Whither Cadillac?

William C Montgomery
by William C Montgomery

Day three of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit is comparatively quiet. I took advantage of the lull to chin wag with Clay Dean, Cadillac’s Global Design Director and Dave Caldwell, Caddy’s top spin man. Both men were refreshingly candid. So I challenged the duo on the brand’s marketing mix: product, price, place, and promotion. While the adulation heaped upon the CTS, CTS-V and CTS Coupe indicate that Cadillac’s lineup is better off now than when ‘Slade sales started slipping, what of Caddy’s future?

“When someone [at Cadillac] comes up with a really bad idea, we call it a Cimarron,” Dean declared. The Cadillacs of my formative years predate even this debacle. Back in the day, Caddy was the purveyor of over-sized flaccid barges for middle-income Florida retirees and active Mafiosi. Compared to the tightly-built imports of the day, Caddies seemed poorly packaged, clumsy handling and sloppily built— if only because they were.

To the automaker’s detriment, Cadillac clung to their bigger-is-better, living-room-on-wheels, mid-market brand identity while their target demographic was gradually interred en masse into nursing homes or burial plots. Meanwhile, the rest of the world continued to evolve technologically. Upmarket Americans gradually forsook wreath-crested wafting for a European snob appeal and driver-centric dynamics. By the turn of the century, the once-proud Cadillac brand embodied middle-income America’s obesity and sloth.

Finally, five years ago, Cadillac got serious about adapting to the market trends that they’d derided, denied and declaimed for the better part of two decades. In 2003, Cadillac introduced their 5-Series killer, the CTS. It was no hardened assassin, but the model signaled a fundamental change to the brand.

“Today, the closest vehicle Cadillac makes to the old standard is the Escalade,” Caldwell explained, echoing a sentiment oft expressed by TTAC readers. “It’s really the only old style model left.”

Fair enough. But I harbor the radical notion that brand extensions are inherently dangerous. For example, pickup trucks are for hauling manure and pulling stumps. A pickup truck is fundamentally and irrevocably incompatible with luxury. I view the Escalade EXT a perfect example of Cadillac’s ongoing inability to stay focused. To do one thing better than anyone in the world. To just say no.

“Cadillac should never make a pickup truck,” I challenged the guys. “It erodes the brand.”

Spinmeister Caldwell carefully considered my take on luxury and thoughtfully responded. “Cadillac doesn’t make a pickup truck.”

“Maybe not in PR speak,” I calmly replied, “But if you ask one thousand people on the street one thousand of them will say that the Escalade EXT is a pickup, not whatever non-truck euphemism you’ve invented for it.”

Sensing that our conversation had taken an abrupt left turn, Caddy’s seasoned mouthpiece changed tack. “Sometimes we make products on a short-term basis to satisfy a particular market demand,” Caldwell corrected.

His answer underlined– rather than explained– Caddy’s willingness to tarnish their brand identity and sacrifice long-term viability on the altar of short-term gain.

Today, a Cadillac can cost less than $40K or more than $100K. It can be a two-seat roadster, executive sedan, SUV or pickup truck. So how does Cadillac sell itself as a strong and concise brand when it spans so many prices and genres, when it means so many different things to so many potential customers?

“Modern sporty Cadillac’s are not incompatible with the Cadillac legacy. Cadillac engines were long used in race cars because they were the most powerful,” said Dean. Yeah, but that was before I was born.

“A Cadillac can be any kind of vehicle, even a minivan,” Dean continued, referring to the hydrogen fuel cell Provoq (pronounced “PROvoke”) Concept. “Just as long as they deliver a Cadillac experience.”

And what, pray tell, is that? “To me, Cadillac is about desirability and drama,” Caldwell answered, once again releasing the PR vapors. “Yes, a Cadillac is flamboyant,” Dean added. In other words, it’s like porn; you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

I left the show with mixed feelings about Cadillac’s future. The new CTS is one of the best cars Cadillac has built in my lifetime. In fact, while it's still not quite up to world-class standards, the model's attention to detail represents a new high water mark for the entire U.S. auto industry. Yet the definition of what constitutes a Cadillac remains dangerously nebulous.

Cadillac’s brand identity seems to be at the end of a pendulum that’s swung from pathologically recalcitrant in the ‘80s and ’90s, to schizophrenically indefinable today. To achieve brand health, Cadillac find one path. It must integrate its multiple personalities into a cohesive core identity while setting defining parameters wide enough to accommodate changing market conditions, a stringent regulatory environment and fickle public tastes. Until and unless it does, Cadillac’s current success will be a fleeting phenomenon.

William C Montgomery
William C Montgomery

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  • LamborghiniZ LamborghiniZ on Jan 28, 2008

    @ KGrGunMan: I'm aware that size wise it makes sense to put the CTS against the 5-Series, but in terms of performance, price, and most importantly of all, real world competition, the CTS is most DEFINITELY a 3-Series competitor, w/ the STS taking on the 5-Series. That is to say, people looking at an A6, a 5-Series, and an E-Class, if turning to check out Cadillac, would inspect an STS, not a CTS, as it isn't the equivalent in terms of price, performance, or anything else other than size. Cadillac needs to revamp the STS as the new CTS basically switches shit up by being a better car.

  • Philipwitak Philipwitak on Jan 31, 2008

    re: "So how does Cadillac sell itself as a strong and concise brand when it spans so many prices and genres...well, the same could be said of BMW, or Mercedes...". sightline: January 21st, 2008 at 8:44 pm and porsche, too. after a lifetime spent driving a 356, a 911, a boxster and now a cayman, i finally got my hands on a cayenne a couple of weeks ago - and while it may have been a pretty nice 'truck,' it was, in my opinion, still a 'truck.' and i realize its made all sorts of good things possible for porsche in the short-term, but it has also most-definitely diluted the brand - at least so far as my perceptions are concerned. porsches used to small, nimble, highly-efficient and certainly effective sportscars [and race cars with similar attributes]. but now, with the inclusion of their large and excessively luxurious cayennes, they have become something else. and soon, with the arrival of the panamera, they will become something else again.

  • MaintenanceCosts "But your author does wonder what the maintenance routine is going to be like on an Italian-German supercar that plays host to a high-revving engine, battery pack, and several electric motors."Probably not much different from the maintenance routine of any other Italian-German supercar with a high-revving engine.
  • 28-Cars-Later "The unions" need to not be the UAW and maybe there's a shot. Maybe.
  • 2manyvettes I had a Cougar of similar vintage that I bought from my late mother in law. It did not suffer the issues mentioned in this article, but being a Minnesota car it did have some weird issues, like a rusted brake line.(!) I do not remember the mileage of the vehicle, but it left my driveway when the transmission started making unwelcome noises. I traded it for a much newer Ford Fusion that served my daughter well until she finished college.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Couple of questions: 1) who will be the service partner for these when Rivian goes Tits Up? 2) What happens with software/operating system support when Rivia goes Tits Up? 3) What happens to the lease when Rivian goes Tits up?
  • Richard I loved these cars, I was blessed to own three. My first a red beauty 86. My second was an 87, 2+2, with digital everything. My third an 87, it had been ridden pretty hard when I got it but it served me well for several years. The first two I loved so much. Unfortunately they had fuel injection issue causing them to basically burst into flames. My son was with me at 10 years old when first one went up. I'm holding no grudges. Nissan gave me 1600$ for first one after jumping thru hoops for 3 years. I didn't bother trying with the second. Just wondering if anyone else had similar experience. I still love those cars.