Can VW turn Seat into a sports star?

Despite its success with Skoda, Volkswagen’s attempts to make Seat into a sporty car brand have, so far, failed to hit the mark, says Lucy Barrett

Seat, despite its Volkswagen (VW) ownership, has struggled to carve out a unique positioning in the UK car market that shakes off its image as the standard hire car for tourists on holiday in Spain.

The German car manufacturer is no stranger to transforming car marques, having managed to change the perception of Skoda among UK consumers by pushing the brand attributes of good quality and value.

Its plan for Seat – a sporty and design-oriented image – was hatched more than five years ago, when its Cupra model was entered in, and won, the 1997 Formula II World Rally Championships. This achievement was formally recognised last December when VW split its car brands into two products groups: one led by the Volkswagen brand, the other by Audi. Under the new structure Seat and Lamborghini became part of the new “sporty” Audi group. In the minds of consumers, Audi and Lamborghini have obvious associations with sport but, despite VW’s work to date, the same is unlikely to be said of Seat.

In its latest move to raise its profile as a sporty brand Seat is moving into advertiser-funded TV programming (MW last week), by developing a show based around a 20-car single championship, using its Leon Cupra model. The event, which will run at six circuits across the UK and is designed to develop young driver talent, is in part the brainchild of UK marketing director Mark McKenna, who joined Seat last year (MW April 12, 2001). He claims to be negotiating with two terrestrial channels, thought to be ITV1 and Sky One, to broadcast the programme in the peak viewing time between 7pm and 9pm.

McKenna is planning to use a chunk of his &£13m above-the-line budget to invest in this programme. He is working with Bates Widescreen, the arm of Bates that develops TV properties for advertisers, to act as broadcast consultants. The show will build on the brand’s on-going programme of developing links with racing.

McKenna says: “From the late Nineties, Seat has been arranging track days for its customers and prospects. It has now started a race school, where 24 of Seat’s customers get a four-hour driving course.”

McKenna wants to see Seat take on companies such as Peugeot and Renault by increasing fleet car sales. He adds: “Two-thirds of Seat’s cars are retail, but it has room to expand fleet sales.”

He admits that in the past Seat cars did not have the greatest reputation for reliability, but despite the fact that the cars are now largely based on VWs, the customer is still getting something different. He says: “Everything the customers gets is different. The look, feel and engineering.”

Seat started life in May 1950, as a partnership between the Spanish government, six Spanish banks and the Italian car manufacturer Fiat. It was not until 1965 that its first car was exported to Columbia and it was another 20 years before Seat was first distributed in the UK.

Although Fiat cut its ties with Seat in 1981 and the brand was bought by VW in 1986, many consumers still think Seat is the “Spanish Fiat”. Others think the brand lacks direction.

Delaney Lund Knox Warren chairman Greg Delaney says: “People still confuse it with Fiat. As I walked around the Seat stand at the Motor Show, I wondered what consumers made of it. There isn’t anything about it that is particularly distinguished.”

He adds: “Perhaps it could be marketed as a Spanish brand, which might inject a bit of passion into the brand. If it wants to go more upmarket and sporty, it could move towards something with pedigree, like Alfa Romeo.”

After three years without an agency in the UK, Seat appointed Bates UK to handle its advertising in June. The brand does not spend much on advertising, and in the past has run advertising imported from Bates’ Spanish agency.

Bates UK account director Matthew Critchley agrees with Delaney that the marque has been confused with Fiat, but does not agree that Seat should be drawing inspiration from Alfa Romeo. He says: “In all respect to Greg, I don’t actually think Alfa is marketed that well.”

Bates UK has yet to produce any brand advertising for Seat, but it launched some price-focused advertising for five of its models in September. According to figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Seat’s sales increased 14 per cent in September compared with the same month last year.

Motor industry insiders claim that Seat is the last brand in the VW stable to be fully developed and marketed. One marketing director from a rival car company says: “It’s a very undervalued brand. VW has spent a lot of time concentrating on Skoda and Audi, and seems to have forgotten about Seat, which on the whole produces very good cars.”

Although Skoda may not be totally accepted as a car to be seen in, its sales have done extremely well in the UK over the past few years. It has been marketed on the good quality and value of its cars in an effort to eradicate the stigma attached to its unreliable past.

VW has a few more laps to go in the marketing of Seat if it wants to turn it into a sporty brand to beat the likes of Peugeot and Renault in the race for the minds of the consumer.

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