Interview – Jonathan Goodman, CEO at Polestar UK and Head of Global Communications at Polestar
“When I started we had petrol stations with attended service and the choice.”
Jonathan Goodman is CEO of Polestar UK and Head of Global Communications at Polestar globally, having played an integral role alongside global CEO Thomas Ingenlath in launching the brand from scratch over the past five years. He has previously held senior roles with a multitude of responsibilities at brands including PSA Peugeot Citroen and Volvo. Here he discusses the brand’s success to date, why and how it has positioned itself as an alternative to mainstream rivals, why Tesla is its biggest rival and what his expectations are for the future.
Setting up a new car company is famously difficult. Did you have any qualms when you were asked to be COO alongside CEO Thomas Ingenlath at Polestar back in 2017?
“In truth, it took me about five seconds to decide. After 28 years in the industry it was a golden opportunity – not just exciting for all the obvious and positive reasons, but a chance to work through all the things that had frustrated me in my career in established organisations and try to find new ways of working to avoid them.
“It wasn’t an opportunity I could ever have turned down. The mandate was that we knew the world didn’t need yet another car company doing the same thing, so go out and create one that is doing it differently. We set out to offer something different, and I think few would argue that we aren’t already achieving that.”
How is Polestar going in the UK?
The short answer is that we are going really well. For Polestar it is one of the best performing countries in the world. There is a real appetite for EV in the UK, which has been helped enormously by the benefit-in-kind taxation, which pushes a lot of business car users to choosing an EV.
“But it’s clear that Polestar’s positioning is working too. Avant-garde premium design and driveability of our cars has resulted in some incredible press coverage across the board. Our, and the public, reaction has also been incredibly strong, there’s around 3000 Polestar 2s on the road today. We’re on track for 4000 deliveries this year, and our biggest concern is supply, not demand. That’s a very happy place to be – and ahead of where we wanted to be in terms of our initial projections.
“These are the right foundations for us. We’re the right brand at the right time, an EV brand with an online direct-to-consumer business model so we’re ready for when the market moves in a big way into electric vehicles. Our focus on EVs is liberating; where our rivals are juggling on promoting them without alienating 70-80% of their traditional petrol and diesel customers, we’re free to push. Our objective from that perspective is gloriously simple.”
Were you always confident of success?
“Well, it would have been lovely if someone had handed us a book called ‘How to Launch a New Car Brand’ four years ago, that’s for sure! Sadly, nobody did.
“For me, the key was building everything out of our brand guidelines, which are built off three words – pure, progressive performance – and an absolute certainty that we had to be different. Every car maker thinks their products are beautiful – so launching cars we thought beautiful, while critical, was never going to be enough. We had to be different.
“Core to that was changing the way the customer interacts with our brand – we wanted a direct relationship with them, not one through a dealer. We sell direct, with an omni-channel approach that puts the customer in charge of how they interact with us. If they want to do it all online, they can. If they want to talk to an expert on a call, great. If they want to visit a Polestar Space, we have that. The key is that relationship is always with us.”
Do customers who visit a Polestar Space tend to seek it out, or find it while doing something else?
“The customers do both. We’ve got two, one in the Trafford Centre and one in Westfield, and it’s entirely deliberate that they are in locations where people already go to shop. The idea of Polestar being a drive away to an otherwise barren destination isn’t what we wanted.
“The mix is interesting. Some people make appointments to come in, and some walk in on a whim as they go about their shopping. There’s no pressure sales – and there’s the opportunity to browse on iPads with an expert there to guide you if you need them.
What’s interesting is that some people have done that and then committed to buy on the spot – although it’s true that most make the decision at home. The key is that it’s an environment in which the customer takes control – no hard sell, just expertise to help guide you. I’m confident anyone who visits would find it a different experience to any other car retailer. And that was our goal to change the face of automotive retailing.”
How do you expand that physical presence without becoming a traditional retailer?
“We have to stay true to our values. So, yes, we will expand – we’ve already announced we’ll be going into Birmingham and Glasgow at the end of this year and we are ambitious.
“But we’ll do it in our way. In actual fact, we run the Spaces with dealers, who invest, both financially and into following our principles – they are accompanying us on the journey, if you like. The customer signs with Polestar not the Space operator, so there’s no competition between dealers, no trying to undercut each other – we all work together, we attribute sales geographically and we take every step so that the focus of the Space operator and Polestar as a company stays on giving the customer the best experience.
“Beyond that, yes, we work with leasing companies and that works well for us – but we don’t intend to otherwise deviate from the path we’re on with that direct customer relationship.”
Do you feel that creating the support network is actually harder than creating the cars, then?
“Well, I wouldn’t say either was easy! But I suppose you could say that creating the cars is a challenge that is – more or less – the same for every car manufacturer, and which is embedded in the DNA of any manufacturer with history. We have that history with Volvo behind us and that sets us apart from other new brands.
“Relatively, creating a network is simple compared to creating a car. You set the model and you seek the people who are committed to supporting you to achieve it. It’s very hard work, but perhaps not so complex in the scheme of things.
“So actually perhaps the hardest bit is making your brand known. You have car companies who have been making cars for more than 100 years. We rocked up last August and started. I think growing that awareness is our biggest challenge. Polestar UK has a workforce that is now at the giddy heights of 15 – we’re pretty small. Polestar globally has about 1000 employees. We are punching above our weight – but still have a huge job to do to build awareness of the Polestar brand and the fabulous products we have.”
How do you raise awareness?
“We play to our strengths – one of which is that our size gives us an incredible agility. There’s very few layers of management, there’s a great central team that gives us assets to work with and a clear strategic direction and we have a great deal of autonomy, which means we can try things.
“We are also able to recruit people who totally buy into our vision. That in itself is empowering and creates a team spirit even greater than the individual parts.
“Then, we are lucky in that people want to work for us, so I can really be quite selective – who will roll their sleeves up and work for us, who has the capability to do everything, rather than rely on a bloated team to support them? That creates a passionate environment.
“But I’m aware we have to stay lean to keep these strengths. We must keep agility as we grow, and have managers who really know what’s going on. An example of that is that my email is easy to find – if there’s an issue, I want our customers to come to me. I don’t want that to change as I want to learn every day – and the best way to learn is to talk to your customers every single day.”
Part of that ‘difference’ has been to call out some of the deeper questions around EVs, such as whole-life environmental cost. Can it be tricky for a car maker to shine a spotlight on some of the downsides of its existence?
“Personal mobility comes at a cost, and we think it’s right to be transparent on that cost. Some of that thinking is down to us being a new, challenger brand, of course, but it’s also part of our ethos to challenge everything we do, so why not highlight that?
“The blunt truth is the industry has a credibility issue, most recently highlighted by Dieselgate. We have a fairly passionate belief that the car industry needs to be far more open with the consumer. We are open that we want to be a carbon zero company by 2030 without offset. So let’s be transparent about that journey, and highlight why it is important to us – and be open about the challenges.”
One of those challenges is achieving the goal – a net zero car company is hard to describe right now, isn’t it?
“We’re open in saying we haven’t got everything figured out, yes. But we believe the objective tells you what you need to know about us – that we’re ambitious and determined, and not scared of challenges.
“By stating that objective, we believe it makes us more rigorous. By looking at the way in which we monitor precious metals, for instance, and the fact that we put in place the blockchain technology to monitor where it’s been mined, how it’s been shipped, how it’s used and more, we start to create a far better understanding of the challenges. A legitimate brand has to be a transparent one – even if that transparency can sometimes feel a little awkward. A Polestar customer will always have complete transparency on what it has cost to get the car to them.”
It’s been said you are the established car industry’s answer to Tesla. Are they your main rival?
“Quite simply, yes. Polestar and Tesla are the only two global pure EV players in the market. I also have to give them credit; I’ve seen how hard it is to set a brand up even with the support of a car firm that has all the manufacturing know-how in place, plus existing platforms on which to work from. They’ve had it much harder. Then I have to ask if the electric car movement would be where it is today without Tesla. I doubt it.
“But we are not only looking to Tesla as a rival. Every electric car maker is a rival, and the likes of Audi, BMW, Jaguar and so on are very big rivals. That’s why it’s so critical for us to offer something outside of the ordinary.
“That’s why it’s so nice to be more worried about supply than demand. I’ve been on the other side of that equation and have to say it’s not very nice. In the UK we’re just up to a year since our first delivery – we are doing well, yet learning so much. That’s a wonderful thing.”
If we talk about Tesla, we should talk about its charging network. Can you keep up there?
“Well, we’re not looking to compete directly, but it is clear the UK needs to do more to keep up with the Nordic countries or Germany in terms of charging infrastructure.
“But I have confidence too. When you look at the Gridserve facility in Braintree, and its plans to roll out more facilities like that, you get an understanding of what can be done. And then there’s the investment coming from the oil industry; BP, Shell and the like.
“There’s a need to improve hugely, but it’s not like switching a light switch. It will take time, but the important thing is that the supporting investment is ready, and so is the sort of agile, creative thinking that could make positives out of the situation. I personally think the whole convenience shopping landscape will change and shape around charging. That’s exciting.”
Do customers buy into sustainability?
“No question. They understand and believe fairly passionately that we’ve got to do something to protect the planet, and I think people see electric cars as a potential solution. It’s not the full solution yet. We’ve got to massively reduce the carbon footprint of producing batteries, but customers do believe in that – they know, for instance, that air quality is a massive issue.
“Lockdown has only accentuated that awareness. Our monitoring suggests that not only are more and more people now prepared to look at and consider electric cars, but they also want to buy from a brand that they can trust and believe in. So that’s why we will tell the story of the materials we choose, of why we will make difficult decisions that add complexity if they have an end environmental benefit. A sustainability story has to be authentic – and if you don’t have one that is at the core of your brand then I think you’ll soon be in trouble. At Polestar this has been at the heart of our brand from day one.”
You mentioned batteries as a sticking point. What steps have you put in place for processing end-of-life vehicles and notably the batteries of electric cars?
“Recycling and reuse of our batteries is non-negotiable; it’s a fundamental part of our offering, and a key part of our recently announced commitment with Northvolt to produce batteries in Europe.
“The detail, however, needs working through – not least because it goes well beyond the point a car maker would traditionally go, and likely needs a lot of partnerships in place to happen. That might take a few months, but do not doubt our commitment.”
What does success look like for Polestar? Will you always be a smaller aspirational brand or can you ultimately become mainstream?
“We have targets, and while I don’t want to shout them from the rooftops, we want to be a reference in the premium EV market and we will substantially grow our volumes over the years to come, but it’s clear we aren’t here to be a 500,000 cars a year brand.
“We’re an aspirational, premium brand, but we don’t want to be a niche brand. We are a global brand present in 18 countries around the world by the end of 2021 and this will expand to 30 by the end of next year. So Polestar will be all about growth in the coming years and lots of it. Our factories are built, our cars are already being delivered and our model range is set to expand. But we will not blindly chase volume. The moment you do that, we’ll have to stop holding the stock ourselves, we’ll get into pushing sales all the time, and then we’ll be back in the spiral all traditional car makers are in. We want to hold pricing, keep the customer in control and excite people with what we’ve got coming. Will we be the biggest? Never. Will we be one of the best? That’s our intention.”
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