Discussion: Do sub-brands make sense? [w/poll]

Cupra_AtecaThe past few years have seen a re-emergence of a long-dormant trend – for mainstream brands to launch dedicated sub-brands. The most recent example of this trend is Seat’s new Cupra sub-brand, which is heading to Geneva with the Cupra Ateca, a Seat Ateca with the Volkswagen Golf R’s 4wd drivetrain, and the Cupra Ibiza Concept, in essence Seat… ahem, Cupra’s take on the new Volkswagen Polo GTI. Other recent examples of sub-brands include Fiat’s resurrected sporty Abarth sub-brand (the model Cupra most-closely follows), Volvo’s Polestar EV sub-brand, Ford’s attempt at going “premium mainstream” with the resurrected Vignale and Buick’s similar play with Avenir and, before it was spun off as a stand-alone brand, Citroën’s DS.

A bit of history

This kind of sub-branding used to be popular in the past, especially in America where the line between proper stand-alone brand and sub-brand was blurry in the 1950s and 1960s. As brands and sub-brands consolidated in the 1970s the practice died down, driven partly by the rising expense of developing safe, unibody cars that were harder to customize than their body-on-frame predecessors. The practice would pop up occasionally in the following decades, for example when British Leyland desperately tried to charge more for their crummy 1980s offerings by slapping on the once-coveted Vanden Plas badge. To best understand why this strategy failed miserably, just look at the sad Austin Alegro Vanden Plas, with it’s ridiculous fake-Rolls grille.


The practice to create sub-brands somewhat re-emerged when in 1999 GMC launched the Denali sub-brand, which became a surprising success in the two decades that followed (today, about 25% of GMC models are Denalis, complete with added chrome and luxuriously-stiched leather interiors). 

Kriss’ take on sub-brands

Personally, I don’t understand the need for brands to spin off sub-brands. Yes, the example of Denali shows that, sometimes, there is an untapped market among consumers for an upscale or sporty version of a brand’s offerings, but Denali is not really a full-blown sub-brand. Rather, it’s a top-end trim label that’s available on all models, maybe slightly more removed from the base offerings than at other carmakers, but ultimately still not a sub-brand. To me, a sub-brand is one where the brand logos are replaced with the sub-brand’s (think Abarth, Cupra, Polestar), and the cars are sold through either dedicated dealers, or a small sub-group of the main brand’s dealers.


But, outside of these semantics, to me a sub-brand is a no-win middle point – either the cars are lightly modified versions of existing offerings, in which case you run the risk of “putting lipstick on a pig”, or they are stand-alone models, in which case they would probably be better served by being spun off as a new brand entirely. For examples of the former, look no further than Ford’s unsuccessful Vignale, which shows that customers are not easily fooled by nicer (and in Vignale’s case, browner) leather, chrome wheels and all the equipment that is optional on the mainstream cars. For examples of the latter, notice how once Citroën started developing bespoke models for its DS sub-brand, or Hyundai for its Genesis sub-brand, both quickly realized that it makes more sense to distance them from the mainstream models and turn them into proper stand-alone brands.


Will Cupra be successful? Possibly, but if so, it will not be because it’s now a sub-brand of Seat. Rather, it will be because it offers cars that are sporty, attractive, and yes, distinctive from their mainstream versions. For examples of this strategy working a treat without a need for a sub-brand, look no further than Audi’s RS cars, BMW’s M cars, Mercedes-AMG, Renault Sport models or Dodge SRT. 

Bart’s take on sub-brands

I mostly agree with Kriss, in that sub-brands offer little added value when compared to a luxury or sporty label within a brand, unless done the right way. And doing it the right way will mean a huge investment in the development of stand-alone models, marketing and distribution through stand-alone dealerships. The most obvious difference between a label and a (sub-)brand is as Kriss also mentioned in the badging, as the Mercedese-AMG and Renault Sport models use the regular Mercedes-Benz and Renault logos and therefore act as a halo for their respective brands, giving them an image of sportiness. A stand-alone brand should be more than just a badge-job of the most powerful or luxurious models within a range. When creating a “new” brand, a new logo is required as with Abarth and Cupra, but the brand also needs its own designs and stand alone models, not just rebadged versions of existing cars. An Abarth 595 is still a Fiat 500, just more powerful and with a harsher ride, and likewise a Cupra Ateca is nothing more than the most powerful Seat Ateca.


With these half-assed attempts customers will see through the badge and they certainly won’t pay extra just for that badge or be seduced by the badge unless it really stands for something in terms of brand image. Something like that takes years if not decades to achieve, and at least Abarth has the history and racing pedigree from the past to stand for something. Car buyers will only pay extra if the car itself has the goods and the performance to justify the extra investment, regardless of whether the car is called Cupra Ateca or Seat Ateca Cupra.

To make matters even worse, the Cupra brand launch is obviously a last-minute idea, as Seat presented the Seat Leon Cupra R ST after presenting the Cupra Ateca and the Cupra brand itself. Why not launch this car under the Cupra brand, you ask? Well, there’s already a Seat Leon Cupra R, and the ST is just the station wagon version of that car. I guess they thought it would be confusing to bring the station wagon under a different brand than the hatchback, so they decided to keep this model under the Seat brand. See how confusing all this rebadging is when not done properly and with a great deal of planning ahead?

Another problem with the Cupra brand is that it is based on a brand that doesn’t even have a clear positioning to begin with and spinning it off will only weaken that position. The VW Group already has about 10 brands in its stable and of those Seat was intended to be the mainstream sporty brand, a sort of Alfa Romeo from Spain. Except it never achieved this status and launching cars like the Mii, Alhambra and Toledo didn’t help that image. All three are rebadged versions of existing models and offer no more sportiness than their VW or Skoda counterparts. The Alhambra large MPV is actually the exact opposite of sporty! And both the Mii and Toledo are selling at much lower volumes than the VW and Skoda models they were cloned from. Skoda has always had a “value-for-money” image and all of its models support that image, strengthening that perception, but Seat has not been given a similar consistent brand positioning. Cupra was originally intended as a halo for the Seat brand to give it a more sporty image to set it apart from Skoda and as such it was moderately successful, similar to or perhaps slightly less so than Renault Sport.


Spinning off the Cupra brand could also mean the beginning of the end of the Seat brand, as Seat’s position within the VW Group has now become even more unclear. Is VW Group prepared to throw away the brand recognition is has built with the Seat brand and start all over again with the Cupra brand? I think the better option had been to keep Cupra as a label within the Seat brand and use that as a diffentiator to set Seat apart from the other brands within the Group. Which would also mean killing off the Mii, Toledo and Alhambra, and perhaps to keep the upcoming Tarrago large SUV stillborn. Seat has a great brand recognition and is well known, it just hasn’t been given the right models to justify the sporty image it aspires. It would be much cheaper and easier to invest into building upon this existing brand equity than to start all over again, while letting the existing brand slowly wither away.

Do sub-brands make sense?

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  1. Choices are a bit limited. If I could, I would just say that they could be successful if they have a good model, but that it wouldn’t be because it became a sub-brand.

  2. As most of the things in the world, sometimes a sub-brand is a good idea, but other times is not.

    About Cupra… well, I see some problems.

    First, Seat is a kinda sporty affordable brand into VAG. And the Cupra versions, their flagship. So, what will be Seat without the sport cars?. I see a problem with te brand image and how can be perceived for the market.

    Second. You create a new brand, but with the same cars that are in Seat catalogue. Anybody is gonna improve how they perceive the new Cupra cars if they sell Seat models?.

    Third, president of Seat told that Cupra will increase the profitability. So, you want to sell a more expensive Seat I think. Now, one of the strong points with Seat is the good relation between product and money, is a very good worth. Even the cupra versions. And that’s one reason for their success. But, take a Leon Cupra, change it the name, and sell it more expensive… It’s hard to believe than this could works.

    Fourth. This is a personal aprrecitation, but I’m spanish and I read forums and the opinion about the logo is…. terrible. Is like a logo for a gang of badguys in a superhero movie, or a pretencious ethnician fake tattoo, or the sticker of a 90’s spanish disco where lot of drugged people danced electronic music….. I don’t like.

    I don’t think this is a good logo, I don’t think it can evocate nothing about cars, passion, sport, speed….

    Fifth. First cars for a new sport brand are….. ¡¡¡SUV’s!!!. What?!!!

  3. Sub-brands with a long, independent and successful history such as Abarth, Ok, but things like Cupra? No, thanks.

  4. Seat is one of the most abused brands within the industry. Turning Cupra into a sub-brand shows the desperation of VW Group. They don’t know what to do with the Spanish brand which was supposed to attract future Audi buyers. As Bart said, Seat’s position is unclear and their line-up is a big mess. Seat Cupra cars are well-liked, but I don’t have the feeling they’re in the same league as Ford RS, Renault Sport and Honda Type-R models. Perhaps the same situation as Opel OPC although the Germans have made great progression.
    A sports label can indeed work as a halo for the mainstream brand, but a spin off? No. They should focus on giving Seat a better position compared with Skoda and VW. I’ve always thought VW Group is 24/7 busy positioning VW. The other brands don’t have (enough) stand-alone cars to distance themselves more from the mother ship. Result: self-inflicted internal competition. In my opinion, Skoda has made VW redundant, but the latter still has more cars and more global sales so for obvious reasons this can’t be changed in a year. However, I would turn VW into a budget brand in the long run. You can’t have a better brand name for it and it’s a well-known brand. But they would probably introduce another F segment car instead to disturb Audi’s wish to be considered a luxury brand.

      1. Really? I thought they were using the GSi-label for entry-level sport versions next to OPC.

      2. Ah yes, you’re absolutely correct! I must have misread it, my apologies for the confusion.

  5. The Austin Alegro Vanden Plas still makes me smirk. How did it go from drawing board to production? Even today, there are genuinely shockingly ugly cars that appear. How is it possible?

  6. In case of Seat I think it was terrible idea. Now you have a brand of “normal” cars that never gained real traction in their group and a sporty brand that will sell actual same cars with more powerful engines. I think Cupra with this Leon just started to get some recognition but they are nowhere near where those cars would sell on their own.

  7. If a company is making great cars to begin with, what is the need for a sub-brand? In the case of a move into premium territory, like Genesis, where it makes no sense to sell a Genesis next to an Elantra, then just create a new brand. Similarly makes sense for Geely or Great Wall to try and move their brand perception up with Lynk & Co and WEY. A minor brand like Seat should just focus on getting it right with their existing models.

  8. As a big fan of SEAT I really wish this wasn’t happening.
    Apart from all the reasons listed, the new logo for the pretend Cupra marque looks so tacky and in UK parlance “Chavy”.
    So disappointed this is happening to SEAT just as the brand had found its feet and sales and image increasing everywhere.

  9. Cupra could work.
    If a customer purchases a Leon Cupra, it has a Seat badges, and could be confused by onlookers as an ‘ordinary-engined’ Leon with a sporty trim or options and a Cupra badge, sourced on the internet, on the rear.
    If a customer purchases a Cupra Leon, it has a Cupra badge on the grille, and is less likely to be confused by onlookers as a tarted-up ordinary Seat Leon.
    I think this could be important for Cupra owners.

  10. Interesting article, and good discussion below it.
    Personally, I think Seat has become VW’s junk box, with no coherent identity to its range.
    Cupra is indeed “chavy” and won’t work well.

  11. “At least Abarth has the history and racing pedigree from the past to stand for something”

    Exactly. Instead, Seat never used the Cupra brand in WRC or WTCC.

    Plus, the Cupra brand was strongly connected to Seat. Having it as standalone cheapens Seat even more.

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