SHANGHAI – Lynk & CO and NIO both launched their first production models at the Shanghai auto show in April. Both tout their unique ownership experience, which includes lots of cool technology.
Cool technology is becoming standard in new cars, however. The automakers arguably have a bigger task before them on the road to success.
“They must go through the painstaking process of building a brand,” Bill Russo, managing director at Gao Feng Advisory, a Shanghai-based consultancy, tells WardsAuto.
Most new brands can rely on predecessor brands from the same company, for example, Lexus and Toyota, he says.
Lynk may have a leg up in the brand-building battle. It is the offspring of two automakers, Zhejiang Geely and Volvo, which Geely acquired in 2010. “But I’m not sure that helps Lynk & CO very much,” says Russo.
Meanwhile, the Lynk & CO website proclaims, “Forget what you know about car brands and buying.”
Its first model, a compact luxury CUV called the 01, is scheduled to go on sale in China in fourth-quarter 2017, in Europe in 2019 and the U.S. “some months” later.
Lynk will offer the option of shared ownership of its vehicles, which will include electric and traditional internal-combustion-engine models. The brand, which calls itself “the world’s most connected car,” offers a lifetime warranty and, more important to its desired image, lifetime free connectivity.
The car-sharing feature may be a bonus in trying to attract younger buyers in China, says Namrita Chow, principal automotive analyst with IHS Markit. But, she notes, “The tough part will be brand awareness and gaining traction in a market already saturated by existing brands as well as a throng of newcomers.”
The aim, says Alain Visser, senior vice president-marketing and sales at Lynk, is to create a “hassle-free ownership experience” that clearly will differentiate his company from its competitors.
The startup is leaning heavily on the Volvo brand heritage for legitimacy. The 01 and future models will be “built in China in a Volvo plant according to Volvo standards,” Visser says.
NIO, formerly known as NextEV, also displayed its first production model at the Shanghai show. The ES8, a fullsize SUV, is an all-electric vehicle with a swappable battery.
The startup is leaning on its ownership experience to differentiate it from the crowd, although details aren’t out yet.
“We believe that a better electric automotive product and a better ownership experience will make more and more users willing to own an electric car,” NIO founder and Chairman William Li says at the Shanghai show.
NIO says the ES8 will be on the market in China in 2018, and it will offer an autonomous EV for sale in the U.S. by 2020.
Not having the burden of a parent brand actually may help NIO, says Robin Zhu, senior analyst at investment researcher Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong. “NIO is free to build a brand story consisting of Nurburgring lap times, Formula E and other achievements,” he tells WardsAuto.
The NextEV team has competed in the FIA Formula-E Championship race series since its inception in 2014, winning the series in 2015 with driver Nelson Piquet Jr.
In May, its EP9 electric supercar set an electric-vehicle lap record of 6 minutes, 45.9 seconds at the famous Nurburgring track in Germany. In February, an autonomous version of the EP9 set a new record for an autonomous vehicle with a lap time of 2 minutes, 40.3 seconds at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX.
It won’t be easy for the startups to use customer experience to brand themselves, says Tom Doctoroff, senior partner at global brand and marketing firm Prophet. Most Chinese companies still are much more focused on sales than service, he says.
“When you want to talk about customer experience, you have to look at corporate structure and whether it can provide an integrated holistic experience,” says Doctoroff, who lived in China for decades and is the former Asia Pacific CEO of communications firm J. Walter Thompson. “The ecosystem that is required is a very refined ecosystem.”