Selling an Old Name to a New Demographic

Published October 26, 2017 in Warp & Woof


Selling an Old Name to a New Demographic

Cadillac’s “Break Through” Campaign and the GM Malady
William Sundwick
Picture, if you can, the typical Cadillac of the 1990s. It was probably a De Ville or Fleetwood Brougham. Big, posh, a veritable land yacht. There was the elegant little Allante sports car and, by 1999, the Escalade truck, but nobody at Cadillac had discovered how to market these aberrations to the Florida retirement community consumer, the demographic best understood at the time.
Cadillac needed to discover younger buyers – boomers in their fifties, not the retirees of the “greatest generation” purchasing what might be their last car. The target customers were buying BMWs, Volvos, Mercedes, then Audis. Why? There were many reasons, but marketing was a big one.

General Motors was, indeed, beset by some deep structural problems in the nineties. Fixed costs (both labor and capital equipment) were eating into profits. And, a series of strategic decisions beginning in the sixties had the effect of hollowing out the engineering pool needed for product innovation. Reorganizations, especially the BOC-CPCstructure of 1984 (Buick-Olds-Cadillac/Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada), exacerbated the decline of both quality and engineering creativity.
But, it was the gradual disappearance of its traditional customer base that was the Cadillac brand’s specific problem – it was an actuarial issue. Cadillac buyers may have been drawn to the brand going far back into their collective memories. But, frankly, they were dying off. The affluent younger greneration in their fifties and early sixties, whom Cadillac needed, was underwhelmed by Cadillac’s “standard of the world” slogan, dating from the 1910s. The Cadillacs they saw now belonged to their parents’ cohort.

Boomers were getting press in the nineties and aughts because they seemed to have a very different ethos than the generation before them. They were cast as a “Peter Pan Generation” –  refusing to grow old even in middle age. They were attracted to the edgy, the independent, the counter-cultural. Their classic rock music had stuck, their fitness fetishes caused gyms to sprout on every corner, and women were now as likely as men to be in the appropriate economic strata. These led to clear preferences for smaller, more agile, cars. Many boomers were now reaching the level of personal financial resources that Cadillac marketing was pursuing.
Enter the “Break Through” campaign – its first TV spot was at the 2002 Super Bowl. Rumors had been circulating in the advertising world of an undisclosed princely sum that Cadillac had paid for the rights to a 31-year-old Led Zeppelin song, “Rock and Roll.” It became the centerpiece for an advertising campaign that would last five years before it was finally pulled. There were several TV commercials featuring the song, which became indelibly associated with Cadillac, even among those aficionados who knew the song previously.
The new, naughtier, image that Cadillac was trying to create was not all smoke and mirrors. GM revamped the product line in serious ways – with the small CTS sedan, an entirely new platform for the larger STS, and in 2003, a Cadillac “Corvette,” the XLR.

Both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page thought the licensing terms fair. It was the first song they had ever licensed for a TV commercial. It may have been the first time ANY song from the “classic rock” period was licensed for a TV commercial.
There were other fronts in the campaign besides the music and TV commercials. The automotive press was regaled with track competition for Cadillac models (last seen when Cadillacs competed at Le Mans in the early fifties). The CTS-V, with its supercharged Corvette V8, was dubbed “world’s fastest production sedan” after besting all competitors around the NurburgringGrand Prix circuit. Indeed, it set a record for lap time at that German course in 2008.

More of the edginess theme could be found in the well-publicized preference among professional athletes for a Cadillac truck – the Escalade. Escalades became synonymous with African-American “bling.” All these things — the music, the racing, the urban flash – helped boost Cadillac 2003 sales figures by 16 percent.

Cadillac was beginning to reacquire some of the panache those of us old enough to remember the fifties had formerly associated with the make. Too bad for GM that the rest of their lineup didn’t receive equally successful marketing campaigns. Oldsmobile, for instance, died with a whimper at about the same time – its “not your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign had fizzled a few years earlier.

Was it the cars, or was it just that music, that brought Cadillac success? Let’s look at the cars. Compared to Cadillac’s competitors at the time, BMW clearly had the greatest following, and prestige.  Lexus was a little stodgy, Audi was yet to hit its stride, and Mercedes was sharing BMW’s strength with a slightly older demographic. Lincoln was already a non-entity as a competitor. The BMW customer was the “Break Through” campaign’s target. Cadillac’s CTS sedan was intended as a 3-series killer, the STS was squarely aimed at the 5-series, and the DTS would continue to aim at the geriatric crowd (and some Mercedes models). Escalades were aimed at an American high-end urban demographic, not averse to trucks – a market never penetrated by the Germans or Swedes. Volvo still made most of its sales in its lower end models (more Buick than Cadillac?). Lexus saw itself straddling that demographic, too. For the first time in recent memory, Cadillac’s lineup seemed competitive.


Teutonic engineering and style was what Cadillac tried to copy. The precision, the authority, the innovation, styling that was solid, yet sleek, and a sterling reputation for quality. These were BMW’s claims to leadership in the luxury segment. Unfortunately, the paucity of engineering talent at GM forced Cadillac to settle for marketing an image of engineering innovation, and revamped styling,. The reality was still lacking – speed, as in the staged Nurburgring event, would have to substitute for solid engineering.
 The initial boost from the campaign began to wane after the first year. There was a second Super Bowl commercial in 2003. The scene was a New York subway train with advertising posters for Cadillacs from the fifties as the train moved through time to today, and through the windows we could see the current Cadillac line. It may have been too urban-oriented for the Zeppelin sound track. Nevertheless, Cadillac stuck with the campaign, and the music, until 2006. It was succeeded by the “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit” campaign, with more of a country flair. But, that campaign was less successful, perhaps due to a lack of affluent buyers in the target demographic.
The urban orientation seen in the 2003 spot was a signal that future Cadillac marketing would become much more focused on the upper-middle-class professionals who live in large metro areas. It was probably inspired by the continued success of the Escalade and the growing concentration of wealth in cities.
So far, however, this new focus has not paid off. Cadillac sales are again in the doldrums. Perhaps moving Cadillac brand HQs to New York’s sohoneighborhood will inspire new strategic thinking. Except that nobody in New York buys cars!
Is the corporation the problem? Could it be that General Motors just can’t decide where Cadillac belongs? GM market share has been increasing over the last couple years, but no thanks to Cadillac – it’s seems mainly driven by Chevrolet now, and newer crossovers from GMC and Buick.
GM’s 2009 bankruptcy forced another realignment. The “new GM” would be much leaner, freed from onerous UAW contracts, and could raise up some bright young engineering talent within its ranks. The new focus would be on technology – both manufacturing and car design. It’s noteworthy that plug-in hybrids and all-electrics are now being developed by GM faster than anybody else in the U.S. market except Tesla. Cadillac, for its part, is seeking to unveil a more extensive semi-autonomous driving package than any other domestic make. Coming soon.
The new marketing target for Cadillac is Generation-X. They are as different from their boomer parents as the boomers were from their parents. Gen-Xers still value independence and edginess, but are less concerned with social status than their elders, more pragmatic. They are less easily intimidated by group pressure. And, they are financially less secure than their elders – worrying about how to pay for their kids’ college!
All this may lead them to make more conservative choices in cars. A new marketing campaign for GM’s luxury brand could be a serious challenge for that old Cadillac crest. We’ll see if the current urban focus is the correct one.

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