Cadillac and the Reinvention of American Luxury

An Open (and Friendly)  Letter To Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen


Dear Mr. de Nysschen:


There seems to be lots going on at Cadillac. New president. New CMO. New headquarters. New cars. New tagline. New campaign. It's all very exciting from both a consumer and business perspective.


As a consumer, I’m a Cadillac fan. I enjoy how the cars have developed. I also pull for Cadillac as an American (underdog) brand competing in a sea of established international nameplates.


As a brand strategy consultant who, in the past, has built brands and led companies, I also resonate with the business challenges that you seem to be tackling. One of my favorite quotes is, “to get different results you have to do things differently”. I’m guessing the spirit of that axiom is driving large parts of your day-to-day strategy!


I also know that leading corporate change can be excruciatingly difficult. Managing internal hurdles may occasionally seem even more complex than the external, consumer and competitive oriented ones. For example, although your move to NYC may be about imbuing the brand with certain strategic attributes, there may also be some organizational and cultural benefits to being in fresh digs out of HQ.


That said, after studying the new Cadillac advertising, reading a few articles about the brand’s resurgence, and seeing your recent ‘Message To Cadillac Enthusiasts And The Odd Skeptical Observer’ - the management consultant (and blogger) in me has a few thoughts.


  1. Consumer Focus -

While sometimes Herculean efforts are required internally to execute “disruptive” external change, all of that is entirely irrelevant to consumers. The only thing they care about is what they interface with - the brand experience - the aspect of what you’re doing that touches them.


Upon first glance at your recent advertising, it feels like the new tagline, “Dare Greatly”, could be more of an internal call to action. It’s not yet clear how the phrase connects to the Cadillac brand. Is your consumer target people who embrace taking big risks in search of big gains? Are you celebrating the perhaps uniquely American ethos of rugged individualism in search of riches?

Maybe you're asking consumers to resonate with what you're doing; to "Dare Greatly" with you.


On the other hand, some might think you're asking consumers to ‘Dare Greatly’ in considering Cadillac. That approach feels like dangerous territory that might needlessly focus consumers on where you've been as opposed to where you're going. 

Either way, the campaign should articulate specifically what the tagline means and how it adds value to the Cadillac brand and its consumers.


As is now, a number of key elements of the new campaign - New York City, “Dare Greatly”, the Teddy Roosevelt quote, the ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ soundtrack, Steve Wozniak et al - beg the fundamental question of their connection to Cadillac. There's no question that the elements are cool and aspirational, but without more tightly linking them to the Cadillac brand, their impact has no choice but to be muted.


The ads are certainly beautiful, but for example, why NYC? While an iconic global city, it isn’t really a place that lends itself particularly well to the kind of spirited, fun driving that is endemic to the Cadillac experience these days.

Perhaps it is to associate the brand with a more cosmopolitan, sophisticated city with real global cultural gravitas. If so, unfortunately, I don’t get a lot of that from the spots. To be clear, there wasn't a concerted effort to infuse those elements of the city into the Cadillac DNA. 


The ad - The Arena - romanticizes NYC in a sort of hardscrabble and gritty way, but it doesn’t show any Cadillacs being driven there so one has to ask: what does this have to do with Cadillac? Is this even a place for Cadillac or, similarly, Cadillac consumers? It shows street scenes and people (some appearing to be prototypical Cadillac consumers, many not), closes with a Cadillac logo, but again makes too subtle a connection to deliver a powerful messaging punch. It’s not enough to just aggregate various creative ideas in advertising and simply hope that a credible and meaningful connection is made.


The Daring is similarly situated in NYC and features an obscure French song as its soundtrack. I wonder whether the subtlety here results in a missed opportunity. Will most American viewers either know the song and its meaning, or search for it? For the vast majority who don't, does the music become something of a throwaway element? Can Cadillac afford to be this subtle when its trying to redefine itself?


Further, I hope the point of including the song is not to merely add an air of ‘Euro sophistication’ into things.


Either way, how exactly does the song fit with a brand trying to redefine 'American luxury'? If you’re looking for an edgy, cool soundtrack wouldn't a smoky blues tune (for example) have been a more strategic option?


The Daring celebrates people who came from fairly inconspicuous or humble places to achieve great things. It reminds of Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign and even features Steve Wozniak.  


With respect, one could reasonably wonder whether “reinventing Cadillac” is on par with fighting disease, bringing the internet to Africa, and inventing personal computing. Time will tell, although of course consumers can be cynical. Perhaps if Cadillac highlighted not so much the specific achievements, but the foundational willingness to “go for it” in search of stretch accomplishment, then that could be something that could be more intellectually and emotionally accessible to everyone.


All of this is to say that if consumers don’t make a natural connection to your creative - if they don’t immediately understand what you’re telling them -  then the ad has no choice but to underperform. Particularly when refocusing a brand, however creatively delivered - the onus has to be on communicating key essentials of the new brand.


2. Leverage Emotion -


I’ve read that Cadillac aspires to become a “lifestyle brand”. Practically, this means that you acknowledge the enormous business opportunity in connecting emotionally with your consumers; in building a relationship with them about things that are emotionally important to them. Bravo! Many engineering-centric consumer companies haven’t yet discovered this. It's great that you do!


In fact, the key to building a strong brand is creating great products and establishing meaningful emotional connections; its in offering both physical and emotional value. People buy based upon what a product does plus how it makes them feel.


It looks like you've got the product development aspect of this challenge down! The cars are the best ever and seem to compete functionally with anything else in the category. Delivering meaningful emotional value comes from making consumers feel good about their association with your brand. It comes from understanding key aspects of their identity - who they are and who they aspire to be - and then crafting your overall brand experience to 'bridge the gap' between those two points - transforming them into their aspirational identity. (For more, see here.)

The fact that automobiles are one of the most powerful ‘social badges’ around means that Cadillac has enormous potential in this area. Again, bravo!


3. Positioning -


Taking a step back, brand positioning defines the most effective interactions to have with your target consumers that will inspire them to connect emotionally to your brand - and to buy! It’s important to clarify the articulation of Cadillac’s positioning, Unique Selling Proposition, Value Proposition etc. as you evolve the brand.


What do you want the “new” Cadillac to mean to consumers? Who is it for? Why is it special and unique? Why should your target consumers buy it?

An overlooked but critically important question to answer is "Why Cadillac?" In a sea of competitive options, it is critical to disseminate the answer to this question.


Now, no doubt your marketing team (and perhaps agencies and consultants) has done enormous work to define a new positioning for the new Cadillac. Just be sure that it delivers against real consumer insights and is reflected in every consumer touch point.


4. Brand Evolution -


If you’re taking consumers to a new place (evolving your brand), first you’ve got to clearly tell them where you’re going and then methodically (and gently) lead them there. You’ve got to define the new brand in every way you communicate - in words, images, via video, music, the website, social media, PR, events, promotions, etc.


If Cadillac seeks to redefine “American luxury” - then it has to offer its vision of what that is and how it fits in that definition. What does that look and feel and sound like, etc.?


Your current advertising might feel like something of a non sequitur to current brand perception. Obviously, if consumers don’t really understand the context for your message, if they can’t connect it to what they know about the brand, then the message will be less than effective.


For example, if you owned a Top 40 radio station and made the business decision to switch to a country format, unless you are willing to risk your current income stream completely by making an “overnight” switch, then you’d have to gradually evolve to the new format - holding onto those existing consumers who appreciate the new direction while aggressively attracting new consumers to the franchise.


Obviously, Cadillac isn’t making this dramatic a change. But, you’ve still got to communicate in ways that articulate the future while offering a sense of familiarity that comes from not taking too far a thematic leap.


5. Brand Image -


In addition to telling consumers who you are, continue to aggressively show them via advertising and marketing, especially product placement. You’re already doing well in this regard. I’ve seen Cadillac recently in prominent placements in both TV and movies. Just keep it coming!


At the end of the day, if you believe your target consumers will have to stretch some to embrace your new brand, then it is critical that you show people like them driving your cars! They’ve got to resonate with the characters who are driving your cars and see Cadillac as a compelling part of their aspirational identity.


6. Global -


In your “message” you describe your vision of Cadillac to be a “global brand, made in America”.  One could argue with the semantics of this (is MB a ‘global brand, made in Germany’ or a ‘German brand sold globally’?). Either way, the quickest way to get to there is by winning in Formula 1.


While it's admittedly enormously expensive, the long-term ROI could be transformative. GM would have to seriously “Dare Greatly” to do this, but it could be the most effective way to create global awareness among the brand’s core consumers. Particularly internationally, along with great advertising and a charismatic American driver - it could be the most effective way to define American luxury and performance. 


7. Naysayers -


This is a small point, but in your message you mention naysayers. With respect, ignore them. Identify your core consumer target and focus 100% of your energy and efforts on delighting them. To stand for something, to take a firm new positioning, by definition will leave some behind. That’s ok. At least today, you're not trying to win over “naysayers”. You're trying to earn the hearts and minds of your core consumers. Period.

In closing, these are exciting times for Cadillac. I hope you have the political, financial, and emotional “runway” for this to be an exciting time for you personally as well. True innovation and transformation require vision, audacity, resources, and patience. I wish you those attributes in abundance, as well as great luck!


And to be clear, I’m anything but a "critic". I’d love to roll up my sleeves and help you achieve your vision. I have a perspective on brand strategy and how to leverage emotion to create the strongest consumer connections that can be transformative.


Sincerely yours in strategy, leadership, and growth,


Michael B. Moore

Managing Director

The Brand Farm


“Creating more consumers

who consume more, more often,

and tell their friends”!


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Tags: brand, brandstrategy, cadillac, positioning, strategy


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