ON CADILLAC. AGAIN.
Monday, October 1, 2018 at 01:24PM
Editor

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. I have been inundated by readers and others over the last few days to comment on several current news items, first and foremost being the situation at Cadillac, but also the ongoing train wreck involving Elon Musk. 

Without belaboring the point, I have to say that nothing has surprised me about Musk and the Sturm und Drang associated with his egomaniacal actions of late. His account has grown more bizarre by the minute, displaying his unbridled hubris to great effect, which only proved that he is no different than any other “smartest guy in the room” that came before him. Yes, Musk is brilliant and a visionary, but when he can’t run a business because his massive ego constantly gets in the way, there’s not much that can be done about it. This is going to play out like a bad “B” movie, and a lot of smart people are going to get burned and relieved of their cash. A couple of years ago, I predicted that the Model 3 and everything associated with its launch would prove to be Musk’s Waterloo, and I confidently stand by that prediction.

But even more than being asked for my opinion on “St. Elon,” I’ve been asked to comment on the goings-on at Cadillac, specifically the move of its headquarters back to Detroit. (Don’t forget that the division’s engineering, product development and design functions never left Detroit.)

Let us not forget, too, that the move to New York was an idea that originated well before Johan de Nysschen arrived at GM in the summer of 2014. To be sure, de Nysschen was given the “go/no-go” decision, and consequently (mostly) everyone bought into the idea that to understand the luxury market you had to be in a luxury market. I didn’t necessarily buy into that, of course. 

As I have written in this space and in my columns many, many times over the last four years, the idea of moving the brand to New York made sense on one level in that Cadillac's intent was to become its own individual entity as a luxury brand, completely separate from GM's headquarters hard by the Detroit River. This all sounded well and good, of course, but the reality was that Cadillac executives based in New York were spending three weeks out of a typical month in Detroit, if not more. It just wasn't working. I suggested not long after the move was made that if I were running Cadillac, I would want the headquarters to be no more than 45 driving minutes from the GM Milford Proving Grounds or the GM Technical Center in Warren. It sounds like Steve Carlisle – Cadillac’s new brand president and a GM veteran – understands the ramifications of that statement.

Don’t misunderstand, the idea of putting a young, hipster marketing team in Manhattan as idea generators was a good one, but that’s not what happened. Instead, GM operatives made a very public pronouncement that this would be a key to Cadillac’s success. And now? Well, it’s just not very good, is it? A while ago I asked the following question: Instead of moving to New York, what if Cadillac had instead refurbished a warehouse space in Detroit with a historical connection to the origins of the automobile industry, and the birth of Cadillac itself? Wouldn’t they look like the mavens of hipness now?

(And Cadillac isn’t actually moving to Detroit, in case you wondered. No, instead the Cadillac divisional headquarters is being moved from Manhattan to a generic tower across from the GM Technical Center in Warren. This building actually housed Campbell-Ewald, Chevrolet's former advertising agency. It’s a nondescript, uninspiring office tower that I spent the last nine-and-one-half years of my ad career in. Believe me, it won’t make a positive statement for the brand. It’s just another faceless, characterless office tower.)

Getting back to Mr. Carlisle, what has he gotten himself into, exactly? Johan de Nysschen’s quest to remake Cadillac in Audi's image was a nonstarter from the get-go. It was a product strategy that started with the notion that Cadillac would chase the German ideal of a luxury-performance car and go from there. But it not only ignored Cadillac’s historical legacy, it emphatically stomped on it. And now Carlisle is the one tasked with leading Cadillac out of the wilderness.

In reality, the recent years for Cadillac have been exceedingly difficult. The brand lost its way, accelerated by stiff competition in the luxury segment and GM operatives becoming out of touch on almost every level. On the product front at least Cadillac has been rejuvenated by a renaissance in its design presence and bolstered by a newly invigorated engineering point of view, but that didn’t necessarily translate into dynamic retail sales, with a few notable exceptions. The runaway success of the full-size Escalade SUV powers the entire division, and crossover-crazed consumers are scarfing up the XT5, so there's that. But the ATS and CTS are dead in the water, and the technically interesting CT6 is languishing, stuck in neutral. The high-performance offerings, the ATS-V and the CTS-V – though scintillating – are outliers totally unrelated to the brand.

The glorious historical legacy of the Cadillac brand has been ignored for the most part, only surfacing in three riveting GM Design concepts – the Ciel, Elmiraj and the most recent Escala. These beautifully rendered design statements bristled with promise, portraying the Cadillac ideal with renewed exuberance and presenting themselves as “influencers” of future Cadillac designs, while boasting emotionally compelling names that were, well, somehow perfectly befitting of Cadillac. But that’s as far as it went. Those design concepts, which resonated with automobile enthusiasts far and wide, were left rotting in the sun where all GM Design concepts are left to die, while Cadillac’s in-market models – except for the Escalade – were saddled with Audi-esque alphanumeric nameplates that resonated with no one.

I often fantasize that there should be two Cadillacs, the one marked by the coldly generic and unengaging names of the current lineup that would be let loose in China for pure profitability. And the other composed of dramatically breathtaking design statements aimed at this market, “real” Cadillacs blessed with real names that reaffirm the brand’s glorious historical legacy to its core. Remember it’s a legacy that has survived countless product missteps, management faux pas and false starts, yet still resonates with consumers like few other brands have throughout history. To this day you still hear people and companies say, “It’s the Cadillac of ____” to bestow a certain gravitas to a product, an instant, collective recognition that transcends all other adjectives.

This just in: Cadillac’s future success shouldn’t hinge on becoming a faux interpretation of any other luxury brand just to achieve relevance again. Cadillac still has all the tools to become a highly sought after and desired brand. It has the historical legacy, it has a treasure trove of evocative names – and some new ones too – and GM not only has the engineering chops, it has the design talent to craft a visual renaissance befitting of the brand's legacy.

Ms. Barra and Messrs. Ammann and Carlisle need to ask themselves the following hard questions: What is Cadillac? Better yet, what should Cadillac be about going forward? Then, instead of paying lip service to the brand they need to become True Believers, because the Cadillac name has resonance and power and a genuine historical legacy that could and should become the foundation for greatness again. But unless and until there is a strategic shift in Cadillac management’s thinking, the brand is destined to tread water for years to come. 

Which brings me to the bottom line in this discussion. Some people have gotten the (very) wrong impression that I simply want to mire Cadillac in a nostalgia play that would be woefully irrelevant in today’s market. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cadillac deserves better than that. Much better.


It’s clear to me that GM operatives and marketers have simply forgotten what the true essence of Cadillac is. And what is that, exactly? The words that best describe what Cadillac should be are: Seductive. Luxurious. Powerful. Distinctive. Memorable. Right now, there is only one Cadillac that even comes close to those words and that is, of course, the Escalade.

I cannot stress enough that if Cadillac is going to return to its rightful place in the pecking order of American automobiles, then it must create products that ooze those descriptive words mentioned above without exception or excuse. Authentic vehicles worthy of the Cadillac name and reputation that exude the essence of the brand, because after all it's always about the product. 

GM operatives must let Cadillac be Cadillac. 


And they can start by getting back to building the Cadillac…of Cadillacs. 

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.


(GM Design images)
The Cadillac Ciel.
The Cadillac Elmiraj.
The Cadillac Escala.

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