symbols used on the instrument panel.

In the early stages of the XC90's development, Volvo convened a women's focus group in California to provide input on Volvo's first sport-utility vehicle. The women's favorite XC90 features were the split tailgate and the middle seat in the second row that slides forward to put a toddler within easy reach of the front-seat passenger.

Women's influence also led to such improvements as easier-to-fold-away rear seats, easier-to-load trunks, a flush-surfaced steering wheel column (that won't snag women's stockings), and easier-to-push control buttons.

Sending the Right Message
Listening to women has helped Volvo make its products more female-friendly. How does the company communicate its female-friendliness to women buyers?

Very subtly. The "Volvo for Life" slogan, for instance, conveys two messages that are especially important to women: This car will protect your life (safety) and this vehicle will last forever (dependability).

Volvo doesn't create ads aimed specifically at women, but then, "Volvo doesn't have to," says Marti Barletta, author of Marketing to Women. "Women are already responsive to its message. Volvo ads have always focused on safety and dependability, two things that women place greater importance on, especially women with kids, than do men."

A Human Approach
Volvo doesn't actively recruit women salespeople or dealers. Currently, women account for about 8 percent of Volvo dealership personnel, and about 5 percent of Volvo dealership owners. In the U.S. Volvo has 357 dealerships and 287 dealership owners, 15 of whom are women.

Rather than training dealership personnel to treat women differently, "We encourage Volvo employees to focus on conscience, care and character in all of their endeavors, including how they treat customers," says Marti Eulberg, executive vice president of sales operations for Volvo Cars of North America. "Volvo is a very humanistic company," she says. "People and safety are at the heart of everything we do — and I think that resonates with women."

Volvo dealerships must be doing something right; they ranked above average in J.D. Powers and Associates' 2004 Customer Service Index and Sales Satisfaction studies, which measure customers' satisfaction with the dealership service and sales departments, respectively.

Volvo S60 owner Dena Wholey of Westlake Hills, California, agrees with that assessment. "Everyone is very friendly and accommodating" at the dealership, she says, "and they always give me a free loaner when my car is in for service. The whole experience has been fantastic." Her only complaint? "[The service] is very expensive."

In Support of Women
Being a relatively small company (U.S. sales totaled 140,000 units in 2004) with a limited budget, Volvo doesn't donate large sums of money to women's organizations. It does, however, participate in several women's programs, including the Forum for Executive Women, the National Latina Business Women Association, the National Hispanic Business Women Association, and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.

Volvo's biggest contributions to women, however, cannot be measured in dollars, but in the way the company constantly strives to learn about and provide what women want.

"I was thinking about my car the other day, and I thought, 'If I had all the money in the world, I would still drive this car," says Volvo XC90 owner Danya Hoenig of Los Angeles, California. "It has everything I need: a third row of seats that fold down; enough room for a double stroller and bicycles, lots of storage, and an integrated booster seat in the second row that slides forward."

What initially attracted Hoenig to Volvo was its reputation for safety. "Volvo is well known for its safety standards," says Hoenig, who traded in an S40 for her XC90 when she became pregnant, "and what mom doesn't want the safest car for her children?"