By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. There are many examples of “black art” in this business, whereupon almost mythical learnings and experienced subtleties accrued over time are employed in Design, Engineering and Product Development to make vehicles appreciably better, or more focused, or more consistently executed.
My favorite piece of “black art” has always been found in the refined tuning that goes into the machines we drive. How is it that people in product development tasked with imparting the distinctive feel and driving characteristic of a brand manage to deliver that mystical concoction of carefully studied nuances consistently over time?
How is it that the elusive BMW or Porsche “feel” (to name just two manufacturers) can be handed down from generation to generation and through different product development cycles so that drivers can, at least for the most part, testify that it in fact feels like a BMW or a Porsche?
That truly is a “black art.”
I’d love to say that marketing and advertising has its own set of “black art” learnings accrued over time in this business, but that just isn’t true. In many ways an on-target marketing strategy and brilliantly focused advertising execution is the result of having a Big Idea creatively thought out and presented with an enviable level of artistry thrown in for good measure.
It doesn’t always come together as planned when in pursuit of one of these heroic advertising campaigns - as a matter of fact there are far more misses than hits - but when it does it can deliver memorable, effective advertising that’s talked about and socialized exponentially. And it can elevate a brand to a level that separates it from the rest of the pack.
In reality it’s also true that some marketing and advertising is the result of throwing concepts and ideas up against a wall to see what sticks, stumbling into what’s worth pursuing and moving forward from there.
And there’s nothing wrong with that in the least, because that has been how some of the greatest ad campaigns in history have come to life. But it isn’t “black art.” It’s inevitably the result of ferocious creativity, a relentless passion for an idea - and the ability to recognize that idea as something worth pursuing in the first place – and then a confluence of ingredients that many times are at odds against each other but instead come together just right to see the concept through to a successful fruition.
I bring this up today because there are two furious marketing controversies boiling up to the surface this week. One, concerning Cadillac, which I’ll get to in a moment and which just won’t go away, and the other has to do with Mercedes-Benz and its mismanagement of its AMG performance brand.
I have repeatedly blasted Mercedes-Benz marketing in this column over the years because no manufacturer has consistently done so little with so much. One of the great automotive brands in this business, Mercedes has suffered from a galling series of two-steps forward, three-back marketing missteps that have sidetracked the brand time and again.
Blessed with one of the golden automotive theme lines of all time – “Engineered Like No Other Car in the World” – Mercedes marketers thought that the brand needed to become more “approachable” both in image and price, and began a pirouette into the depths of mediocrity that still leaves me shaking my head, and still negatively affects the brand to this day.
Does Mercedes make great cars? Yes, of course they do. And they’ve even managed to stumble on to a recent brand theme – “The Best Or Nothing” - that is finally worthy of the brand’s historical impact. But it’s the “Jekyll & Hyde” marketing dance that Mercedes does that is so confounding and debilitating to the brand, and it shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
For every magnificent S-Class Coupe – the quintessential essence of what the Mercedes-Benz brand should be – they stumble through gimmicky A-Class cars in the pursuit of volume, thinking that the brand will survive these marketing forays just fine. But every time Mercedes goes down this road it inevitably ends up biting them in the ass, and then they collectively scratch their heads wondering what the hell happened. Only the marketing “geniuses” at Mercedes-Benz think they can crank out volume and not have the brand demeaned over time because of it.
The latest and perhaps the most disturbing example of this particular kind of brand-wrangling stupidity comes with the news that Daimler plans on taking its performance sub-brand - Mercedes-AMG – and offering a cheaper product line in order to narrow the price gap with other Mercedes-Benz cars, being absolutely sure that it means a doubling of sales over the next three years.
According to a report in Automotive News, Mercedes will use the “AMG Sport” range to close the gap between Mercedes cars equipped with the AMG Sport Package trim level and the classic AMG models in order to further boost sales volumes.
These “pretend” AMG cars will offer six-cylinder engines with increased output, standard all-wheel drive plus special chassis and brake parts from the traditional AMG models. The key distinction? Unlike the authentic AMG models, the engines will be tuned versions off the series production line rather than handcrafted by one person in Affalterbach, as has always been the case with the performance machines from AMG.
In other words we’re talking mo-faux versions of AMG performance models, sporty facsimiles that stop just short of throwing tape stripes and stinking badges on them to make people think they’re “just like” a real AMG Mercedes.
How can this be, you might ask? How can Mercedes, which has pounded the glory of AMG into enthusiast customers’ heads for years, suddenly do a U-turn into mediocrity by cheapening its own hallowed performance brand?
I will tell you why this is happening. The powers that be at Daimler think they will reach the Promised Land through volume, plain and simple. Throw some AMG badges on the “AMG Sport” cars, do a few tweaks and the people not only won’t know the difference but they’ll come flocking, right? Wrong.
This is just another blatant example of Mercedes taking three-steps back in their now ritualistic dance of marketing ineptness and mediocrity. I would be outraged if I hadn’t seen it all before. And by the way the only kind of “black art” at work here is Mercedes-Benz’ uncanny ability to once again do so little after being blessed with so much. Simply beyond pathetic.
And then, there’s the Cadillac marketing hand-wringing that’s going on right now. The powers that be at Cadillac are screaming from the rafters of their trendy new digs in Manhattan that they don’t want to be a luxury automobile brand, they want to be a luxury brand that just happens to make cars. There’s a difference, at least in their minds.
To wit: "Johan de Nysschen, my boss, and I always say we want to build the first luxury brand that just happens to make cars," Uwe Ellinghaus, Cadillac’s Chief Marketing Officer, said in an interview with Automotive News at the Los Angeles Auto Show. "That sounds like a joke, but we're serious about it."
This just in, it is a frickin’ joke.
These guys are talking to themselves to such a degree that it’s starting to worry me. Cadillac is a luxury brand. But Cadillac does in fact make luxury cars. Those two facts cannot be separated and to pretend otherwise, or to pretend that 100 years of brand recognition doesn’t exist as a luxury automobile, is sheer folly.
Let’s take just one example. How many decades have we all heard Cadillac being used in the vernacular as being the Cadillac of something? The Cadillac of business jets, the Cadillac of toasters, the Cadillac of cruise lines, the Cadillac of well, you name it. Hell, even the Chevrolet Suburban (long before the Escalade) was referred to as the “Texas Cadillac.”
Projecting Cadillac as a luxury brand unto itself - one that happens to make cars as some sort of glorified sideline - is nonsensical and a fool’s errand. The powers that be at Cadillac could beat that drum for a hundred years and that dog just won’t hunt, even with a nice, juicy, New York strip attached to it.
I’ve heard the logic, such as it is, from the “We’re a luxury brand that just happens to sell cars” to the tedious naming strategy that is so completely devoid of original thought that it’s DOA, and it’s like we’ve all been given free tickets to Crazy Town, courtesy of the brain trust at the “new” Cadillac.
Ellinghaus defends the naming strategy (CT6, etc.) in the same interview with some remarkably skewed logic that suggests it’s a class naming hierarchy established by the Germans (even though he doesn’t want to emulate the Germans), one that Cadillac needs to adhere to because, “If we want to play with the big boys, then we need to accept the rules of their game." Then he countermands himself by saying that the Escalade name won’t be touched because, “That’s a brand in its own right.”
Really? Is that a luxury brand unto itself that just happens to sell luxury SUVs on the side, or is it a showpiece from the luxury vehicle manufacturer responsible for making the boldest, baddest luxury SUVs on the planet? I’m confused.
Ellinghaus also doesn’t want to hire car people, in case you were wondering, because well, it’s just too much old school auto industry tediousness and it has nothing to do with glowing ambitions of the Cadillac brain trust. "When I recruit new people, I do not need petrolheads," he said, stridently.
Oh, joy. No, Ellinghaus wants pseudo-marketers and luxury brand “experts.” I’m hearing the distinctive and disastrous overtones of the frightening Smale-Zarrella Reign of Terror rearing its ugly head here. In other words run for your lives everyone, while you still can.
So what do we have here exactly with this so-called “new” Cadillac? We have smart, but misguided individuals pretending they don’t sell luxury cars. And apparently we have to listen to this endless proselytizing until we 1. Just ignore it altogether, or 2. It dawns on somebody in Jackson Square that maybe pretending we’re not in the car business is, ahem, a little stupid.
Do you think Bentley execs sit around wondering if they’re in the car business or not? Not a chance. They are purveyors of some of the most desirable luxury automobiles in the world, and they’re quite comfortable in that role. As a matter of fact, it’s what they do best.
The only thing Cadillac executives seem to be comfortable with is talking about what they’re not, instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the real business at hand.
And what was that again?
Oh, right, it should be about building some of the finest luxury cars in the world, stylishly avant-garde machines bristling with a distinctive and compelling point of view that proudly wear the Cadillac name.
Instead we have a bunch of entitled provocateurs telling us that that they’re not actually in the luxury car business, but purveyors of luxury, and we will all be bathed in the light of their brilliance real soon.
This is going nowhere good, and in a hurry.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.