New retail models as brands navigate the evolving consumer landscape

Polestar Space, west London Westfield shopping centre

Last month as much of Europe prepared for a second lockdown, two companies opened their flagship showrooms. Over in Amsterdam, in the city of bicycles, a new sustainable electric car brand by the name of Lynk & Co cut the ribbon to its first ‘Club’. Meanwhile in London, another niche electric transport company Polestar presented its first UK ‘Space’ in Westfield shopping centre.

Strictly speaking, these are not salesrooms. Rather, the Club and Space see themselves as alternatives challenging the traditional static car retail model. These centres will help raise brand awareness and create brand desire through activities that aren’t necessarily car-related but speak of the same values. The centres will recruit members and form communities of like-minded consumers. Meanwhile, the transaction – be it a direct sale or signing up for a shared transport scheme – happens online or through an app.

This is the general idea behind these and many similar ‘brand hubs’ popping up in cities and in locations with healthy footfalls. And with traditional retail undergoing an existential crisis, the flexible omnichannel approach – adopting a phygital strategy – makes perfect sense. ‘We are putting the customer first, changing the face of automotive retail and, most importantly, putting the fun back in buying a car,’ says Jonathan Goodman, head of Polestar’s UK operations.

For car companies, in particular, finding alternative retail models is fundamental to their growth and (in some cases) survival. And there have been plenty of trials and errors. One popular route is the pop-up shop in busy shopping centres, which allows customers who are unlikely to trek all the way to a car showroom, to become familiar with brands without feeling the pressure to make a purchase. Tesla has stayed away from the traditional salesroom model from the start with its physical spaces acting more as information centres. The electric car brand goes even further in challenging conventional marketing by avoiding mainstream advertising and refraining from engaging in official press events, relying instead on independent reviews and peer-to-peer endorsement. The model seems to work for Tesla.

Polestar Space, west London Westfield shopping centre

Elsewhere, Audi tried to push the envelope a step further a few years ago by introducing Audi City. This was to be a fully digital space where customers would configure their car, then experience it in the virtual space using the latest technologies. Conceptually, it made sense as the traditional car showroom can no longer physically house the sheer volume of cars and derivatives on offer. As a single space though, Audi City didn’t quite work out. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. The technology and experience are now successfully integrated into the brand’s more traditional showroom.

Both Polestar and Lynk & Co have learnt from these experiences and have carefully choreographed their consumer journeys. Strongly reflecting the brand’s minimalist, clean and clear aesthetic, the Polestar Space at Westfield will host events and talks that reflect the company’s sustainability ethos. The Lynk & Co Amsterdam venue takes the concept a little further for a highly flexible building that functions as a café and a shared workspace, and hosts live events – talks, art, fashion, music. The dark and moody industrial style reflects Lynk & Co’s brand aesthetic, and the predominantly sustainable material – display podiums are made of recycled newspaper and car scraps – are a reminder of the electric car brand’s values. There are collaborations with like-minded brands too – with the Amsterdam venue hosting talks with the electric cycle company Vässla.

The brand hub model works especially well for a company like Lynk & Co which has abandoned the traditional private ownership model for a rental and shared driving scheme. The Spotify-style concept sees customers subscribe to a membership which, depending on what they pay, allows them the option to rent cars for a day, a month or a year. With a decline in car ownership and the desire for private sales among younger consumer, this novel brand model makes complete sense with the Clubs perfectly placed to recruit members and, presumably, retain their loyalty for when they succumb to owning a car which they may do through Lynk & Co’s parent company Volvo.

Lynk & Co Amsterdam Club

‘The Club embodies everything we stand for: unique experiences, sustainable practices and putting the community first,’ says Lynk & Co’s chief executive Alain Visser. ‘It’s not just changing the automotive industry; it’s challenging traditional retail. We’ve focused on creating an unforgettable experience for our members above all else.’

Goodman says the pandemic has accelerated certain trends that were already underway. ‘The world has become more digital, traditional retail has seen a massive downturn and there is a need to reimagine the retail space. We have to address some of the previous failings of automotive retail, and an experiential and immersive offering is one way to do this.’

Consumers are changing their relationship to cars, exploring new forms of ownership and new modes of driving. Over the next years, brand marketing and retail are set for a major overhaul to reflect this new landscape not just for cars but also for many other products. If anything, the pandemic has heightened our longing for experiences, with what many brands are now seeing as the opportunity to offer unique and exclusive events in the physical and virtual worlds. The new retail landscape will be an interesting one to observe.
Images © Polestar and Lynk & Co

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

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