How Volvo Is Going Against The Grain In Auto Marketing And Design

How Volvo Is Going Against The Grain In Auto Marketing And Design

An alternative ownership subscription service, user-centered design and anti-consumerism marketing are all facets of the XC40's debut

Dave Pinter, PSFK
  • 29 january 2018

We’ve been watching Volvo‘s transformation from a staid, safety obsessed auto maker to a premium design and lifestyle (and still safety obsessed) brand over the past few years. The newest member of Volvo’s line is a premium compact SUV, one of the hottest vehicle segments currently, which arrives at US dealers in early 2018. Volvo’s design, introduction and ownership of the XC40 have gone off on a tangent from the rest of its lineup and, in some ways, the auto industry in general. Here we highlight what those differences are and why they matter.


It’s a car designer’s dream to see their work go from sketch to realized product. That’s a rare occurrence for a designer fresh out of school, but Volvo’s Ian Kettle was lucky enough to find himself in that situation. Kettle’s early sketches were selected to drive the design of the exterior largely because they interpreted the current Volvo design language in a different way. Kettle describes the relationship of the XC40 to the rest of the Volvo line as being part of the same family, but more like a cousin than a sibling.

Car brands have, for better or worse, followed a strategy of rolling out design languages across all of their models in the last decade or so as one way to clearly identify a brand in new markets like China. But that approach has resulted in a cloned look that can feel monotonous. Volvo opted to break its chain in a sense with the XC40 and thus give its lineup more depth. Kettle reveals some background on the design development in the video below.


Car launches are typically over-hyped events held at auto shows or special locations packed with journalists and VIPs. Volvo went in a different direction, instead introducing the XC40 during Milan Fashion Week as part of a pop-up Scandinavian design exhibition called ’80 Hours Milan.’

The event also served as the opening of the Volvo Studio in Milan, which is a small showroom with a hospitality format intended to be rolled out to other cities around the world.


Volvo is introducing the XC40 with the traditional option to buy as well as an alternative new subscription service called Care by Volvo. The program takes inspiration from mobile phone plans and offers access to an XC40 for a national flat monthly fee. The service eliminates down payments, taxes and fees, and includes insurance and regionally available services like refueling, cleaning and e-commerce delivery to the car. Care by Volvo also entitles subscribers to a new Volvo every 24 months.

To support the launch of the service, Volvo commissioned Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors to create a global spot that portrays a dystopian take on contemporary consumerism. The ad is set to an ironic rendition of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music by Swedish singer-songwriter Jennie Abrahamson. The spot reflects the growing acceptance of having access to something being as good—or better—than actually owning it.


We had an opportunity to drive a 2019 XC40 around Barcelona and record some reactions. First, we noticed that the exterior design caught the attention of other drivers and people walking around the city. Maybe this is somewhat a case of seeing something new and unfamiliar. However, the strong graphic shapes and contrasting colors of the roof, body and taillights make the XC40 stand out on its own.

There’s a kind of bulldog character in the exterior that is reinforced by the span of the rear wheels being slightly wider than the front. Achieving this seemingly small detail required having the entire chassis specially engineered for it, which is reflective of how committed Volvo was to getting the XC40 to have just the right attitude.


One tiny little detail on the exterior really stands out. It is a small Swedish flag sticking out of the gap between the hood and front fender on the driver’s side. It’s inspired by fashion labels and is yet another interesting design touch that makes the XC40 feel more premium. It will be offered on launch models but there is talk of making it available afterwards as an option.

Anyone who geeks out on good product design will really appreciate the XC40’s interior. There was particular attention paid to creatively using space for storage. The solutions are well considered for daily use and go beyond the seemingly random sized bins found in most vehicle interiors.

The center console, for instance, can hold a full-sized box of tissues and there is a removable, water tight waste bin adjacent to it that can be easily cleaned.

The design team wanted to have a large storage bin in the doors for things like laptops and drink bottles. In order to achieve this, the speakers normally placed there had to be reengineered and moved to the dashboard to free up space.

One of the most ‘why didn’t anyone else think of that’ elements is a hook that holds shopping or handbags on the passenger side. The hook keeps bags within reach of the driver and eliminates contents rolling around the seat or floor when they inevitably fall over.

An understanding of how drivers use their vehicles is evident in the inclusion of slots in the dashboard for storing parking garage stubs, toll tickets or gas cards. This is another simple, low-tech touch that anyone who’s ever had a ticket fall under the seat will appreciate.

The 2019 Volvo XC40 is an interesting design and marketing case study considering the state of transformation happening in the auto industry. There are elements of shared use incorporated in the Care by Volvo subscription plan, but the vehicle isn’t designed to be a generic transportation pod. The interior is full of unique amenities, many of which aren’t technology-based at all. The XC40 demonstrates the work Volvo has done understanding and solving the pain points, both large and small, people have with cars.


Images: Volvo | Dave Pinter

Disclaimer: Volvo provided travel and hospitality for PSFK to attend both the launch in Milan and a test drive program in Barcelona.

+care by volvo

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