What’s Your Branding Approach When You Are the Cadillac of Brands?


It’s common practice to refer to an exceptional product as “the Cadillac” of its category—especially for the many consumers who grew up with the iconic American brand. But that doesn’t make the CMO job any easier for Cadillac marketing chief Uwe Ellinghaus. The luxury automotive category has grown crowded and consumers’ tastes and purchase habits have changed.

Fortunately, Ellinghaus is using his flair for customer advocacy to refuel Cadillac’s marketing engine. After impressive stints with Montblanc International and BMW, Ellinghaus joined Cadillac as CMO in 2014 to take on the challenge of resurrecting a venerable brand at risk of stalling. Between corporate spin-offs, headquarter relocations, and fashion-show appearances, Ellinghaus has been extremely busy. He took a brief break to candidly lay out the nature of his challenge and share his optimism regarding the progress Cadillac is making.

What’s your marketing passion?

Throughout my career I’ve intentionally worked for companies that are “passion brands.” By that I mean brands with a specific point of view; brands that dare to polarize a little at times; brands that definitely don’t leave people cold. Think about BMW, Montblanc, and now, Cadillac—all of these brands resonate with incredible passion among their advocates.

What do you think enables these types of companies to become iconic brands?

Right before I started with BMW I realized that its brand was a leader in terms of the passion it inspired. That’s one of the primary reasons I spent 15 years with the company. If you have clearly defined guidelines, and everybody adheres to them, you have a chance to become an iconic brand. However, if you start fragmenting yourself—by pursuing various channels, different sponsorship platforms, and all kinds of activities to try to please everybody—you will not get anywhere. Fifteen years into my time with BMW I saw that almost the entire automotive industry was trying to emulate our brand. That struck me as odd. I wondered why any company would strive to become a good copy rather than an original.

How does your drive to create and sustain original, passionate brands apply at Cadillac?

It’s exactly what I need to do now. Cadillac cannot out-German the Germans. We will not win the technology battle with them. But Cadillac can outwit the Germans by going down a different path. We’re not going to be entirely about products and technology; we’re going to be about ingenuity. We’re also going to make it very clear that we are an American brand and proud of it. Expect the tone of our voice and our point of view to be very optimistic.

You’ve described your approach as “resurrecting not repositioning” Cadillac. What does this entail?

At a high level, it requires the alignment of all touchpoints. Everything we say and do must be unmistakably Cadillac. We need that clarity to break through the clutter. Resurrecting our brand is not necessarily about higher advertising expenditures, more dealerships, or more products. We need to make sure that our unique brand identity guides everything we do—our entire marketing mix. No great product sells entirely by itself. No communication campaign solves a long-term image problem. If you have a clear focus and a point of view of what a brand stands for, and if this brand’s identity guides the product development and all marketing communications, you get the continuity you need.

What makes this focus on brand identity work?

It requires a heck of a lot of coordination throughout the company and also within our marketing department. More often than not, it also requires me to say, “This is a wonderful idea, but it will unfortunately only fragment our brand further.” I receive numerous proposals—from my own people and from our agencies—for all kinds of marketing activities. None of them are necessarily flawed, but many of them are not what we need to resurrect our brand. If people don’t know what Cadillac stands for, or if people don’t know what’s different about a Cadillac compared to a competing product, they will not attend an event, they will not go online, and they will not go to a dealer. We can’t argue our way into the purchase funnel. People need to find us inspiring, people need to like us. Our brand needs to appeal to emotions, and doing that requires a very clear marketing discipline.

Can you give me an example of how this discipline is exercised?

We’re looking to evolve our sponsorship strategy to directly represent our new brand direction. This approach can be seen in our continued engagement with the fashion industry. Most recently, Cadillac executed a variety of events and partnerships during New York Fashion Week with the likes of Public School, J. Mendel, and emerging designers at New York Men’s Day. We find that these types of lifestyle-focused endeavors allow us to break through the clutter in a more powerful and engaging way.

How else are you sharing the Cadillac brand with Gen Y and younger consumers?

Lifestyle magazines are one example. We spend more advertising money with lifestyle titles because younger customers read those publications far more frequently than they read car magazines. We need to shift more of our marketing budget toward conquering future customers. Streaming video is another example. We’re decreasing our spending for traditional television, because younger consumers are more likely to use their handheld devices instead of watching TV, making them very selective viewers.

What brand-resurrection challenges have you encountered?

We have an unfortunate reputation of being a grandfather’s car. While this isn’t true—the average Cadillac customer is only four years older than the average customer of our German competitors—it is nevertheless the perception. As you know, perception is reality in marketing. I have to overcome this stereotype, but not by arousing the impression that we’re simply chasing the latest trends. I want this brand to be all-encompassing, which means that we will represent a global mind-set that not only honors our traditional customers, but also appeals to new, younger customers. A more balanced approach, spanning both coasts, is necessary if we are to grow more profitably over time.

This journey will take years. Look at how long it took Audi’s image to get in the same league as BMW and Mercedes. Yet, I am totally convinced that we can succeed. The biggest challenge we have right now is enhancing our brand relevance. We need to find a way to connect with consumers across all brand touchpoints. It must be done in a way that is so intriguing that customers cannot resist engaging with the brand and, ultimately, letting us convert this engagement to sales.

What about the brand will you highlight?

We want people to see that the Cadillac brand has a unique point of view, one that’s different from that of the Germans. I will not say that we have more horsepower, but I will say that we are a brand that expresses stylistic individuality far more than the German brands do. All of our competitors have become more mainstream in recent years. We want to maintain a distinctive personality. We want to be the face in the crowd that is really noticed. 

Our corporate activities need to be in line with what the brand promises. Moving to New York and making Cadillac a standalone business from General Motors clearly demonstrates how greatly the company understands this need. We’re saying goodbye to so many things that were once associated with Cadillac because there was simply no future for that type of positioning. Today’s Cadillacs are fast, elegant, and fun to drive.

You’re emphasizing the American nature of Cadillac. How did you realize that type of update was necessary?

Ha—maybe it took a German with experience in marketing luxury products to see that “American luxury” didn’t mean much to anybody in the world, and especially not to Americans. Nobody understands what makes American luxury different than European luxury. I always struggled when American brands referred to themselves as “American luxury.” But I also sensed what they were trying to get across. Iconic American brands tend to have an element of ingenuity. This is a pioneering country with people who continually want to raise the bar. What distinguishes an American brand is the mind-set of being optimistic and unapologetic, daring to do great things, and making it clear that we are proud to be different. It is not about poking at other nations. It is not about American clichés. It is not materialistic. It is just individualistic.

And that’s the brand identity you’re seeking?

Yes. We want Cadillac to represent this wonderful spirit, one that believes in the future so much that you declare you will get to the moon even when you haven’t figured out a way to get there. I think this emotional appeal could make the brand irresistible. We want you to like us so much that you say, “I don’t care who has more horsepower, I simply need to have this car.”

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