Guest blog: when a vision fails

Guest blog: when a vision fails

Volvo’s Vision 2020 inspired an industry then failed — just not the way you think.

~ Andy Gryc, Guest Contributor

At the 2014 Connected Car Expo, I was very surprised by the President and CEO of Volvo, Håkan Samuelsson. As the closing keynote, he said “our mission is that by 2020 no one will be killed or seriously injured in a Volvo.” He called this their Vision 2020.

It was an impressively high bar. One might even say impossibly high.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I learned later that this had been Volvo’s goal since 2008. I had a moment to ask Håkan about it after he left the stage, and he confirmed that it was a significant challenge but was confident that they couldn’t set their goal anywhere else. He explained that they would never say, “We only want to kill 50 people in a Volvo by 2020.” He had a point.

It’s 2020 now, so where are we at?

You aren’t going to change minds, motivate people, or spread ideas by saying “We want to be safer.”

Consistent fatality failures

Unfortunately, Volvo hasn’t met their goal – people still die in Volvos. NHTSA’s Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool (FIRST) seems to indicate that although Volvo fatalities may have experienced a slight dip, the numbers are hovering around the same order of magnitude as they have been since 2008.

Data is not available yet for 2020, but we can assume that Volvo fatalities haven’t just miraculously dropped to zero.

Big hairy audacious goal

The important part isn’t that Vision 2020 didn’t get to zero deaths – we all knew that would be a challenge of the highest order. What matters is that Volvo took a moon shot in the first place.

You aren’t going to change minds, motivate people, or spread ideas by saying “We want to be safer.” Telling people you’re targeting zero deaths is much more valuable and inspirational, even if you can’t make it all the way there. It’s a BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Like President Kennedy’s goal to get to the moon before the sixties decade was finished, a BHAG needs to be huge to steer a company and inspire an industry. It’s impressive to see a car company stick their neck out like this, and I greatly admire them for it.

I’m sure that Vision 2020 helped improve Volvo’s safety mindset too. Remember, they announced Vision 2020 in 2008 with a 12-year runway. For those 12 years, all employees knew in crystal clear terms the company’s long-term goal, allowing them to make technical and product decisions that would always move them forward in building safer cars. The impact is positive even if they haven’t reached perfection yet.

The important part isn’t that Vision 2020 didn’t get to zero deaths – what matters is that Volvo took a moon shot in the first place.

The power of strong messaging

From a marketing standpoint, Vision 2020 does something else: something incredibly important. It firmly underscores their primary market differentiator, something you’ll know we’re passionate about if you’ve read Nancy’s positioning blog. Volvo is known for being “the car company that builds safe cars”. Vision 2020 was a way to double-down on that differentiation.

Marketing works because people have too much information to process and they latch on to information they hear repeatedly rather than working through all the facts. As a result, people can be influenced by simple consistent messaging more powerfully than statistics almost every time.

Here’s a case in point. Within Volvo’s segment of mid-size Luxury SUVs, between 2014 and 2018 they’ve actually got the most deaths compared to their competitors. The Volvo safety message is so seductive and so powerful that even though I am aware of how marketing messages are working their psychological magic on me, I can look at the Volvo death stats and come up with excuses why those stats might not be telling the whole picture. Maybe Volvo sold more that year? Or those numbers are within error tolerance since the numbers are so small? Could there be a random spike in accidents in one year? Maybe. I did dig a bit into those numbers, and unfortunately for Volvo they seem all too real.

Marketing works because people have too much information to process and they latch on to information they hear repeatedly rather than working through all the facts.

Yet I still believe that Volvos are safe. The marketing savvy person that I am can outright ignore data that doesn’t match with a company’s programming of their image. That’s the power of strong messaging.

Messaging is intent

Why would Volvo launch Vision 2020 if they couldn’t stand behind it? Just like the BHAG of Vision 2020, the message of “Volvos are safe” is also aspirational. It might seem counter intuitive, but your messaging doesn’t just affect the market and your customers – it also affects you.

Your company’s messaging can influence what your employees do, just like an audacious goal. (This is also why you want to check in with trusted external sources every once in a while, just to be certain you’re not following your leadership blindly and irrationally.) If you keep repeating that you’re the best at X, you’ll make conscious and subconscious moves to make it happen.

Ending on a sour note

Vision 2020 missed the mark, but I still believe in Volvo. So what was their response to 2020 arriving without their zero fatality goal in sight?

They’ve done something that in my mind is terrible. They’ve taken the Volvo Vision 2020 moon shot and replaced it with a watered-down Safety Vision. They’re still shooting for zero deaths, but no longer have a concrete timeline. And although couched in terms of solving the problem, their new vision pushes responsibility back on human drivers. You could argue that this is where safety responsibility actually belongs, but that’s not the point.

It might seem counter intuitive, but your messaging doesn’t just affect the market and your customers – it also affects you.

This isn’t a vision worth sharing or shouting. It’s not something that makes employees invent and try harder. It won’t inspire others in the industry. In my mind it’s now run-of-the-mill corporate pablum, exactly the same thing that any other OEM would say. Not what a safety leader should say.

Volvo, give us a safety vision as ambitious and inspiring as Vision 2020. Anything that lets us all still believe in you and your message.


Andy Gryc is a sought-after voice in the automotive technology industry. His reputation is rooted in hands-on experience in the autotech trenches – software architecture and engineering, technical sales, and product marketing – for over two decades. As a well-known and well-connected expert, Andy is the winner of the 2015 Top Car Celeb, Analyst, or Advocate Award from Auto Connected Car News and was the Conference Director for the AutoMobility LA for five years in a row. www.thirdlawreaction.com