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Not Your Granddaddy's Cadillac

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Let's face it: American car manufacturers are in a major funk, and have been for some time. Cadillac, though, has been a bright spot. Talk about an iconic American brand that had been dying a slow, dignified death for the past few decades... only to make a dramatic U-turn at the dawn of the new millennium! Wow!

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The Institute for International Research (IIR) puts on some excellent marketing conferences. THE Conference on Marketing was held March 19-21 in Las Vegas. A great line-up of presenters spoke on diverse marketing topics. What especially caught my eye was the presentation by Elisabeth Vanzura, Global Marketing Director of GM's Cadillac division: "Re-Igniting America's Love Affair with Cadillac."
Let's face it: American car manufacturers are in a major funk, and have been for some time. Cadillac, though, has been a bright spot. Talk about an iconic American brand that had been dying a slow, dignified death for the past few decades... only to make a dramatic U-turn at the dawn of the new millennium! Wow! Cadillac knew it had something when it launched the edgy, urban Escalade and decided to choose Led Zeppelin's music to advertise it to the American public. This wasn't your granddaddy's Cadillac!
While sales of the luxury brand are still sluggish, and many still have a stodgy brand image of the old Cadillac firmly implanted in their heads, progress has been made. The latest ad campaign, rolled out by Boston-based Modernista advertising agency, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit. . ." is all about capturing "an American spirit we have in our heritage, and the brand, but without flag-waving," according to Ms. Vanzura.
The ads themselves feature Cadillac's new target audience, whom Vanzura describes as "Alpha Males" and "Hot Mamas." Obviously, she's alluding to mature (not old) men who have made it and moms in their mid-thirties and up, who want to leave the family van behind, in favor of something more zippy and upscale.
Regardless, Cadillac has a tall order in front of it. While a venerable brand with a story; or as Gary Koepke of Modernista puts it: ". . . everyone has a Cadillac story to tell. The brand is ingrained within our culture. We're looking to capture that optimistic, can-do American spirit. . ." it remains to be seen whether Cadillac can compete for the American luxury car buyers' dollars with BMW, Lexus and Mercedes.
Vanzura herself discussed how Cadillac's new marketing approach is directly aimed at attracting younger consumers, increasing its share of "conquest" buyers (read: the "I've made it" crowd), and improving the brand's image attributes. Having proved herself with the Hummer brand, I wouldn't bet against Elisabeth Vanzura.
Having said that, I have to acknowledge the huge challenge she's taken on. It can take a long time to resurrect a dying brand. Yet, there's something that's so fundamental, that goes right to the core when it comes to "life, liberty and the pursuit"... .

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Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (, a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.

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  • by Nancy@Deliver Magazine Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    Ted- This positioning by Cadillac really began in 1998 when GM began rethinking their target audience for the brand. It began with edgier designs, cutting edge concept vehicles and a complete retooling of the brand's placement. All without loosing that classic Cadillac image of luxury and "having made it." Talk about a challenge. If you'd like to read the rest of the story, you can find it at

  • by Harry Hallman Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    I believe the problem with Cadillac and Lincoln is the perceived or real idea that they are not built as well as BMW or Mercedes. In my experience I have found this to be true. My first "luxury car" was a Lincoln and I was happy. I loved them I would never buy a Cadillac because of a childhood aversion to the car. Where I grew up only stuffy old men who couldn't drive had big caddies. Now that I am an old man I want to avoid the anything that is perceived as stuffy (:-) My wife bought a BMW a number of years ago. I liked it so much I later got one. She had it over 10 years and it was a great car. She then got another BWM and a year later it was destroyed in a flood. She replaced it with A Mercedes, which, she liked better for the interior design. To her BMW and Mercedes are the same car just different names. I could never keep my Lincolns for more than 4 years. I am now on my 11th year of my BMW convertible. It has 170,000 miles and I still love it. I realize that I will soon have to get a new car for business purposes and my sensibilities are changing. I would really like to have a hybrid. Not for gas mileage but rather to make my simple contribution to the betterment of the earth's ecology and to reduce my consumption of oil products. My question is: Are American luxury cars in a funk because they are not advertising or telling their story correctly? Or is the problem that they are not focusing on making a high quality vehicle that meets the changing sensibilities of American consumers and don't have a good story to tell?

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    Nancy, Thanks for your input and for the link to this article. Great insights on how a heritage, stodgy brand can reposition itself, get edgier and do a "U turn" in the process. Let's hope that as a great American brand, Cadillac can successfully reinvent itself.

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    Harry, I think you nailed this one from the beginning: is the difference in quality between Cadillac, Mercedes and BMW real or perceived? At one time, it was real, but now, I'm not so sure. Quality has dramatically improved in American cars for the most part. I guess the question is: have Mercedes and BMW had such a head start on brand image building as the luxury cars to own, that it's tough for Cadillac to overcome that as well as their own past stodgy image?

  • by Stephen Denny Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    Ted: when I was at GM a lifetime ago (about 1997), I recall hearing that the average age of a Caddy driver was 73. Average. Not sure if they've moved it perceptibly lower -- also curious to know if they've dented the Japanese/German hold on the entry/luxury sedan market. Lexus/Audi/BMW/MBenz and the others do make better cars in terms of quality and performance, so Caddy better be doing more than a snappy ad tag line.

  • by Claire Ratushny Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    Interesting post and comments. Cadillac must be doing something right. Has anybody noticed the number of star athletes, musicians and celebrities driving around, or being driven around in, Cadillac Escalades? Preferably black ones. There's nothing "old man" about the Escalade. It's considered a chic, urban vehicle.

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    Stephen: You're right: some research as to how Cadillac is stacking up sales wise, as well as incremental growth vs other luxury brands would make an excellent follow-up post. Claire: Exactly what Cadillac had in mind with its edgy new vehicles. There's nothing granddaddy about the Escalade or the company's newer models. Thanks for the comments, all.

  • by csven Sun Apr 22, 2007 via blog

    From the design perspective, I was watching Cadillac in the early 90's when they hired some designers out of school who were pushing Nick Pugh's "New Edge" (creases on soft forms) into what some of us were dubbing "Chiselled" (facetted shapes with much less curvature). We felt that future models - should they move in that direction - would be winners. And we were right. The only hiccup was when a newly-installed CEO offered up his design critique in a major business publication suggesting Cadillac should be more like Buick(!) - "luxurious" (i.e. soft) - and that he would *correct* this error in Cadillac's styling. Shareholders should be glad that for whatever reason, the designers were allowed to do their job without having management forcing their own aesthetic sensibilities onto a group of professionally-trained individuals. Heaven forbid designers should make creative business suggestions (though maybe Detroit would do well to solicit a few).

  • by Ted Mininni Mon Apr 23, 2007 via blog

    Thanks, csven, for adding an important dimension to this discussion. As president of my own design firm, I know exactly where you're coming from. We designers understand that our best work adds great value to all products. However, the onus is on us to prove it. When the shareholders and management of companies override proposed designs, they're approaching this from their analytical left brain thinking. When we designers do the proper consumer research before proposing new design concepts, we are approaching it from a creative, problem-solving right brain view of the universe. The crucial thing here is for both parties to imbue themselves with more of each other's way of thinking so we can truly put forth the very best solutions for the end user. This breeds mutual respect between corporate managers and design consultants. It also enables us to make great break-throughs in better, more user friendly consumer products.

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