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Brilliance seems to be in short supply at Cadillac.

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Brilliance seems to be in short supply at Cadillac.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

(Posted 5/11, 6:00PM) Detroit. I’m wondering out loud if I should even bother with placing a historical context on my comments about Cadillac - or its newly-crafted advertising campaign - because it seems that more and more we’re living in an era that relegates history to the dust bin of irrelevance when it comes to a discussion - any discussion - and that if you can’t get your image/mantra/cause/schtick done in 140 characters or less, or signed, sealed and delivered with a three-minute video, then no one has the time or the inclination to care.

But to simply write about Cadillac without the historical context would be irresponsible, because without that frame of reference it is impossible to understand how big a part Cadillac and its founder – Henry Leland – played in the very foundation of the American automobile industry.

Leland arrived in Detroit in the very late 1800s lured by the opportunity to do what he liked to do best - create specialized precision tools and tooling with the highest degree of craftsmanship available – and his reputation grew right along with an industry and a place that was teeming with invention and creativity, so much so that it would well and truly earn the moniker of The Motor City. And when an opportunity presented itself to take over a failing car company in 1902, Leland jumped at it and named his new concern after the famed French explorer and adventurer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe de Cadillac (the man who founded the city of Detroit in 1701 and who was the governor of the Louisiana Territory after that).

The accolades piled up for Leland’s Cadillac as it became the first American automobile manufacturer to win the Dewar Trophy for the standardization of automobile parts. Parts interchangeability through precision then became Cadillac’s calling card, and the Cadillac image for quality grew exponentially.

(As a matter of fact, Cadillac’s classic advertising theme - “The Standard of the World” – harkened back to the company’s impeccable reputation both within the industry and with customers who were drawn to the brand by the positive word-of-mouth association.)

Cadillac continued to succeed - adding such innovations like the fully electric starter and electrical and lighting systems that pioneered the electrical systems we have in cars today - and as the Cadillac reputation grew even more, it would attract the attention of one Billy Durant, the mercurial and visionary founder of General Motors, who wanted to add Cadillac to his now burgeoning portfolio (which already freshly included Buick and Oldsmobile in 1908).

After much back and forth hand-wringing Durant paid Leland over $4 million in cash with the proviso that Leland stay on and continue to run Cadillac the way he saw fit, but Leland would ultimately leave Cadillac in 1917 when he sensed that his control over Cadillac was diminishing. (Interesting footnote? Leland later would found a new car company that would become Cadillac’s archrival, the Lincoln Motor Company.)

To say that Cadillac wasn’t just another American car company is an understatement. Cadillac became so inexorably linked with success and achievement – and the willingness to pursue precision with unwavering devotion – that it soon became synonymous with the very best that America had to offer.

So much so that a pioneering piece of automotive advertising was written for Cadillac that basically created a commercial art form. The copy for that print ad - which debuted in the January 2, 1915, issue of the Saturday Evening Post - was entitled “The Penalty of Leadership.” Written by Theodore F. MacManus, it is simply one of the greatest single pieces of ad copy ever written.

It encapsulated the Cadillac reputation perfectly while never once mentioning the car itself, instead describing the mindset that it takes to succeed in the world, and why leaders will always assume the heavy mantle of leadership while leaving the followers and the naysayers to stew in their wake. From that moment on the power, prestige and passion of the Cadillac brand were seared in the American consumer consciousness for generations to come. (I will not reprint the ad here for time/space limitations, but I highly recommend that you seek it out. It is absolutely brilliant in every sense of the word.)

Now, almost 100 years later, Cadillac has managed to survive world wars and myriad economic crises, thrived mightily in the sky-is-the-limit heyday of GM’s glory years - to the point that the statement “It’s the Cadillac of ______” became one of the recognized catch phrases of this nation and for marketers around the world - and now, with GM battered, bruised and bloodied by bankruptcy, it stands at the cusp of…

…what, exactly? Greatness? Mediocrity? Somewhere in between?

Yes, we saw Cadillac’s fortunes plummet to abject mediocrity levels in the 80s and 90s due its own rampant incompetence and almost criminal intransigence, just as the competition from BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz threatened to bury America’s most prestigious brand once and for all. And the timing for Cadillac’s plunge into mediocrity couldn’t have been worse either, as GM’s luxury division found itself inappropriately wrapped for battle in Landau roofs and Vogue whitewall tires, caught in the swirling maelstrom of a competitive environment that had been totally and unequivocally altered. To put it succinctly, it was the perfect storm of Not Good.

But beginning in the very late 90s a smart team of people at GM led by John Smith knew that Cadillac couldn’t survive at the rate it was going, so they devised a business plan for the reinvention of Cadillac that, if followed, would carry the division back to at least a competitive level. The plan refocused on the product with a renewed emphasis on engineering and a distinctive and proudly American “Art & Science” design theme, and the resurrection of Cadillac gathered momentum.

And now 10 years and around $7 billion later, Cadillac has clawed its way back to at least a level of respectability in the market.

But as I asked previously, what next?

Well, Cadillac has launched a new advertising campaign based around the theme “Mark of Leadership.” Not to be confused with the GM corporate “Mark of Excellence” campaign from the 60s (that no one remembers anyway), Cadillac’s New York-based ad agency, BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty) has come up with a series of commercials for the CTS-V, CTS Sport Sedan and SRX crossover that are heavy with quick-cut visuals, dominated by individual music tracks, and that rely on text to hammer the salient product proof points home.

The idea is that the music, the visuals and the text will combine to leave the viewer with the impression that Cadillac is now officially hip, cool and worth considering.

I’m going to take a wild-ass guess here and assume that the use of the word “Leadership” in the tag line came directly from that famous Cadillac ad from so long ago. It’s just really too bad that none of the impact, substance and lingering power of that MacManus-penned ad came with it.

To me GM marketers have missed a grand opportunity - yet again - to put Cadillac’s stake in the ground with this campaign. Just when Cadillac desperately needs a powerful, emotionally substantive campaign that reconnects consumers with the idea and the ideal of Cadillac, we’re introduced to a campaign that is at best derivative of a lot of other car campaigns of the past 24 months (see Lincoln’s TV commercials for just one example), and at worst is an amateurish piece of work that fails to leave the viewer with one powerful, singularly impactful image or impression of Cadillac.

Memo to Cadillac Marketers: Go back and read “The Penalty of Leadership.” Soak-up its subtleties and its power and then remember that beating people over the head with “stuff” isn’t necessarily the way to gain consideration, favorable or otherwise.

Then, reacquaint yourselves with “The Standard of the World” and have that classic Cadillac phrase burnished into gleaming pieces of aluminum and hung on the walls in your central war room in the RenCen, in the Cadillac studio at the Design Staff, and in every other location where people are engaged in making Cadillac great again.

But remember that hanging the signs and having cute cards made with this newly reinvigorated mantra isn’t enough. Not even close, in fact.

You must believe in it, work toward it and accept nothing less than the best that you can bring to the table each and every single day in order for it to work.

And if you do that and never waver from the mission for even an instant - and work tirelessly toward delivering on that premise - “The Standard of the World” just may become Cadillac’s reputation once again.

In the meantime, you all need a time-out down there to reassess, rethink, revamp and re-do the brand-new Cadillac campaign.

Because brilliant it’s not.

And if Cadillac is going to thrive in a world of $60,000 Hyundai luxury sedans that will knock your socks clean off, then brilliance is what it’s going to take.

That’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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Good grief.

First off; >>"Cadillac continued to succeed - adding such innovations like the fully electric starter and electrical and lighting systems that pioneered the electrical systems we have in cars today - and as the Cadillac reputation grew even more, it would attract the attention of one Billy Durant..."<<

Just nitpicking, but the read here is that the Cadillac electric starter/system (1912) was one of the factors that attracted Durant, when GM bought Cadillac in 1909.

Secondly, from what I've read & understood, The Penalty of Leadership gained most of it's notoriety well after it ran, and that it did not have a huge direct effect on the consumer overall. I may be wrong, I wasn't there then, but that's been the impression I've gathered (tho DeL is correct about the brilliance of the piece). Also, the ad ran one time- it was not a 'campaign' in the modern sense nor even a year-long theme.

Instead, it was the mile-long list of achievements & advances over decades that elevated Cadillac to the top of perception & actuality. That was the direct result of the men who ran it for most of it's history. IMO, the V-12 & V-16 did far more in the market for Cadillac than The Penalty of Leadership.

Therefore, I submit; this campaign (I've seen both the new CTS-V and SRX pieces- I find them decent & visually grabbing) will neither make or break Cadillac because :

1. advertising has done it all already,

2. I'm not sure the type of men that made Cadillac one of the greatest marques of all time exist anymore... and I'm reasonably sure that GM is not organized / doesn't give the latitude to achieve such greatness anymore.

Doesn't mean I do not think Cadillac can continue to rise and even equal / surpass the perceived competition, but the effects of using the same tools as in 1915 aren't necessarily the same.

Edited by balthazar

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