Commentary: How to Label Thyself

Photo courtesy of General Motors
Photo courtesy of General Motors

We used to call them "divisions" when I was a kid.

Divisions were the name given for what we call "brands" today. They denoted a specific marque – another term used elsewhere of the same thing. It is all labeling, when you think about it.

It is also a business-motivated crap shoot. General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler reduced the number of brands over the years. Gone are Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, Eagle, Mercury, Merkur, Lancia, and Saab – to name a few. Meanwhile, Honda, Toyota, Infiniti and Hyundai have added premium brands to their roster – Acura, Lexus, Infiniti and Genesis, respectively. This marketing business can be heady, at times. It also keeps the consumers on their toes when it comes to their shopping lists.

This is all great and good, but there is another twist to the whole machination of vehicle marketing – sub branding.

So, what the hell is a "sub brand?" Apparently, the trend of creating a "label within a label" is huge in the automotive business. Some sub brands are to position certain products towards a subset of consumers attracted to a particular product.

For example, SRT is currently a sub brand of Dodge. SRT products are designed for the upper echelon of performance within the Dodge lineup. It is also used at Jeep for the Grand Cherokee. Fiat uses Abarth in the same way as Dodge uses SRT. Lincoln offers its Black Label moniker for the most exclusive versions of several models in their lineup. There are added benefits in choosing a Black Label MKX over a normal version – even the top of the line Reserve trim.

Other sub brands enjoying success within their corporate houses are AMG for Mercedes-Benz, M and i for BMW, Audi Sport for…well, Audi, V for Cadillac, and F for Lexus. You can see the throughline of most of these sub brands – promoting either high performance, exclusive luxury or sustainable transportation, while leveraging the main brand and their associated products.

It is not a clear concept in many people’s eyes. For example, there is confusion on whether DS is a sub brand of Citroen or a standalone brand. The latter had been argued, when it was rumored that PSA Peugeot Citroen was considering sending its DS models to North America as a return to sale on this continent.

This commentary was prompted by Buick’s recent announcement of the use of Avenir as an upper level sub brand for its products. This has been something I have been mulling over for quite some time. I understand what Buick is trying to do – taking the name of a concept that we all hoped would be a production model and applying it to a similar program that Lincoln has under Black Label.

Perhaps that is the assumption – an added luxury trim level under the name Avenir ("future" in French, by the way) with perhaps some added ownership benefits. Maybe? One would hope, even as Buick claims it is growing in sales "worldwide." And, where will we see Avenir trim levels on which products…and for exactly which markets? That has not been answered at this point.

The idea of a sub brand has been seen as successful if directed towards an intended audience. Between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Daimler, Audi, BMW, Lincoln and Cadillac, their sub branded products are iconic to provoke the dreams of enthusiasts. There is commercial equity when promoting a sub brand as a halo above the product line. The returns are terrific, based on added sales and engagement with its discriminating customer base.

But, there is confusion on all sides with the practice of sub branding. For example, if I were doing the systems programming at a specific vehicle registrar's office, how do I denote which brand to use for a specific vehicle? Would it be a Buick or an Avenir? Or both?

Also, what would the customers call their vehicle? Rather, the vehicle they want to buy? There are people who still call Ram pickups a "Dodge" even after the brad was split and established since 2009. Meanwhile, proud AMG owners precisely call their cars as intended – an AMG.

How will Buick customers call their new Avenirs? Will the name have enough cache to have their prospective customers even consider embracing the Avenir name for their next Buick? The point where this will transpire is how the vehicles will be presented and to which additional services an Avenir owner should expect after the sale is completed.

That example is laid out by Lincoln through their Black Label program. When a customer purchases a Black Label model, they get someone on call to assist them from roadside assistance to making reservations at select restaurants. They also get the highest level of customer care at the dealership, including specific loaners and service delivery.

Will customers take advantage of additional amenities on top of a sub branded automobile? This also leads to a thought regarding the sale of premium automobiles as a while. If their customers want to take advantage of premium services for a better ownership experience – why not offer them to everyone who buys a new vehicle?

Still, quantifying the creation of a sub brand needs to be executed in a way towards customer engagement at the moment of first contact to the end of ownership. To fail here is to fail the sub brand – or new brand.

One more thing, I was hoping Avenir would be an all new car. I guess I was wrong…

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