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Interview: Cadillac’s Uwe Ellinghaus

The brand’s CMO tells us how the car-maker is becoming a global luxury brand

We spend a lot of time with automobile manufacturers because it’s an industry going through enormous changes—technology, globalization of product and marketing, and innovation in just about every department. While we tend to focus most of our reporting on the products and the people who design them, not long ago, we had the opportunity to visit with Cadillac’s CMO Uwe Ellinghaus twice. The first time, in a completely gutted space that was about to become Cadillac’s global HQ in NYC’s west SoHo neighborhood, and the second time just a few weeks after they moved in. Uwe (who has a history in automotive at BMW and in luxury at Montblanc) has a lot to say about Cadillac’s move to NYC, its new space (designed by Gensler) and why it’s such an important part of the brand’s future. He also shared his thoughts on Cadillac’s marketing and advertising, and on making the 114 year old company a global luxury brand.

First Visit, Winter 2014

Why is Cadillac moving its world headquarters from Detroit to New York City?

There was a certain acknowledgement in the senior management at General Motors that Cadillac needed more focus on the luxury market. Cadillac is the only luxury brand that General Motors has. There was a certain agreement that Cadillac needs to be different.

We want to remake ourselves as much as this city has a tendency to remake itself

It’s the most cosmopolitan city in the world, it’s a natural home for a luxury brand going global… I think being closer to the lifestyle of our customers here helps to capture the spirit, and what I like about NY and why I think NY is head and shoulders to any other city in the world is firstly, it’s the city all of us are measured by, but why is it? Because it permanently reinvents itself—right? It always changes. And that’s something that we try to achieve at Cadillac as well. We want to remake ourselves as much as this city has a tendency to remake itself.

How does the move impact being part of a larger company?

Because of the many shared services and shared functions at General Motors, we have so few people that can focus and concentrate on Cadillac, yet the task to turn this into a global luxury brand requires 110% focus on it… The distance also helps because you change structures, you change committees. We will no longer be around so that we can be invited to all the Chevrolet meetings, and the Buick and the GMC meetings, so in this regard distance creates focus and this is exactly what I think General Motors wanted. Also, no denying the acknowledgement that we will only be credible as a luxury brand if we tackle the two big (American) luxury markets—New York and California.

How did you decide on the western SoHo neighborhood?

We made one very deliberate decision: We said if we go New York, we go to the city. We are not going to NJ, not to suburbia because we also want to have a little of the vibe of downtown New York as the spirit for the brand. And you can rightly say, ‘But the brand is not associated with New York in its history.’ That’s true, but on the other hand Cadillac has been the embodiment of the American spirit—its optimism and boldness—and it is something that New York is known for.

So here we are in this amazing, empty space that will become Cadillac’s new world headquarters. What will it look like?

What’s so great about the space, as much as you have this iconic view, is that it also has the spirit of downtown New York. We want to keep it transparent and open, with many collaborative spaces for people. And because this is our global headquarters, many people will be traveling so we don’t need a dedicated desk for every person working here. We will have shared desks, mobile offices. This is not just our headquarters. It will have a look and feel that I want Cadillac to have the world over in our showrooms, in dealerships one day, in all our event spaces at motor shows.

Who will be working here?

Everybody, more or less. This is not a marketing outpost as it was sometimes reported in the press. Sales will be here, marketing will be here, finance will be here. And also, we want designers and engineers to have a temporary space here. Our design center will of course stay in Detroit.

Second Visit, Fall 2015

It’s been just over a year since we were with you in this space before construction began. We were talking about the importance of moving here, and being part of the city. Now that you’ve moved in we’re curious to hear how it’s going.

I think it’s fair to say that moving into this building was a huge motivation for the entire team because we walk the talk. People realize that in the way we designed our offices, we stayed loyal to our brand territory. We want to be luxury, but we don’t want to be clichéd, so the guidance for the architects was to make it undoubtedly stylish, but in a contemporary way; nothing that leads back into the world of old luxury as you find it in so many luxury hotels the world over still. It’s clean, crisp, minimal colors and most importantly, transparent. It’s very, very easy to walk around—all the way around the entire building. This is really the kind of cool New York we are portraying on our advertising, I think, so people see the resemblance between our communication messages and the working environment. This is the contemporary and luxury part of New York and we are in the heart of it.

We see touches of yellow around the office. Is there a significance to the color in the space?

Yes, there is. We derived the “accent colors” as we call them, from the colors of the crest—red, blue and yellow. The issue that we have with them is that you need to use them sparsely…

Tell us about the wall of see-through shelves with all of the miniature cars?

Well, what you will see in all of our three-dimensional communication at auto shows and other events, is that we play with the so-called Mondrian grid of the Cadillac crest. So many people say this reminds them of the artwork of Piet Mondrian because he used all these squares, right angles and colors. You can also see this pattern on the glass office walls, and of course, on the grille of all our cars.

There’s more happening in this building than just your global headquarters. What can you tell us about the ground floor space that’s still under construction?

What’s probably the most interesting thing is not so much what we do for the people who work here. We will have a space here on the ground floor, Cadillac House. We are totally aware that this is New York—nobody stops by just to look at us. We need to create a reason for people to come. We want a very open and inviting atmosphere. We will have a coffee shop—open to the public—so that people see a reason to just pop in and take a look.

This will not be an area with sales pressure—where people are bothered and asked to buy the cars—it is more the brand experience in a very contemporary and modern way. You can’t have a global headquarters for a car brand and not have any cars, so there will be a few cars there as well, vintage and new. We want to have a look and feel that this is probably the future direction for our Cadillac dealerships in terms of the materials, the colors and everything, but more importantly, we want to create reasons for people to come. We are thinking of concerts in the evenings. It has an event space that we can rent to our neighbors or whoever wants to use it.

Let’s talk about luxury. You are trying to evolve this well-known automotive brand into a luxury brand that sells cars, as you’ve said. Looking at the global landscape of luxury brands outside of automotive, who do you look to that you think is doing a good job being relevant, global, creating desire? How are they insightful for Cadillac?

Outside of cars there are a couple of luxury brands that I admire because they have a consistency in everything they do that we don’t have in the brand—yet. One is Louis Vuitton. Because they have a theme, “L’Esprit de voyage,” life is a journey, that very nicely plays in all their communication. And if you look at ads from Louis Vuitton, if you look at a Louis Vuitton store, it’s always typical Louis Vuitton, right? It always delivers on the brand promise. However, they also go with the times and rejuvenated the brand, and it comes across to me as far more contemporary now than it was a while ago. And in this regard, I still think we need this brand theme. I want to find our L’Esprit de voyage as our point of view, as a focal point for everything we do.

Who else is doing a good job with brand consistency?

Anytime I call Delta’s Medallion hotline they greet me with my name and say, “Mr. Ellinghaus, what can we do for you?” If I need anything, I know exactly one call does the job. Believe it or not, one day we got a CV from a person saying, “I built the customer relationship management program for Delta’s frequent flyers, I’m ready for a new job, if you think it’s worth talking. Though I have no automotive background whatsoever.” The gentleman is sitting on this floor now.

Where is the Cadillac brand at, and where do you think it needs to go?

There are no great brands without great product, so I’m so grateful that I have these lovely products to work with.

It’s much easier, especially in the auto industry, to shift brand than it is to shift product given the five-year lead time to make new cars, so it seems that you have the easier of the two problems to solve as Cadillac has some very strong cars in the marketplace now.

But we also realize that the best cars in the world don’t sell by themselves if they are not accompanied by a great message. Why you should go for a Cadillac? People say ‘wow, I didn’t expect that from Cadillac, how much has Cadillac changed?’ And in this regard you’re absolutely right, it’s much better to have great product because without great products, don’t even start. Don’t even start.

Unless you have brand identity, the point of view, the spirit, and energy and consistency in product, communication, dealer experiences, everything you do, you are not a strong brand. And there’s lots to do for us. Particularly in CRM regarding the retail experience, I think the automotive industry is a late entrant and we can learn from many other industries. Look at banks, credit card companies, airlines. Their products are so generic that they needed to differentiate themselves with customer experience. In the automotive industry, for a hundred years at least, cars were so different. The products were differentiating enough that branding was considered advertising and the icing on the cake, not more, right? And that has changed. So consistency and alignment of all touch-points as we always preach, that’s what makes a good brand. That’s what we are trying to do here.

Heritage plays a role, too.

I really think we need to use the unique heritage that we have because none of the German auto brands are a design icon. None of the Germans are an icon for Hollywood or for entertainment in general. And you don’t hear BMW in a pop song. How many songs feature Cadillac?

So you’ve got great product, you’ve got heritage, you’re working on your marketing. What are your biggest challenges?

Our biggest issue is that we are not resonating with enough buyers who simply say, “I’m not sure if Cadillac is right for me.” And we need to reach out to them rather than waiting for them to come to us. Create platforms and sponsorships to highlight the cars and even get people chauffeured in the cars. We have a program with American Airlines for their best customers, to expose them to our product, which they probably wouldn’t have because they’re not close enough to the brand to go to a dealer. We want Cadillac to be relevant. I really think reaching out to people, bringing cars into the public domain, on displays or ideally driving or being driven in them, is the way forward to overcome this relevancy issue.

An iconic brand that’s trying to establish itself as a luxury brand: how do you communicate that in your new advertising?

I really think it will take years before people understand Cadillac’s point of view. A very important aspect is our brand theme line. It’s more than a slogan: “Dare Greatly.” We will say something that focuses Cadillac’s brand values, our point of view, into one single theme. I want this to stay and be used in all communication materials, the world over, so that it becomes one day iconic.

It’s also the natural fit of Hollywood. We always have a lot of appreciation in Hollywood. It’s part of our heritage, it’s part of the Americana.That’s why Tim Mahoney [the CMO at Chevrolet] and I agreed that Cadillac gets out of the Super Bowl and Chevrolet gets out of the Oscars. I think that for sponsorships, and brand cooperations and events, areas like fashion, arts, architecture, design have an almost conceptual link between Cadillac’s heritage and brand identity.

And now New York City.

New York is part of the “cool America” for people all over the world, so don’t expect clichés. You will not see the Empire State Building in our future communications. You won’t see the Statue of Liberty. But we will definitely have New York as a topic.

I want to get to a communication that will of course include cars, but it is not just announcing, for example, the CT6, it is far more a campaign that keeps people dream Cadillac rather than reflect Cadillac, that is very aspirational and also that disrupts and surprises. I need to strike a balance. I don’t want mainstream communication. I want a point of view and I don’t want all the generic car clichés—you will not see across the road and a beautiful car driving on it—but I also want people to think twice about Cadillac. When you launch a new flagship car, a top-of-the-range car, that is a natural time to also change people’s perception about the brand.

Tell us about the new CT6.

We are totally aware that even the CT6 is not the end of our aspirations. We can think of other cars later on, but what we really do need for the brand is a car that shows that the CT6 is not the end of our car spectrum, as not even the iconic Escalade is the end of our SUV spectrum. And the great thing is we have consistency in our car range so that we don’t say in the luxury segment we walk away from our newly established car territory to build this driver’s brand. We will probably not appeal to customers who want a luxury comfortable car, like Cadillac was associated with in the past, yeah. It will still be a driver’s car, but it has on top of what the CTS already has, very luxurious materials and space for the rear passengers.

We’re not German and it’s a good thing because the Germans build perfect cars—but their cars are solely about technology and Cadillac has always been about ingenuity.

Which is critical for Cadillac to compete in China, where many people have drivers.

China and US together will probably make up 90% of CT6 sales. What I find so amazing about Cadillac’s success in China is that we are so successful because of the heritage that we have, because our Chinese customers love authenticity that requires heritage. Most brands do not have a legacy like Cadillac that goes so far that our dealers, if you see them in China, have vintage cars in the showroom like the ’67 Eldorado, for example. And they say it’s absolutely crucial to remind people of the glorious history of Cadillac because this is something that many other brands pretend they have as well, but they haven’t because they didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago.

For a certain period of time Cadillac admired the European brands so much that it started to decrease its American roots and spirit in the brand. It gave the impression that they wanted to out-German the Germans. And believe me, nobody will out-German the Germans. We’re not German and it’s a good thing because the Germans build perfect cars. We all know that, but let’s face it, their cars are solely about technology and Cadillac has always been about ingenuity.

Images by Josh Rubin


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