By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The reinvention of Cadillac is now an old story. The brand, which has been in the throes of a hand-wringing reimagination since 1999, is now deep into the second year of its latest foray into trying something different, this time under the leadership of Johan de Nysschen, a decorated Audi and Infiniti veteran.
To say that de Nysschen is blowing up whatever existed at Cadillac before is an understatement. He has changed, or is in the process of changing, everything, from the products and the way they’re sold, to the way they’re presented in the market. His latest directive is Project Pinnacle, which I am not going to go into detail here, except to say that Cadillac dealer profitability will be tied to the customer experience, the ability to deliver proper service and the reselling of certified pre-owned cars. The most controversial part of “Project Pinnacle” is that small or marginal dealers will be encouraged to become “virtual” stores, because they won’t be able to compete under the new system. That last piece is as radical as it gets, especially to a largely moribund dealer body mired in the ways of the past.
This is all well and good, to be sure, because de Nysschen knows that Cadillac will simply cease to exist if left to its own devices. After all, we’re talking about a brand that, despite some notably impressive products of late, is saddled with an obsolete mindset left over from a less disruptive time. And the disconnect between the “vision” de Nysschen has for the brand and the reality of the dealer experience is as big as the Grand Canyon.
Most, but let me stress not all, Cadillac dealers have been operating in the past, a dank and dusky world made up of “ups” and repeat customers looking for the Cadillac that doesn’t really exist anymore. The Cadillac most of these “traditional” customers have been familiar with has been turned upside down by the German automakers and made obsolete by the Lexus-pioneered customer experience.
But de Nysschen and his team have little time or patience for these customers because after all, they’re frankly dying off with each passing model year. No, this “new” Cadillac, if it is to survive in the furiously competitive luxury arena, must do so while attracting new customers with forward-thinking products.
That all sounds well and good, at least in the “Project Pinnacle” brief de Nysschen recently presented to Cadillac dealers, but the marketing component to all of this is another thing altogether.
The marketing of the de Nysschen reimagined Cadillac is fraught with peril, because the few boomers who haven’t already drifted away to Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Lexus are not exactly a promising group to hang the future of the brand on, even though they make up the few who still associate a modicum of residual goodness with the Cadillac name.
No, the future of Cadillac must rest on people who don’t even drive yet, or at least that’s what Uwe Ellinghaus, Cadillac’s marketing chief, believes. Ellinghaus rightly understands that the boomers who drifted away to competitive brands aren’t coming back, and the ones who have stayed loyal to the brand are inconsequential in the long term. Ellinghaus wants to influence the brand perception in a positive direction with a demographic that has little or no understanding of what Cadillac is, or what it meant in the past.
In an Ad Age interview at the rollout of the new Cadillac campaign that made its debut on the Oscars broadcast on Sunday, Ellinghaus commented, "This generation is highly skeptical. They want to be entertained. They want to see that a brand has meaning, a value, a point of view." So Cadillac does not want to be “lecturing them about details on cars that they are not yet ready to consider,” he said to the advertising industry publication.
That’s all right sounding, at least in an interview, but then again the advertising Cadillac debuted on the Oscars did nothing to change the perception of the brand with anybody, let alone a demographic that views cars as oddities to begin with.
I praised the “Dare Greatly” image campaign when it made its debut a year ago because I thought it was fresh and confident, one that did well to signify the new image direction befitting a brand in desperate need of a makeover. Subsequently, as the campaign played out in the ensuing months, it completely disintegrated as the Cadillac marketing operatives were compelled to force their high concept advertising into the dreaded incentive/price advertising box, and failed miserably doing so. (And, as I commented a few weeks ago in “On The Table” (1/27), employing a tragically insipid-sounding and blatantly amateurish female voiceover talent didn’t help their cause one bit either.)
This new edition of “Dare Greatly” conspires to connect Cadillac with people who know nothing about the legacy of the brand, or let’s be honest, the brand period. To do this Cadillac features nine entrepreneurs ranging from the age of 15 to 25 in a grandiose 60-second spot. (You can watch it here –WG.)
The whole conceit, of course, is that there are people out there who dare greatly - “only those who dare drive the world forward” - and that Cadillac is the brand for them. Uh, okay, but let’s be real here. Ellinghaus suggests that just showing the product does nothing for the brand, because it doesn’t get to the raison d’etre of why the brand exists or what it can do for the people considering one. Fair point, but I contend this latest high concept spot for Cadillac doesn’t do anything either, for the brand or for the people watching it. In fact it just got lost in the miasma that is the Oscar telecast, coming off as yet another “earnest” brand trying to make a difference in the world, and it landed like a thud.
What’s worse, the two product-focused spots for the new CT6 and XT5, which also debuted on the Oscars, attempted to land the payoff line “Only those who dare drive the world forward,” eliciting the reaction of “Huh?” It was supposed to connect the viewer back to the flagship spot shown earlier but guess what? It didn’t. And I can only imagine when these spots run out in the workaday world far removed from the Oscar broadcast they will provoke a similar reaction. (And I see the Cadillac marketing brain trust decided to stick with that insipidly amateurish voice over too. It’s emblematic of marketing in a vacuum with nary a discouraging word, or a “are you sure about that?” in sight. And that line about "the first-ever CT6" - WTF does that even mean? We can't glean from the commercial what a CT6 is and why it's exciting or what's “new” or innovative about it. If there was a CT5 that everyone knew about then the idea of a a CT6 might be intriguing, indicating a new level of Cadillac. But we don’t know where the car is coming from, what it relates to or where it's going because the newly-named CT6 isn’t part of some well-understood categorization system. Not Good.)
Look, I’ve said a million times on these pages that conceptualizing, writing and producing compelling advertising is one of the toughest endeavors there is. I wholeheartedly understand what goes into it because I did it myself. So when I criticize efforts like this it’s because I do know what it takes.
I also have a very sensitive bullshit meter and this latest Cadillac work pegs it.
I mentioned the “disconnect” between de Nysschen and the traditionalists in the Cadillac dealer body early on in this column. That’s real and it will continue to be an issue for months and years to come. But another chasm exists within Cadillac as well, and that’s the disconnect between the True Believers responsible for the excellent new products, and the efforts of the “suits” in management and marketing. There is always a natural divide to be sure, but in this case it seems to be growing wider by the minute and going nowhere good.
Ellinghaus and his “genius” marketers - he has assembled a team of people with no connections to the auto biz, on the idea that this is sure to make Cadillac resonate with people who don’t care about the brand or even cars themselves – are selling high concept “air” here. It’s marketing cotton candy of the first degree, a lovely confection that seems to satisfy in a fleetingly pleasing burst of nothing, and is then instantly forgotten.
And in the process, the key questions remain unanswered: As in, what is Cadillac again? Why does it matter? And why should I care?
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor-In-Chief's Note (2/4/2016): After the disgusting and embarrassing display at the Republican debate last night, I wanted to remind everyone of a column I wrote last October about the dumbing-down of America and the rise of Donald Trump. I stand by every word of it. -PMD
Check out the latest episode of The High-Octane Truth on AutoextremistTV below. -WG
Note that this week's episode is a two-parter...you can see Part 2, plus all episodes of AETV, here!