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5 Questions with Cadillac CMO Uwe Ellinghaus

The new heads of Cadillac are in the midst of a grand plan to elevate the General Motors luxury marque to the same neighborhood as the German segment leaders and Lexus.

Cadillac global CMO Uwe Ellinghaus and his new boss, Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen, must carve out a more robust and distinctive identity for Cadillac as a serious competitor at the top of the global luxury automotive pyramid. With his prior experience at BMW, Ellinghaus was in the midst of a desperately-needed brand overhaul at Cadillac—redefining it as a distinctly American luxury brand (not a German wannabe) and preparing a new product nomenclature for the brand—when de Nysschen arrived in August.

Now he has a key partner to execute on the brand's global goals: holding firm on pricing, boosting the customer experience at dealerships, and launching a new flagship Cadillac CT6 sedan and ad campaign—not to mention shaking up the status quo by moving Cadillac headquarters from Detroit to New York.

In a further challenge, Cadillac has seen US sales dip (with dealers already warned that things will get worse before they get better) in a year that sibling Buick has been crushing, despite reaching new heights in China. On the precipice of a crucial year, Ellinghaus discussed the Cadillac brand strategy with Dale Buss of brandchannel.


1) You've been working on turning Cadillac around for almost a year now. What was your first major contribution?

Ellinghaus: It was to show my bosses at GM that luxury works differently than the non-luxury market. GM has huge expertise in technology and engineering, and financially it is in good shape as well, but they didn't understand that a luxury brand works differently. It's all about focus, continuity and consistency—the sort of secondary virtues that the German brands are so good at. Those are some good ingredients for successful branding.

2) How did you begin to apply that to Cadillac?

Ellinghaus: We needed to establish what Cadillac stands for, and not even a couple of values had been defined. What do we bring to the table and how do we explain to customers why to go with a Cadillac rather than something else? We had to set out positioning that differentiated us from the German brands; you can't build a brand emulating your competitors, and in some ways GM admires these brands too much. So Cadillac was missing a little bit on its own heritage and efforts beyond the distinctiveness of our styling.

3) What was the brand missing in terms of relevance?

Ellinghaus: People didn't know what Cadillac stands for. The previous thought was that we have to go in between the segments dominated by the Germans. But I said we need to right-size our cars and make our nomenclature clear. [GM CEO] Mary Barra herself assigned me to come up with a suggestion for fixing the nomenclature. Future cars will have "CT" and then a number behind it that indicates its size in our hierarchy, and future SUVs and crossovers will have an "XT" and a number.

4) You've talked about restoring a sense of "American-ness" to Cadillac. Give me an example of what you have in mind.

Ellinghaus: Well, our marketing will be less technology-driven than in the past. We will walk away from black cars in all of our communications, because that conveys the opposite of optimism. And we will reinject more vibe into the brand. And if you really don't want the American spirit that this brand embodies, then go to the German brands.

5) I know you believe in Cadillac's well-established design language and that it needs to be refined. In what ways is that happening?

Ellinghaus: We're staying with the vertical front grill and carrying the crest and some other elements forward. But we are adding proportion and presence and stance and muscularity, and looking at things like the size of the "greenhouse" versus the rest of the car. It must be about performance and the future. We don't want to go back to a bigger, more comfort-oriented car of the past. Cadillac will not be the car for a couch potato.
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