Car brand Volvo, and its ad agency Grey London, recently launched LifePaint, a reflective safety spray to be used by cyclists to make them more visible to cars at night. The product has received both cheers and critcism in the media and on blogs. Here, we talk to the creative director Hollie Newton about some of complaints, and also explore the complicated territory that emerges when ad agencies mix marketing with product design...
On the surface LifePaint is a simple, and worthy, proposition. Sitting as part of a wider campaign for Volvo that aims to emphasise the brand's safety credentials, it presents Volvo as gracious enough to care about cyclists as well as car drivers, and appears to be a genuinely useful product. As such, LifePaint has received coverage in media all over the world, and the film to accompany the campaign has been viewed on YouTube over three million times.
It's only when you dig a bit deeper into the project (which bloggers including Gerald Hensel and Ben Kay have done), or if you try to actually buy it, that a few sticking points emerge. As both Hensel and Kay point out, Albedo 100, the Swedish reflective spray brand that Volvo and Grey have collaborated with on LifePaint (the company is credited throughout its marketing, though certainly not with anything like as much gusto as Volvo is) already has a product on the market that is very similar, called Invisible Bright. And in terms of purchasing LifePaint, according to its website (volvolifepaint.com), it is only available at a very limited selection of cycling outlets in the UK.
So is it all actually just a marketing stunt for Volvo? Or worse, a form of scam ad created just to earn awards – as Ben Kay puts it, has Grey "retrofitted someone else's brilliance onto one of their clients in order to spend a lot of time walking up to podiums at awards shows"? We put some of these questions to Hollie Newton, creative director on the project.
"We first started working on the project nearly two years ago," says Newton of the development of LifePaint. "We'd just won the global Volvo account, and were looking at how we could make the biggest impact possible with a relatively small budget – compared to their competitors, Volvo are a boutique brand. The aim was to change brand perception outside of traditional advertising channels, entering popular culture through a series of what we called ‘creative innovation’ projects, that captured the imagination of people outside the car press. Broadly speaking, we wanted to generate earned coverage (speaking to a disproportionately large audience when considering our budget) rather than more traditional, paid-for media that we simply couldn’t afford."
LifePaint is intended to specifically market the IntelliSafe system, a pedestrian and cyclist detection system featured in the Volvo XC90 car. "Jonas Roth and Rasmus Smith Bech, the creative team, spotted a small article about the Lapland Reindeer Herders Association piloting a scheme to paint reindeer antlers with reflective paint to make them visible in the dark winter months – aiming to cut the 4,000 serious crashes they cause a year," continues Newton. "What a brilliant idea. We initially wanted to support the scheme, and repeat it in Sweden … before realising we could help protect far more lives, on a much wider, global scale, if we painted people.
"The cycling community felt a natural place to start, especially when you consider the outrageous numbers of cyclists seriously injured and killed on roads every year. In short, we thought an easy to apply, very simple product to light you up on your way home and to make you more visible would help to save lives. No expensive ‘safety wear’ – just you, more protected on the road. A quick spray, and away you go. We contacted the Lapland Reindeer Herders Association, who put us in contact with Albedo 100. They’re a brilliant Swedish startup, just starting out in this light-reflective technology – and, crucially, they were developing a product different to any other on the market – a reflective spray that was completely transparent. It was precisely the type of product we were looking for to realise the ambitions of the project. They jumped at the chance to team up with Volvo, and we’ve been working together ever since.
"LifePaint is a product in its own right under Albedo 100’s evolving suite of offerings, which includes its Invisible Bright spray," Newton continues. "One of the main benefits of the Volvo/Grey London/Albedo 100 collaboration is that it allowed us to offer LifePaint free-of-charge, something we felt was important – echoing Volvo’s giving away of the three-point seat belt 50 years ago. It also meant we could employ the combined resources and expertise of one of the world’s leading car marques and one of the world’s leading creative agencies to bring mass awareness to what might have remained quite a ‘niche’ concept."
Of its availability, Newton stresses that this is a beta test, to "prove the case" of producing the product on a wider scale, and that everyone has been taken by surprise by its immediate success. "I’ll be honest – we didn’t expect it to be quite this popular this quickly! Our six locations across London and Kent have been completely inundated since the project launched just over a week ago, and are all currently out of stock," she says. "While we’re delighted with the public reaction to the project, we also want everyone who wants a can to get one. We’re currently firing up the factory for the next 20,000 cans, which will arrive in the UK imminently.
"It’s certainly not a product to make money from," she continues. "The next batch will be given away for free again, through independent bike shops (such as Peleton&Co) and at Volvo dealerships across the country. We’re currently working on a business plan to roll it out at retail, while setting up a supply chain to enable other markets to bring it to their customers. At this point, we’ve got millions of people across the world crying out for a can of LifePaint. It’s gone mental. Over the next year, we’ll be making sure it becomes a permanent fixture – available for no more than cost-price across the world. It’s a big job."
Newton makes a compelling case for the validity of LifePaint as a genuine product, and for its longevity beyond the average life cycle of a marketing campaign. It seems entirely reasonable to test interest in a product before rolling it out at vast scale too. What is uncomfortable though is that it is not at all clear in the film (shown above) that LifePaint is isn't widely available yet (it is stated in the press release that it is a trial, and that "if LifePaint proves popular, the project will expand nationally and internationally", though this information wasn't included in all the coverage of the product).
LifePaint sits within a range of products produced by Grey (with others) to promote different aspects of Volvo's cars. While it is a very credible and useful idea, another of the team's product lines – Swedish Air, an inhaler that offers users a lungful of fresh air, and is available at car shows and Volvo dealerships – seems more obviously a stunt, and reinforces the question of whether LifePaint started out that way too.
There is also discomfort to be found around some of the language Grey has used to promote the new product, which positions the agency on lofty ground, and certainly doesn't ram home the point that similar, if not identical, products to LifePaint already existed. “Our job isn't just to advertise our clients,” Nils Leonard, chairman and CCO of Grey London, says in the press release. “It’s to help them make a positive impact on culture. With the creation of LifePaint, we've turned Volvo safety inside out, giving it away to the most vulnerable road users. What more positive action can a brand take than to try to save lives?”
This is the kind of talk that can lead to suggestions that Grey is awards hungry, though on this point Newton is robust. "It’s an easy accusation to throw at a successful project," she says. "Put it this way: I can think of easier ways to win awards than spending two years working with a global client to launch a new product that doesn’t make them any money. To create meaningful, beneficial, globally famous cultural commodities – to push up against what we’re supposed to do – to use all the talents to hand in our brilliant creative industries and grow what modern ‘advertising’ is capable of? That’s not an awards play. That’s survival – and I think we all know where this industry is heading if we don’t adapt."
Advertising is in a difficult place at the moment. Brands and agencies are told constantly that the old model doesn't work and that they must expand their horizons and innovate to reach audiences today. Part of this innovation lies in the invention of products: there is an obvious logic to this, as audiences want useful and surprising new objects and devices and don't really mind where they come from as long as they work. Get the product right and there is a real opportunity for a brand to shine (see Nike+ as a prime example).
But audiences are also highly attuned to 'brand bullshit' now, and while it is unclear yet whether LifePaint will end up falling into this category, the ground remains murky. As a piece of pure marketing for Volvo, LifePaint has been a huge success – with the brand achieving glowing editorial write-ups all over the world. We can only hope that a genuine product will also emerge out of all the hot air.