When thinking luxury automobiles, we typically think German. Audi, BMW and Mercedes have been the kings of craftsmanship going on a decade now. It is now Cadillac’s time to dethrone the Germans and reclaim the title of greatest luxury auto manufacturer. However, if General Motors (GM) wants to slay the three-headed German monster they’ve got to visit the history books to understand how they first lost the crown.
It’s post World War II and the United States had just defeated Germany. The sense of pride in all Americans was at an all time high. America was a super power at the forefront of technology and through the 50’s and 60’s Cadillac represented the best of American automotive ingenuity. Executives and lottery winners bought Cadillac and took their family to Disney. If you owned a Cadillac in this era you, my friend, had succeeded at life.
Then came the oil crisis in the 70’s and Americans were trading in their large sedans for smaller and more fuel efficient imports. Rather than fight back with superior products, GM hid behind lobbyists and failed to cooperate with unions. The corporation used loopholes to focus production on trucks and sport utility vehicles. Ultimately, GM’s decisions in the 70′s rippled over the next three decades as the cost of union workers and poor business decisions crippled the ability to fund Cadillac’s research and development.
In stark contrast, by 1970, lesser known (to the general US population) German auto manufacturer, Mercedes Benz, had been selling their exclusive 600 Series Pullman along with other premium vehicles the world over for over a decade. The 600 Series Pullman in particular was an enormous vehicle for the most affluent. Soon Mercedes Benz was seen along side the biggest names on earth including as Coco Chanel, Hugh Hefner, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, The Notorious B.I.G., Aristotle Onassis, Jack Nicholson, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. It was used as the Pope’s chariot and even made headlines in the tragic death of Princes Diana in 1997. These famous entertainers and world leaders were in magazines, on television, and idolized by America’s youth. Mercedes Benz was subliminally etched into our minds as a brand synonymous with the rich and famous.
Meanwhile, German auto manufacturers BMW and Audi had successfully built their own brands upon the coat-tails of Mercedes Benz. By the mid 1990’s both Audi and BMW had made strong names for themselves in the luxury marketplace. The accomplishments of Audi, BMW and Mercedes Benz along with GM’s lack of resolve with the unions officially cost Cadillac the luxury crown.
Righting the Ship
Fast forward to 2013. Cadillac has done a complete 180 and are now producing truly beautiful luxury vehicles once again. The Cadillac ATS and CTS models are fantastic alternatives to the Audi A4/S4, BMW 3/5-Series and Mercedes C-Class. The Cadillac ATS has been named the North American Car of the Year and Esquire’s 2013 Car of the Year while the CTS was 2014 Motor Trend Car of the Year, Car and Driver’s 10 Best of 2014 list and Road Track’s Best Luxury Sedan of the Year. That’s one hell of an accolades list, wouldn’t you say?
“Let’s be brutally honest for a minute. Without the government’s bailout, the pie chart representing Cadillac’s buying demographic would resemble an AARP Membership card.”
We should, however, credit Cadillac’s turn-around to United States government and the bailout of General Motors. Let’s be brutally honest for a minute. Without the government’s bailout, the pie chart representing Cadillac’s buying demographic would resemble an AARP Membership card. The fact is, Cadillac buyers have primarily been the baby boomers of World War II hanging on to their youth.
Image is everything. The very lack of engineering and development to build elite vehicles for the rich and famous is what put General Motors and Cadillac in this position. Those of us in our 30’s and 40’s have this perception of Cadillac as the car grandma drove. It’s not exciting. It’s boring. Old and boring. A luxury brand needs to focus on the very foundation that sets itself apart. Cadillac failed and the image of being a car associated with senior citizens is now the mountainous hurdle General Motors and Cadillac must overcome.
“The rate of buyers trading in a Mercedes, BMW or Lexus for a Cadillac reached a six-month high in November. –Bill Peffer”
It isn’t too late for a Cadillac resurgence in the luxury marketplace. Cadillac’s latest models are fantastic and deserve the praise received. Cadillac’s advertising dollars have been spent on product placements in television shows and movies. Magazines have taken notice and given favorable reviews commending Cadillac for once again building brilliant vehicles. November 2013 marked the highest sales since 2007 and Cadillac’s VP of Sales and Service, Bill Peffer, says that for the first time ever, sales are driven by new buyers.
Go for the Knock Out
Cadillac has learned from leaders in the industry and they must continue to stay the course. The influential youth need to see the Cadillac brand as an object once again representing a person’s status in the world. GM must market Cadillac in such a way that it becomes a statement of arrival. High end models need to be owned by not just the most famous, but the elite.
The only way for Cadillac to take the crown away from the German manufacturers is to beat them at their own game. The Cadillac crest must be instantly recognizable and seen along side the baddest of the bad in the music and entertainment industries. The rich and famous must be seen with Cadillac vehicles in magazines, music videos, billboards and every outlet they are visible. The real trick is that it must not be seen as paid product placement. Everybody knows Tiger Woods, Shaquille O’Neil and Peyton Manning don’t roll in Buicks. If GM treats this as an advertising campaign they will continue to fail.