Cadillac Reaching For Icon Status in New Positioning

David Kiley

Cadillac has become a cool brand in the last four years thanks mostly to the embrace of the Escalade SUV by the fashion and hip-hop crowd, and the good reception of CTS sedan by the auto press. But with sales down 9% in the first six months of this year and not enough new buyers coming in, the General Motors brand is shaking up its advertising and marketing to reach more women and young well-heeled lucury car buyers.

When Caddy launched its “Break Through” campaign four years ago with Led Zeppelin music, it was a game-changer at GM and the Caddy brand, which had become asoociated more with the white-shoe and matching belt crowd than those wearing Dr. Maartens or Gucci. And while four straight years of sales gains is nothing to sneeze at, Caddy recently identified a problem. Beyond the Escalade, young people had no clue about the rest of the lineup. Also, while the average age buyer had come down to 59 from 64, that's still too old and too few women have been shopping the brand.

So, with a new global marketing director and new ad agency, Cadillac this month is dropping “Break Through” in favor of “Life. Liberty. and the Pursuit” as its new tagline. And classic rock music is giving way to a plan that calls for communicating Cadillac’s "Americanness" without overt flag waving, and showing more people in Cadillacs. “A lot of people we think should be considering a Cadillac simply weren’t getting the message about our products and couldn’t see themselves in the brand,” says global marketing director Liz Vazura who came to Cadillac last January after a successful stint running advertising at GM’s Hummer brand, and at Volkswagen before that. She gave Boston-based ad agency Modernista!, who also handles Hummer, the Cadillac business a few months ago.

The “Life. Liberty” line is, of course, right out of the Declaration of Independence. The line, explains Modernista! creative chief Lance Jensen “is to serve as a platform from which we can start to tell a narrative about Cadillac’s American spirit.” He and Vanzura are quick to add, though, “This is not about flag waving or suggesting that people buy a Cadillac because it’s American…that doesn’t work and its not relevant to our buyers.”

The tagline carries a lot of the water for the “American spirit” idea. But print ads that kick off the campaign are unique in the car category and have a different look and feel than import competitors or even Lincoln. They show the Cadillac wreath-and-crest logo very large. In one ad, it’s hovering over people walking in between two passenger trains with a looming image of a futuristic, almost Oz-like building (it’s actually a rendering of GM’s headquarters in Detroit made to look much better than it does in real life). Since there is no like passenger train in the same proximity to GM, the image looks like train passengers from decades ago walking toward a futuristic building—a mix of past and modernity. Another ad shows the wreath-and-crest hovering above a modern bridge. The art direction is quite good in these ads to convey the same sort of visual tone I associate with Art Deco posters. Vanzura says we will see much more of the wreath-and-crest, which she would like one day to take on iconic recognition like the Nike Swoosh or Apple logo.

Other print ads also shine for their art direction. Beautiful people are seen in Cadillacs, and the images are boxed to give the look of being frames from a roll of 35mm color film. “It’s to give the ads a paparazzi feel,” says Jensen. The word Cadillac in over-sized bold script lettering streaks across the ad so noone can miss the brand. It’s a good, copy-light execution. Anbd I like the bold use of the Cadillac script.

TV ads that Modernista! wasn’t ready to show will try and work to establish Cadillac’s fashion and engineering bonafides. In one spot, a jeweler is seen pouring molten metal into molds and choosing jewels to put into some creation. The payoff is that it’s a Cadillac wreath and crest. In another ad, an engineer is seen taking a bunch of components to a workbench to hand assemble an engine, a process that actually happens in some Cadillacs. A third spot shows Cadillac winning a stock car race, making the point about how the technology in the race car winds up in the Caddy in your driveway.

“Break Through,” says Vanzura served its purpose by calling attention to Cadillac’s new batch of products and spoitlighting the brand, which had been subjected to some GM’s worst advertising in a decade before the campaign was launched in 2002. But even GM’s last agency, Leo Burnett, was running out of ideas on how to make the tagline and music fresh. Indeed, recent ads for the SRX, CTS and Escalade did not include Led Zeppelin.

Cadillac brand chief Jim Taylor says one of the issues the brand has faced with customers is awareness of individual products since the company abandoned real names for its vehicles in favor of alpha-numeric names. INdeed, DTS, SRX, XLR, CTS are very sterile names on which to bestow emotional appeal. “We think pulling together messages that are more emotional and that underpin our different products will help that,” he says.

For all the extensive research that Cadillac has done in the last few months about how potential customers view the brand—and they did a lot, including getting feedback on more than 25 different taglines—Vanzura says the campaign’s look and feel has a lot to do with her instincts, as well as those of Modernista's creative and Taylor about what feels right for the brand. One of their beliefs backstopping the creative strategy and articulated by some of the research subjects is that BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes and Lexus vehicles are becoming common and ubiquitous. “BMW’s a dime a dozen,” says one woman in a focus group tape shared by Cadillac with reporters. Given BMW’s extraordinary success, I’m not sure I’d hang my hat on being an anti-German brand, though.

Sadly, for Cadillac, Taylor says baby boomers are pretty much a dead end for Caddy. They saw the brand’s bad years in the 1980s and 90s and moved on to Asian and European brands. So, this campaign concentrates on looking more approachable to women. Specifically, caddy’s research calls them “Hot Moms,” women who have careers and choose a car for themselves without checking with hubby. The other big targets are “Alpha Males,” who come into a showroom having already decided on a purchase and who know more about the car than the salesman. The group with the biggest upside long-term are so called ‘Move-Ups,” buyers under age 35 with enough money to buy a luxe car—think talent agents, photographers, Web engineers and the like who make six figure salaries already. Another focus group subject, who didn't look like a luxe car customer to me, referred to BMW styling as "oatmeal." Hmmmm. I can't agree there. And I'd caution Cadillac about getting to carried away with that track of thinking.

Here’s the good news for Cadillac. The new models are very very good. The CTS is a terrific sedan, with a makeover arriving next year. The SRX is being properly marketed now as a crossover, not as a luxe SUV. And this car, seen as especially attractive to women, has also been named to Car & Driver’s Ten Best list the last three years. And the Escalade owns the luxe SUV space with athletes, music stars and other celebs who help the brand feel current.

I’m not sure the impossibly beautiful modelesque people in the print ads are the right choices if Caddy is striving to get people to see themselves in the Caddy brand. But the campaign has a different kind of energy than the “Break Through” campaign that I like. And given the abolsutely terrific job that Mondernista! and Vanzura did with Hummer, I’m inclined to give the campaign the benefit of my doubts. One thing is for sure---sales of Caddy’s over the next 18 months will tell them whether they are on the right track or headed back to the research to see what went wrong.

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