Across China, automotive upstarts are seeking new strategies to stand out from legacy automakers as they go global. Some, such as electric vehicle aspirant Byton, are banking on electrified mobility and autonomous driving. Others, including Nio, hope to lean on direct-to-consumer retailing and wow-factor gadgetry such as artificial intelligence and digital assistants.
Even established Chinese players recognize the need to differentiate themselves when they eventually tap into developed markets. GAC Motor, for example, is expected to trade on a value proposition of surprisingly upscale quality at bargain-basement prices.
All that raises the stakes for Geely as it looks to expand internationally.
Parent company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group and its chairman, Li Shufu, see Lynk & CO as the best bet to fill a gap in its product portfolio. The company's namesake Geely marque is the bottom of its brands. Although it is China's best-selling domestic brand, executives say it doesn't have the cachet to compete globally.
At the top of the group is Volvo, which Geely bought in 2010. It has global appeal but is too upmarket for big volume. Lynk & CO would slot in between to take on the likes of Hyundai, Toyota and Ford.
"Geely has two objectives," Visser said. "One is to show they can really go global without purchasing a global brand. But secondly, and I would dare say more importantly, is to show that we're entering an already busy market in a different way."
Visser envisions Lynk & CO selling 500,000 vehicles annually in two years. That would be on par with Volvo, which reached global sales of 571,577 units in 2017 — but only after more than 90 years of making cars. Longer term, Visser expects Lynk & CO volume to approach 1 million.
Analysts say Lynk & CO has a shot at making it happen, thanks to parent Geely's deep pockets and Volvo's technology. They see it as Geely's missing link.
"This brand is set to compete with mainstream foreign brands," said Yale Zhang, managing director of Automotive Foresight, a consultancy in Shanghai. "It is quite important because it fills the gap between Geely and Volvo. It can now compete in the global mass market."
But the new approach will need new marketing, Visser said.
"Merchandise — we call it gear — will be part of it," he said.
Just what that merchandise might be, Visser isn't saying. The Belgium-born former General Motors and Volvo executive said his company has a "very concrete plan" but will communicate it later. A Lynk & CO spokesman said items could span everything from home goods to fashion.
Lynk & CO vehicles won't land stateside until around 2021, Visser said.
But the chief executive has high hopes for America. Within three years of the brand's U.S. introduction, Visser envisions selling 100,000 to 150,000 vehicles a year.
Lynk & CO plans to start selling vehicles in Europe in 2020. Visser said he believes the company could achieve annual sales of 150,000 to 200,000 there.
But for now, Lynk & CO sells only in China, where it offers the 01 crossover, the 02 sporty crossover and the 03 sedan. All three are based on the same Compact Modular Architecture that underpins the Volvo XC40 crossover. Lynk & CO began sales in China in November 2017.
Visser forecasts that cumulative sales since then will reach 130,000 to 150,000 units by the end of this year. Monthly sales in China are clicking along at 15,000 units, he said.
Lynk & CO vehicles are assembled at two plants in China, one that also makes Volvo vehicles and another that is dedicated to Lynk & CO. The 01 plug-in hybrid is slated to be assembled at Volvo's plant in Ghent, Belgium. And Visser said the company is looking at possibly building vehicles at Volvo's new plant in Ridgeville, S.C., after Lynk & CO lands stateside.