July 4, 2012
Editor-in-Chief's Note: We are taking a break this week in honor of this country's Independence Day. We'd like to thank all of the men and women in the military around the world who help keep this nation free, and we'll see you back here next week with a new issue of AE. You can find me on twitter (@PeterMDeLorenzo), however, as I occasionally provide 140-character bursts of commentary over the course of this week. - PMD
The chase begins.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 6/26, 12:00 p.m.) Detroit. In the not too distant future, Cadillac is going to come out swinging with an ad campaign for the new ATS, the luxury brand’s point-blank answer to the vaunted BMW 3 Series. Cadillac and GM executives have been very blunt in their stated mission with the ATS, in that they’re not only going after the BMW’s image spear carrier, they expect that the ATS will meet or exceed the 3 Series in every measure.
A tall order indeed.
First of all, let’s review the target that Cadillac is going after with its ATS. The BMW 3 Series isn’t just BMW’s bread and butter - it’s the machine that has defined the sports sedan segment since 1975.
Everything BMW stands for is embodied in the spirit and the execution of the 3 Series: The disciplined adherence to the art and function of driving, the superb chassis dynamics, the faultless execution, these are all hallmarks of what made BMW great way back when and what still make it great – at least for the most part – today.
To take it further, the 3 Series has defined BMW as much as it has defined the segment. And the fact that BMW has managed to display a relentless level of focused consistency with the 3 Series over time has made the company the envy of product development people throughout the industry for years.
The 3 Series has also been coveted with at least as much fervor by buyers as well, because along with it being a superb product, BMW happened to hit on one of the most powerfully enduring automotive advertising themes of all time - “The Ultimate Driving Machine” - which resonated with enthusiast consumers in an unmistakable way.
So armed with a great product and a great ad theme, BMW has solidified its presence here in the U.S. market, which has translated into tremendous sales success.
But none of this has come to pass overnight. BMW has displayed its consistent focus here and around the world for going on 38 years. Have they made product mistakes? Absolutely. There have been plenty of vehicles that didn’t ring true to the BMW brand over the years (the Z3 sports car, ugh), but most of those have faded away. (As for those pining away for the “good ol’ days” of BMW’s pre-SUV and crossover days, well, you’re going to have to learn to live with disappointment.)
As a matter of fact the German-based BMW marketers even came close to blowing “The Ultimate Driving Machine” theme line just a couple of years ago when they tried to shove the concept of “Joy” down BMW dealers’ throats here in the states. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and that idea faded away before it did too much damage.
The point being in all of this?
Cadillac is coming into the sport sedan segment with guns blazing and with the stated goal of knocking off the 3 Series, just like many manufacturers have attempted before. Noble goal? Sure. Why not go after the best? In this business there really is no other option.
The True Believers at GM led by Mark Reuss have delivered some excellent products over the last several years, the Cadillac CTS-V and CTS-V Coupe being perfect examples of the kind of outstanding work they can do when given the financial wherewithal and the tools to get it done. And the ATS, by all indications – power-to-weight ratio, chassis ingredients, overall balance, etc., etc., etc. – will be a serious player in the segment.
Cadillac has been rejuvenating itself for more than twelve years now, and from where they started back in the late 90s to where they are today the progress has been exemplary, even staggering in some cases when you really think about it.
But it’s not enough.
Why? You can’t just flip a switch and convince enthusiast consumers that the ATS is “every bit as good as the 3 Series” with a couple of stellar reviews and road tests. If it were that easy we would have seen the 3 Series get bounced from its elevated perch long ago.
No, this is about brand image and brand perception. Right now, for those armed with enough knowledge and interest, the Cadillac “V” cars are worthy of serious consideration. But have they changed the general brand image of Cadillac? I would argue that they haven’t. Oh, they’ve moved the needle plenty and for those enthusiasts who don’t want to follow the crowd they certainly provide a very sexy alternative, but have they altered the brand character of Cadillac in the market? No. And it’s too bad, but that’s the reality.
You don’t go up against 38 years of focused consistency and a disciplined product cadence enhanced by an advertising campaign that established an emotional connection to the brand and expect things to go your way overnight. It just doesn’t work that way and it won’t happen that way.
Be that as it may, I had a sneak peek at the upcoming TV ad campaign for the ATS and I must say that it is adventurous, involving and compelling, and it’s exquisitely filmed to boot. Marked by majestic locations and focused on what the ATS delivers, it will surprise people, and in a good way. Joel Ewanick, GM’s Global Marketing Chief, clearly pushed his troops to the edge and willed them to deliver the goods, and I think they’ve done a pretty spectacular job.
But unfortunately, that won’t be enough either.
It will take a decade of the kind of focused consistency as practiced by BMW in order for Cadillac to make even the slightest dent in the aura built up around the 3 Series. Can it be done? No automaker is infallible, so Cadillac’s chance is as good as any.
But one thing that's in short supply down at the RenCen these days is patience. And I just have to wonder if there’s enough of it to go around to see this quest through to fruition.
We shall see, but in the meantime let the chase begin.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.