Cadillac’s new ad campaign, with the tag line “The Mark of Leadership”, has received mixed reviews. Some have questioned the use of the word “mark” because it may evoke a model name long used by luxury competitor Lincoln. Others have said that the mark itself is in question, the Cadillac wreath and crest logo, is itself tainted by association with tacky blinged out Escalades of questionable aesthetic taste. Those points may be valid, but I think that there’s a more troubling problem with the slogan and that has to do with Cadillac’s heritage.
Today it’s easy to regard Cadillac’s long used “Standard of the World” advertising slogan as an ironic comment on the company’s fall from the pinnacle of consumer desire. That slogan, ad-man hype though it was, was actually based on Cadillac’s history and tied to Cadillac’s founder, Henry Leland. Leland was a precision machinist who saw an opportunity in the nascent auto industry. He realized that standardized parts, made to close tolerances, meant not only easier mass production but also consistently higher quality automobiles that could be more easily repaired when they did break. Leland’s machine shop supplied Ransom E. Olds with engines for his early automobiles.
Then, in 1902, when Henry Ford’s financial backers decided that liquidating the first Ford car company was less troublesome than dealing with Henry, Leland was brought in as a consultant to appraise the value of the assets. Leland completed the appraisal but also suggested to those financiers that it made more business sense to build a new car based on a new engine design he had hoped to sell to Oldsmobile. To give the car some aristocratic cachet the new company was renamed Cadillac after the French explorer who founded Detroit. From the beginning, Cadillac was all about leading edge engineering, with Leland introducing modern manufacturing techniques based on his experience working for toolmaker Brown & Sharpe and gunmaker Colt. The technique most mentioned in connection with Leland is interchangeable parts. Most early cars were literally one of a kind, with parts fabricated and machined as need, often with considerable hand fitting. Cadillac changed that, with the use of mass produced standardized components.
To achieve uniformity, and standardized parts, though, first you need standards. In 1908, Henry Leland was Carl Johansson’s first American customer. Johansson, an important Swedish inventor who is little known today, created what became known as “Jo-blocks”, precision machined gauge blocks that could be used as standards for calibrating tooling and fixtures. For it’s use of interchangeable parts, in 1909, Cadillac won the 1908 Dewar Trophy, awarded by the Royal Automotive Club. To win the award, three production models were stripped and disassembled. Some parts considered to be precision parts were discarded and replaced with replacement parts from the Cadillac dealer. Cadillac mechanics had to assemble the cars, using only simple tools, and get them running reliably. All three cars passed the tests with flying colors and Cadillac’s reputation was established. Not long after its Dewar award, Cadillac started using the slogan “The Standard of the World”.
So great was that reputation that Cadillac received considerable indirect publicity when non-automotive products would be called “the Cadillac of this” or “the Cadillac of that”. That impression on the public mind as Cadillac being a measure of supreme quality remains, maybe as a dim shadow but it nonetheless remains, when politicians speak of “Cadillac health plans”.
Early on, Cadillac was indeed a technological leader. Charles Kettering, at Leland’s urging, invented the first electric self starter (as an aside, this was a sociological development as well because it meant that women could drive themselves and not need a strong man to crank over the engine by hand). Leland also introduced electrically powered headlamps, much safer and brighter than the gas lamps previously used.
Cadillac’s leadership also extended to marketing. In early 1915, an advertisement appeared in the Satuday Evening Post. Crafted by pioneering ad-man Theodore F. MacManus, it’s still considered one of the best pieces of advertising copy ever written. There’s not a single image of an automobile, just a page long essay titled, The Penalty of Leadership. The essay never even mentions automobiles, or selling them, or even uses the word Cadillac, it just talks about the obstacles, naysayers, slings and arrows that true leaders overcome. It brilliantly evokes, in the readers mind, the image of two leaders, Cadillac and himself.
Since 1915, Cadillac marketers have returned, time and again, to the image of Cadillac, and its customers, as leaders. Perhaps because “The Standard of the World” was so well known (it’s right there in Cadillac’s logo at the top of Penalty of Leadership), people aren’t familiar with just how frequently Cadillac marketing has referenced “leadership” over the past century. So frequently that it seems to me that the current use of “Mark of Leadership” is a deliberate reference to that leitmotif of Cadillac marketing. Fortunately, people collect old advertisements, so a few minutes searching on eBay demonstrates how frequently Cadillac has touted leadership.
Cadillac’s slogan for 1933 was “Leadership Rests On Achievement”, achievement being another frequent refrain in Cadillac advertising. After all, leaders who drive Cadillacs have achieved their status.
Leaders like Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, whose aristocratic image figures prominently on the cover of this promotional package.
Magazine ads for 1933 also featured Antoine, and stressed Cadillac’s technical leadership in the development of 90 degree V engines, including the V12 installed in the Convertible Coupe (though I believe now 60 degrees is considered ideal for a 12 cylinder V).
Advertisements for 1958 featured the Eldorado Brougham, perhaps the most luxurious car built in its day, and definitely one of the most expensive at almost $14,000. At the top of the ad is a single word, Leadership, above a photo of the Eldo, w/ an elegantly dressed couple. In the ad copy the tagline is “From Great Achievements… An Inspiring Tradition”.
Another elegant couple appears in a 1962 Sedan de Ville advertisement titled simply “Cadillac leadership”
The completely restyled 1971 Cadillacs were promoted with “The New Look of Leadership” in both sales brochures
and print ads.
The print ads mention leadership in both the tagline and the ad copy, stressing Cadillac’s technical innovation and tying it to the Standard of the World slogan.
The most recent ad that I could find that hyped Cadillac’s leadership was from 1973, just as GM and the other Detroit automakers began their long decline. The ’73s, which were only slightly restyled for that year, were promoted with “Encore! Nothing Says More About Cadillac Leadership”. Perhaps that decline can be seen in the advertisement, a recycled tagline, for a recycled car.
Once again Cadillac is using leadership as a marketing slogan. So what’s wrong with the Mark of Leadership? The campaign gives the viewer no clue as to the historical significance of “leadership” to Cadillac. It’s almost as though someone went through old ads and said, “Yeah, lets talk about leadership”, without actually talking about what’s made and what makes Cadillac a leader.
About ten years ago, Cadillac began to rebuild its brand. As part of that strategy, they ran an ad called “Moments” that introduced the very modern looking styling language now familiar as “Art & Science”. What is appealing about Moments is that it puts Cadillac’s contemporary style and technology in the context of the company’s history. Rather than run away from the big old Caddys of yore, Moments embraced them, while clearly showing that Art & Science is a long way from Dagmar bumpers.
Marketers like to use the word “aspirational” to describe desirable higher priced consumer goods. Time was, Cadillac was once the standard of the world for all things aspirational. I would say that until GM’s decline, Cadillac was even beyond aspirational. Aspirational products are desired by people who can’t yet afford them. Cadillacs were driven by those who already had arrived.
The “Moments” ad recognized that historical reality.
With “Mark of Leadership” Cadillac has the opportunity to do something similar and reclaim the marketing prowess that the brand once had. Unfortunately, the first commercial from Cadillac’s new agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, doesn’t achieve anything near that. Detroit has spent too long running away from its heritage, fearful that it will remind people of unreliable land yachts. Cadillac and Lincoln have both treated storied nameplates, De Ville and Continental, like they were plagues.
If Cadillac wants “Mark of Leadership” to succeed, they’re going to have to embrace Cadillac’s heritage as a leader. Mercedes-Benz introduced the new E Class with commercials showing every generation of the car. Audi is currently running ads that are also very historical, going back to the company’s origins and showing the Silver Arrow racers despite potential PR dangers of discussing German autosports in the 1930s. If Audi and Mercedes-Benz can be proud of their histories, I think Cadillac can be as well.
Maybe a good start would be a 60 second commercial that has a voiceover reciting a slightly updated Penalty of Leadership over a video montage of Cadillac innovation and leadership going back to Henry Leland and his Jo-blocks and forward to the CTS-V variants and the upcoming XTS. Cadillac needs to show contemporary consumers that Standard of the World was not always an ironic joke. Like those old ads said, leadership rests on achievement.