By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Johan de Nysschen, the seasoned executive who molded Audi USA into the formidable force it is today, and who briefly spent two years trying to teach Infiniti the luxury game, arrived at GM with much fanfare late last year and was given the reins at Cadillac, which, along with Chevrolet, is one of the two key divisional pillars that will help determine the future growth and success of the company.
GM CEO Mary Barra, president Dan Ammann and product chief Mark Reuss knew what they were getting with the talented South African – who doesn’t suffer fools and who rarely hesitates to speak his mind - because they understood that Cadillac couldn't languish in the market the way it had been – rudderless - with dealers waiting for the next round of customer incentives to arrive each month so that they could sell some cars (except for the Escalade, which has been flying off of the lots in this market).
The luxury market had gotten much too crowded and super heatedly competitive, and there was real danger that Cadillac's fortunes could sink to the irrelevant side of the equation if it continued its two steps forward and three back dance of mediocrity. So something had to be done, and de Nysschen was given free reign to fix things once and for all, no matter how difficult the changes coming would be for everyone involved to swallow.
But Barra & Co. had to stick to their end of the bargain as well, which was to commit to properly fund Cadillac’s future product development and to ensure that the investment was going to be made in the dealer infrastructure going forward. Just to be clear, this was an all-in deal, with the very future of GM's luxury division - and one of the great automotive brand names of all time - at stake.
Johan de Nysschen did not slink quietly into the job through the back door, which is not his style by any means, because he had projected a five-year visionary plan to Barra to position Cadillac for the future and move the needle for the brand in the market. And as to be expected, he rankled the Old Guard within GM as well as longtime Cadillac dealers right out of the gate. So did de Nysschen's Chief Marketing Officer, Uwe Ellinghaus, who had been at BMW for over a decade, and who had arrived at Cadillac less than a year earlier.
Ellinghaus had already encountered tough sledding internally within the organization, finding the Old Guard to be recalcitrant and intractable. But amazingly enough (for this business anyway, because it’s not often the case) he didn't clash with his new boss, but instead in de Nysschen found a compatriot with a similar mindset, one who shared his willingness to create a new positioning for the brand that would positively determine Cadillac's future for a changed world.
To be sure, there were challenges for these two when it came to their external communications and statements. They were both caught commenting on issues facing Cadillac at the moment - which were not necessarily consistent with the perception of where Cadillac was in the market today - while their internal discussions were focused well down the road. And some of those comments seemed jarring and wildly out of touch (which we were happy to point out, by the way). But in reality de Nysschen and Ellinghaus were living in a world of future think when it came to where the brand had to go, and though the comments seemed prickly and out of context, given what was about to be revealed for the brand, they now make perfect sense.
It should be pointed out that one hot-button discussion - the decision to move the division's upper management structure to Manhattan - was on the table before de Nysschen's arrival. And de Nysschen quickly surmised that having Cadillac quarantined in the Silver Silos - where management meetings dealt with Chevrolet in the morning, Buick and GMC at lunch, and Cadillac in the afternoon - would not cut it if they were to get any traction at all. He knew that the total focus of his team had to be on the job at hand, and he immediately agreed with the move and set about making it happen.
As I've stated previously in this column, moving away from the inbred GM silo mentality that wafts through the RenCen was a very good thing and something I completely agree with. I would have preferred refurbishing a warehouse in Detroit for the division, or at least being no more than 45 minutes from the GM Technical Center and the Milford proving ground for instance, but the move - taken in context with where de Nysschen wants Cadillac to go – was necessary. If moving to Manhattan meant getting the division away from the moribund mentality that seems to permeate GM's soulless headquarters then so be it, and I will take that as opposed to not moving at all. Will there be problems associated with the move? Certainly, but the alternative would have been much worse.
Taking all of this into account then seemed to explain some – but not all - of the hand-wringing, public posturing and somewhat confusing statements about marketing and Cadillac's place in the world emanating from the RenCen that seemed at odds with the reality of what we know Cadillac to be today. But they were the direct result of de Nysschen & Co. wrestling for the heart and soul of an iconic brand, while talking out loud and questioning everything about it.
One amazing anecdote about this situation is that before de Nysschen and Ellinghaus had arrived, no one had taken the time to seriously think about what actually defined Cadillac, not to mention what it needed to be and where it needed to go in order to survive and thrive in the future. de Nysschen and Ellinghaus knew instinctively that the “let’s out-German the Germans” approach would only take the brand so far, and ultimately couldn’t be the long-term strategy that would bring Cadillac into focus and carry it forward to new arenas of acceptance.
There had to be something more.
Remarkably enough, de Nysschen, Ellinghaus and the Cadillac strategic team – together with their new advertising agency strategists at Publicis, New York – came up with a new take on a “marching to a different drummer” brand identity, one that decidedly departs from where Cadillac was for both brand loyalists and casual observers alike, positioning it for the future.
This meant that hoary notions of what Cadillac once was had to be left by the wayside. This meant that the traditional and for some romantic names from Cadillac’s past had to be left at the side of the road, too, because they were simply irrelevant to new generations of buyers in new regions of the world that simply didn’t care. (Thus the new naming strategy that revolves around generic sounding letter/number combinations, instead of DeVille, Fleetwood, Seville or Eldorado.)
Is it something I personally like? No, but frankly, I’m not the target. It’s the new-generation “X” and “Y” buyers who matter. Was this a purposeful attempt to eradicate Cadillac’s glorious past? No, it was a stark admission that new stories had to be written for new generations of buyers who not only couldn’t care less about the history of the brand, but who are impatient to find the luxury brand that speaks to them most. In other words, whatever previous notions of Cadillac that were hovering out there in the mist simply no longer applied.
What has transpired in the last six months in regards to Cadillac in terms of marketing strategy, product direction and everything else associated with this brand in transition has been monumental and is geared to what Cadillac will be in the future - where it needed and wanted to go, and what it will look and feel like on the journey there.
This new Cadillac is armed with a driven leader bolstered by conviction and experience, one who has a completely different outlook for the brand. He has a like-minded and aggressive CMO at his side, a new advertising agency and a whole new way of thinking about the brand unfolding in staccato bursts of thought and creativity.
And the result of this swirling maelstrom of new thinking?
“Dare Greatly” is the new Cadillac theme, and it made its debut in a long-form video on social media platforms over the weekend. (Watch it here. – WG) Majestic in thought, visually stunning and at times borderline heroic, this is what high-concept image wrangling is all about.
“Dare Greatly” is a complete departure for Cadillac, and the voiceover in the spot underscores this fact (with words adapted from a famous speech by Teddy Roosevelt - "Man in the Arena" - in 1910):
It is not the critic who counts
Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles
Or where the doer of deeds could have done them better
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena
Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood
Who strives valiantly
Who comes short again and again
Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming
But who does actually strive to do the deeds
Who knows great enthusiasms
The great devotions
Who spends himself in a worthy cause
Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement
And at the worst, if he fails, at least fails… while daring greatly
"Dare Greatly" has nothing to do with preconceived notions of what Cadillac is, or what it once was. Instead it sets about creating an aura for the brand, one encompassing everything the brand aspires to be.
From this point forward Cadillac is aiming higher. de Nysschen and Co. are in the arena, striving to do the deeds, while being unafraid to fail. And I applaud the effort.
One hundred years after the iconic ad made its debut in 1915, I consider "Dare Greatly" to be "The Penalty of Leadership" for the 21st Century.
It's that good.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
(Watch closely for this campaign’s debut on the Oscar’s broadcast this coming Sunday night and you’ll see a shimmering glimpse of the new CT6 at the end of the spots.)