Marketing

A BRAND REBORN

It may not last but, for the moment, Cadillacs are the hipsters’ ride of choice

JOHNINTINI February 23 2004
Marketing

A BRAND REBORN

It may not last but, for the moment, Cadillacs are the hipsters’ ride of choice

JOHNINTINI February 23 2004

A BRAND REBORN

Marketing

It may not last but, for the moment, Cadillacs are the hipsters’ ride of choice

JOHNINTINI

OLD MEN drive Cadillacs. That’s been a constant for decades, right up there with death and taxes. So how did the stodgy, out-of-touch and square—literally and figuratively—brand suddenly become a status symbol again? It’s now the vehicle of choice among Hollywood types and rappers who regularly pepper their rhymes with the brand name. And it’s cool enough to make Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, a 26-year-old quarterback, seem almost as excited accepting the keys to a new Cadillac Escalade as he’d been hoisting the championship trophy. Looking at the new models, we’re clearly not talking about your daddy’s Caddy.

It is part of the business cycle: as companies focus their sales efforts on core customers, they sometimes forget to attract new buyers and their fortunes decline. Then it’s up to advertising agencies and product designers to restore the brand image, no easy feat once the marketplace deems the products old and uncool. But in the automotive industry lately, retro has worked more often than not. Sure, Ford’s snazzy reissue of the Thunderbird hasn’t sold that well. Volkswagen, though, found a new way to move more Beetles. BMW’s Mini is better than ever. In the motorcycle world, Harley-Davidson, once nearly scrap, is roaring again.

What Cadillac has achieved is far more significant, because it didn’t simply update an old model. It revamped an entire line with completely new cars. As a result, sales were up by about five per cent in 2003, the average age of buyers is down and the goldplated crest is shining again. What got Caddy in gear? The company had spent years watching sales shrink as competitors such as Lexus, BMW and Mercedes cornered the luxury market with contemporary, performance-oriented vehicles. With its average buyer approaching retirement age, Cadillac had to focus on baby boomers. “Consumer needs changed from wanting large boulevard cruisers to taut, rear-wheel-drive vehicles with a youthful design,” says Norm Sawula, Cadillac’s marketing manager in Canada. But the carmaker was late catching up. “We didn’t read the tea leaves as quickly as we should have,” Sawula allows. Alan Middleton, an assistant professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business, puts it this way: “Cadillac looked at the luxury vehicles on the market a few years back and saw only foreign models. It prompted them to say, ‘We have to do something.

The transformation began three years ago, when Detroit-based General Motors Corp. launched its new line backed up by a US$4.3-billion re-branding campaign. The company gave the new models a more aggressive, angular look—an acquired taste, some critics say. “We didn’t want to bring back the old tailfins, but needed a way to stand out in the market,” Sawula says. The $77,000 sport-utility Escalade and the $110,000 XLR are attracting the youngest buyers Cadillac has ever seen: the average age of the Escalade buyer in Canada is 45—15 years younger than the normal Cadillac consumer. To reinforce the image change, Cadillac unleashed its ad campaign built around the Led Zeppelin classic, Rock and Roll. “Using a ’60s tune brings the boomers back to a time when they were young in both mind and body,” says Middleton. “Music is one of the fastest ways to the senses.”

RETRO WHEELS

Cadillac’s turnaround stands in stark contrast to GM’s failure to resuscitate its Oldsmobile division, which, despite a campaign that explicitly stated, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” will cease production in May. Kenneth Wong, a professor of marketing and business strategy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says there are some key differences this time around. “GM used William Shatner as the spokesperson for Oldsmobile, and though he is an esteemed Canadian, he was my father’s guy and the car didn’t change—it was still my dad’s Oldsmobile,” says Wong. “On the other hand, Cadillac, known forever as a maker of sedans that resemble boats, came out with the Escalade—a part-pickup, part-sport utility, part-sedan—giving them a product to back up the bold changes they wanted to make.” An unintentional result of Cadillac’s renovation is the brand’s appeal among celebrity athletes and musicians, most notably rappers. References to Escalades appear in dozens of chart-topping hip-hop songs, and many of the artists are seen arriving at awards galas in the massive SUVs. “We’d love to take credit for it, but it really just fell in our lap,” Sawula says. “It’s the type of recognition you can’t buy. It doesn’t mean anything if I say Cadillac is cool, but if a rapper or athlete says it, then people listen.”

The rap connection has created another valuable if unintended benefit—interest among rap-loving high-schoolers. “Some of these vehicles are like hot wheels and have turned showrooms into auto shows,” says Kevin O’Donovan, sales manager with Calgary-based CMP-Classic, the largest GMC dealership in Western Canada. “Every day teenagers are popping in to stare at the cars and buy Cadillac merchandise.” That can sell cars. Middleton says an important factor driving sales is something called “kidfluence.” “The old model of car-buying— dad picks the engineering, mom picks the colour and the kids get to sit in it—hasn’t been true for 40 years,” says Middleton. “The kids now say, ‘You can’t buy that. There’s no way I’ll let you drive me to school in that. It’s not cool.’ ”

What is cool is the logo. Jerry Filice, a buyer with West 49, a national clothing chain catering to teens, says it’s been impossible to keep Escalade-logoed belt buckles on the shelves. “That buckle sells two-to-one over any other belt buckle we carry,” says Filice, whose company is the only Canadian retailer that stocks the item. “We sold about 2,000 last year and we could have sold way more but we couldn’t track any more down.” Caddies have also been showing up on the small and big screens—an Escalade was featured in The Matrix Reloaded’s 14-minute chase scene. And through its marketing campaign, Cadillac is now associated with the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics, the Academy Awards, Wimbledon and the PGA Tour. “It’s a way to reach consumers who don’t have us on their shopping list,” says Sawula, “and let them know there are new things at Cadillac.”

Of course, not everything is new. The big Caddies are still gas-guzzlers, and the Escalade was recently awarded the dubious distinction of being the most stolen vehicle in North America—10 times more likely to be swiped than the average car. And down the road, who knows how long the Cadillac brand will remain hip, considering the fickle tastes of the young and rich. “It doesn’t take long for a product to go from being in a song by 50 Cent and attractive to consumers, to being pushed aside for the next best thing,” says Kari Baker, a senior consultant with the Vancouver-based consumer research firm, Sixth Line Solutions. “Few companies are successful at sustaining interest over the long run.” For the moment, though, Cadillac is enjoying the ride.