By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. I thought I was finished dissecting the ongoing marketing train wreck at Cadillac three weeks ago when, in a column entitled “Crucial Questions for Cadillac” (scroll down), I pointed out the dilemma facing the marketers at GM’s luxury division. While attempting to remake the brand’s image into one that appeals to millennials - while emulating Audi at every turn - Uwe Ellinghaus, Cadillac’s chief marketing honcho, has bought into the notion that aiming marketing at anyone falling outside the millennial demographic is a massive waste of time and money, because the millennials are the future foundation of the brand, and every other demographic is officially expendable and inconsequential from this point forward. Marketing roadkill, as it were.
As I said a few weeks ago, that perspective has a shred of viability, at least to a very limited degree and in a galaxy far, far away - if you squint hard enough - but beyond that the whole idea comes to a screeching halt, simply because millennials aren't buying Cadillacs. In fact Cadillac isn’t even on their radar screens. Ellinghaus & Co. is out to change that, even if it means turning off consumers who might want to give the brand at least a cursory glance, aka the people who can actually afford to buy one.
As for those unfortunates out there who don’t fall under the auspices of this ever overbearing millennial group marketing think, well, they should look elsewhere, because according to Ellinghaus and his excruciatingly insufferable millennial marketing posse, Cadillac isn’t interested. Why? Because Cadillac is only interested in cutting-edge millennials, the recognized hipsters who will allegedly become the influencers - and influential purchasers - going forward.
Where does that leave Cadillac dealers right now? In a solemn state of indifference wrapped in panic, especially since the ATS and CTS are languishing on lots, and the new CT6 is the Answer to the Question that No One Appears Ready to Ask at this point.
As for those “expendable” consumers out there, they’re wandering in and handing over bags full of cash to purchase the Escalade, ignoring every last plaintive plea by Cadillac’s marketing troops to notice the “new” Cadillac, a brand that’s suddenly geared to everyone else but them.
But Ellinhaus & Co. isn’t through reinventing the brand, by any means, oh no. In fact, they're just getting started. Now, they’re doubling down on what the Cadillac “experience” should be. And to do that, they’re opening up a coffee shop in the lobby of their looming albatross of a headquarters building in New York, on Canal Street, in Tribeca. No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Let me repeat that: Cadillac marketers are opening The Cadillac House, a 12,000-sq.-ft. “experiential” space/coffee shop - we've already dubbed it "Carbucks" - designed to be the pure essence of the brand and a millennial nirvana the likes of which no one has ever seen – or experienced – before.
And on top of that, Cadillac brand hipsters have even enlisted some of the most tedious and self-absorbed marketers to be in it with them like Visionaire, a “creative” firm complete with a magazine – wow - and Timo Weiland, an oh-so-fashionable clothing brand that promises to do a pop-up store on the premises. As if all of that weren’t quite enough, 12:29, another insufferable hipster marketing paradise, which concocted “scented” shows for Lady Gaga and a Rodarte exhibit, will create a very special fragrance for Cadillac House, because well, you just can’t get enough preciousness in one venue, apparently.
Melody Lee, the reigning Queen of Ellinghaus’s millennial marketing posse - and officially Cadillac’s “brand director” (who once famously said in an interview in Fortune magazine, “We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don’t want to be an automotive brand”) - informed Bloomberg’s Hannah Elliott that “We have tried to tell people what you’re supposed to feel from the Cadillac brand. But what we hadn’t quite fully established was an environment that you could walk into.”
Dang. Really? This is the most crying need for a brand that’s perpetually at the starting gate, an environment you can walk into? This is what will help define Cadillac for a handful of wandering millennials who manage to stumble in off the street asking for a hot cup of I don’t give a shit? This is what Lee and her fellow precious millennial marketers have been working on for eighteen months?
Un-frickin’-believable doesn’t even begin to describe the gaping maw of abject futility in this woefully ill-conceived “plan.” If I were a Cadillac dealer out in the hinterlands scratching for every customer I could get my hands on on a daily basis – living the “up at dawn, pride swallowing siege” mantra so perfectly conveyed by Cameron Crowe in “Jerry McGuire” – I would be ready to wander off of the lot in search of a stiff drink, horrified by the knowledge that Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen is sitting by while Uwe Ellinghaus enables his millennial marketing posse to make complete fools of themselves while pissing away boatloads of money in the process.
The last time I checked, the very last thing Cadillac needs is an "environment" that you can walk into. Or a "scent." Or a crushingly hipper-than-thou coffee shop in Tribeca, which will accomplish a big fat zero other than to allow Lee and her fellow precious millennial marketers to have a place where they can rub elbows with other vacuous and self-absorbed millennials, and contemplate the essence of the brand. Or, as I like to call it, navel gazing in its most insipidly tedious form.
There are so many things working against Cadillac in the market right now that the idea the company would spend dime one on a project of this scope simply boggles the mind. They have exactly one – count ‘em – one vehicle that’s a grand slam, in-market home run: The Escalade. The rest? The ATS and CTS are indecipherable from one another, at least to the average consumer. The XT5 has promise, but the Cadillac SUV’s tongue-twisting nomenclature isn’t helping matters much. More to the point, the Cadillac naming regimen has become inexplicable, and it’s even more of a struggle with the new CT6, simply because no one knows what a CT6 is, or really cares all that much.
Do you want more? The Cadillac advertising, which briefly showed promise with the initial “Dare Greatly” image campaign, has dissolved into a whiny and forgettable craptastic exercise of uninspired visuals and juvenile sounding voiceovers resulting in a dismal cocktail of, well, it’s just not very good, is it? (Ellinghaus, of course, is dismissing the naysayers who say that the advertising sucks by insisting that the advertising isn't aimed at "old-world" consumers - aka people with the kind of money to spend on big-buck luxury cars - but instead it is targeted at the vast, fertile, wide openness that exists in the minds of millennials. And because that’s how he’s spinning it, we're all excused because we're simply not hip enough to grasp the concept. Right.)
This latest Cadillac marketing embarrassment should be cause for alarm within the GM hierarchy, but I’m afraid that they’re blissfully unaware of the situation. Why? Johan de Nysschen has complete autonomy within GM, which is fine when it comes to all of the unglamorous, behind-the-curtain blocking and tackling that needs to get done. After all, molding the dealers into an Audi-fighting machine is a tall task. But when it comes to marketing? Watch out.
Let me remind you that GM is the largest corporation in the world without a Chief Marketing Officer, as difficult as that is to believe. And with no overall CMO anywhere to be found within the hallowed halls of the Silver Silos, the divisions get to go off and do stupid marketing things all on their own, unburdened by guidance, rational thought or even a shred of accountability, for that matter. In other words, the bucks don’t stop with anybody; they just swirl around gleefully underwriting the thought balloons of millennial marketing “talent” devoid of the first clue.
It’s time to point out that the whole “let’s establish a touchy-feely millennial beachhead in the luxury capitol of the world” notion is turning into an unmitigated disaster for Cadillac. Unfettered by reality but tethered to the hard-and-fast notion that they are the ultimate arbiters of taste, and that they and they alone are the only ones hip enough to understand, Cadillac marketers are running the brand right into the ground. And there is simply no excuse for it anymore, as if there ever was.
This is simply the last marketing straw for Cadillac, because if Ellinghaus is unable to extricate himself from the haze generated from the thought balloons of his millennial marketing posse and start making effective marketing decisions worthy of the brand, then it doesn’t matter how good the True Believers make the products. Because the brand will continue to be marginalized, languishing in the quagmire generated by misguided marketers who are allowed to run roughshod over everyone and everything, while answering to no one.
A few weeks ago I suggested that de Nysschen and Ellinghaus, while both consumed by their respective missions inside the company, are failing to answer the two most crucial questions hanging in the air about their brand, as in: What is Cadillac? And why should I care?
Upon further review, it’s clear that they’ve lost sight of what Cadillac is, and they will find it more and more difficult to find anyone who does actually care. Except for the few millennial hipsters in New York who are craving for an alternative to Starbucks.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.