By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Just when I thought it was safe to set aside the discussion about automotive marketing for a while, a colleague sent along a link to an article in Fortune about an alleged Cadillac marketer that was so vapid and so embarrassingly offensive that it almost defies description. Almost.
And I use the word “alleged” because by the time I finished reading it I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why this person was even employed by Cadillac, let alone squiring the title of “director of brand and reputation strategy” for GM’s luxury division.
The writer, who shall remain nameless out of sheer pity, decided to write about one Melody Lee, who distinguishes herself by uttering such a collection of banal and flat-out stupid pronouncements that it pegged the AE Marketing Cringeworthy Meter at “11.”
With her millennial credentials strapped firmly to her sleeve – this is apparently a very big deal to her – she regaled the writer about her role as Cadillac’s millennial expert in residence, muttering, “I’ll often say, ‘Well, do you want a millennial’s perspective?’ You have one right here.”
I’m glad she clarified that, otherwise one might get the impression by her other statements that she should be selling discount near-luxury shoes somewhere. (Then again she was hired by the inimitable Bob Ferguson, the GM lobbyist who was plucked from obscurity by the clueless Captain Queeg to run Cadillac and who was so relentlessly out of his element in his brief tenure that he set the division back five years. It’s truly depressing that Dan Akerson’s Reign of Terror still haunts GM like a bad dream.)
Adhering to the now-obligatory Company Line for Cadillac, Lee said in the interview, “We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don’t want to be an automotive brand. There is nothing that exciting about an ad with a car in it by itself. We need to start injecting more humanity into our brand and into our advertising.”
Lee has all of the rote jargon that the Cadillac management team holds dear down pat. (There seems to be an undercurrent to all of this going on here that goes something like this: “If we say it often enough the media might actually believe it even though deep down we are straining to believe it ourselves.”)
But Lee being Lee – it’s a full-time job, apparently - she then adds her particular blend of naiveté to it that makes me wonder if the powers that be at Cadillac have completely lost it: “Physical separation from Detroit was necessary for us,” she said. “If we are going to truly be a global luxury brand, we need to distance ourselves a little bit from our mothership. Everyone in New York is always just a little bit ahead of everyone else and we need to be the brand that stands for that.”
Oh really? What a load of crap that statement is. Saying “New York is always a little bit ahead of everyone else” is such a pathetically inaccurate and condescending statement that I don’t even know where to begin. I won’t bother to list the other cities in this nation that have every right to that proclamation, but suffice to say Lee comes across as a frickin’ amateur, a petulant pseudo-expert with absolutely nothing of consequence to add to the discussion.
And for someone who apparently prides herself on her millennial status and even further - fancies herself as a beacon of light in the “old boy’s club” as she refers to the auto industry - she sounds every bit like the stereotypical, out-of-touch auto industry marketers that she so abhors.
(By the way I’ve gone back and forth on the Cadillac move, considering it to be everything from a non-event to a monumental waste of time and money, but the more insipid comments I hear from Cadillac operatives trying to justify the move to New York and how it will somehow transform the Cadillac mindset and thus bring the brand into the glow of stylish hipness, the more I think it’s unmitigated bullshit. Going to a hip workspace in Jackson Square has nothing to do with Cadillac’s ability to deliver outstanding products that people actually desire. Instead, it smacks of justifying one’s existence in the larger autosphere by convincing one another – as well as GM management down at the RenCen - that luxury by association is an actionable marketing strategy, which is laughable, at best.)
Lee is no stranger to quotable stupidity apparently, because in an earlier BloombergBusinessWeek article in that publication’s “What I Wear To Work” series she said, "If we’re not trying to reach a consumer in jeans and flip-flops, then we shouldn’t be dressing that way."
Oh really? This is some crazy-ass snobbism that actually shows a total misunderstanding of the luxury mindset. It’s simply laughable, in fact.
Say that to the Internet entrepreneurs who could buy a brace of Cadillacs if they were the least bit interested. Or say that to the unassuming people of wealth and taste who go out of their way to dress down and not call attention to themselves. I’m quite certain jeans and flip-flops have nothing to do with one’s wherewithal to pay for luxury goods and services, but then again Lee has thrust herself into a position – through the obvious self-promotion of her own personal brand - of being an expert on all things, and now she’s spewing bullshit at the drop of a hat because she thinks that people actually give a damn about what she has to say, which, remarkably enough, is yet another affliction of old-school Detroit marketers. Same as it ever was, in fact.
Lee concludes the “interview” with this gem: “I don’t buy products, I buy brands,” explained Lee. “I don’t use Apple computers because they are the best computers, I use them because Apple is cool. We need to show drivers what the Cadillac lifestyle is all about.”
Ah yes, the elusive hip and cool factor. The phrase that automotive industry marketers – particularly in Detroit – use with relentless abandon in their internal powwows while crafting an endless series of “experiential” marketing effluvia as if it will lead them to the Promised Land of blue-chip luxury automotive reputations. Oh if it were that easy that foie gras at a Michelin-starred restaurant and a stay at a five-star hotel complete with test-drives would impart immediate gravitas and substance to a brand.
The vacuousness that oozes out of Lee every time this so-called “director of brand and reputation strategy” opens her mouth is shocking. (The only thing more shocking is that the powers that be at Cadillac and at GM actually buy into this bullshit. But then, Lee actually offers an explanation for that, too, saying, “We got this ground swell of support from people who said this is absolutely the kind of risk that we need to take. The recall fueled this change at Cadillac.” This statement really crosses the line in our book. The recall fueled this change? Wow. Yet another degree of pathetic.)
This great brand status that Cadillac is so achingly desperate to achieve? It will not be won through experiential marketing forays and hipness by association. There aren’t enough Jackson Square luxury properties, faux-luxury “partnerships,” Michelin-starred restaurants and “hip” wardrobes that will turn the tide for Cadillac. And to even think that’s going to get Cadillac where it wants to go reveals a childlike naiveté that is both startling in its implication and grimly pathetic in its shallowness.
The ugly and painful reality for Cadillac is that there are no shortcuts in this business. There is no substitute for stunning, visionary design, sound engineering excellence and real-world performance with impeccable execution and quality. Everything else designed to impart an aura of hipness is a complete waste of time.
And that Apple example Ms. Lee mentioned? Apple delivers outstanding performance wrapped in impeccable design and delivers it consistently across its entire product lineup. It has created desirability for its products because it delivers as promised and at a level of excellence that has few real rivals. And for a large portion of the consumer population, Apple is the best there is. That’s why Apple is “cool.”
In the auto space let’s look at Audi, to point out just one manufacturer. Audi didn’t get to where it is today by worrying about the things that Ms. Lee and the other marketing operatives at Cadillac are so obsessed about. Audi did it by defining the product and what it should stand for, and then adhering to a series of beliefs, principles and learnings when it comes to car building that have been built up over time. And they did it with a focused consistency that has elevated the brand to top-tier status.
Cadillac is at odds with itself and it’s excruciating to watch.
On the one hand the True Believers are building outstanding machines, with the new ATS-V being just the latest example of the commitment, dedication and passion for excellence that fuels the people who are delivering the goods for the Cadillac brand.
On the other hand we have the Cadillac marketers, being led down the primrose path by Ms. Lee and her ilk, pathetic in their shallowness and shockingly incompetent when it comes to having the first clue as to how to create an honest aura of desirability and substance for the brand.
I keep waiting for the light to go on for someone, anyone at GM marketing, especially when it comes to Cadillac. Yes, I get it, Cadillac is supposed to be its own entity within the GM universe now, and that’s all well and good, but this kind of ridiculous behavior in the name of marketing hipness is just plain pathetic.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.