The Cadillac Quandary… Strongest Line-up In Decades, Legendary American Luxury Brand Struggles With Sales Slide

It has been decades since being the “The Cadillac” of any product category was a standard of greatness. After a golden age in the 50’s and 60’s, years of inferior products tarnished the Cadillac reputation.

In the last decade Cadillac has made an amazing turnaround in product quality. Models like the CTS and ATS sedans and coupes, especially in the high performance “V” editions, get high marks for design, build quality, premium, interiors and incredible driving dynamics — even on the track — posing a credible challenge to high-end brands like Mercedes, BMW and Audi.

A new full-sized, rear-wheel drive, lightweight aluminum construction Cadillac CT6 model is being readied to go up against top of the line Mercedes S Class, BMW 7-series and the Audi A8.

But the message of quality is not resonating with the younger car buyers. The average age of a Cadillac buyer is about 59, whereas fast growing competitors like Audi attract buyers averaging 10 years younger.

The result is a frustrating sales slide for the brand. Last year Cadillac sales were off by 5 percent, with the Cadillac Escalade full sized SUV being the only standout performer, achieving a 149 percent month over month sales increase in January.

Under the leadership of the strong-willed and outspoken South African executive Johan de Nysschen, former head of US operations for Audi and Infiniti, defining a new Cadillac brand has become a priority.

We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don’t want to be an automotive brand.

Melody Lee
Brand & Reputation Strategy, Cadillac

In a controversial move last year it was announced that Cadillac would become more autonomous from General Motors, leaving Detroit for a new Headquarters in New York City. The move to trendy Soho loft space was part of a larger attempt to raise Cadillac’s profile, and associate it with the luxury, fashion and the cool factor of New York.

It also put Cadillac on a world stage, as New York has become the capital of the occupation of America by super-wealthy foreigners. The hope is that capturing the attention of rich foreigners, enamored with everything American, they will help take the Cadillac brand around the globe.

But even the attempt to make Cadillac cool again has become a point of controversy. Late last year a huge controversy broke out on Facebook when scores of automotive journalists joined a thread of more than 300 posts on a rampage against comments made by Melody Lee, a millennial Brand Marketing officer.

In an interview with Fortune Magazine she made some valid points about the quest to make Cadillac relevant again to younger buyers, but made a few statements that just enraged passionate gearheads.

“We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don’t want to be an automotive brand. There is nothing that exciting about an ad with a car in it by itself.” said Ms. Lee. She went on to say that Cadillac needed to be more like Apple which “people buy because it’s cool… not because it’s the best computer.”

In truth, because the Cadillac dilemma is a generational problem decades in the making, it is likely that it will take the Cadillac reputation a while for it to catch up to it’s new found quality. As people drive the new models, like the newest CTS and the recently introduced ATS, which really do measure up to Euro luxury performance marques like Mercedes BMW and Audi, the word will spread.

The question is can Cadillac stay in the race long enough to see its vaunted reputation for quality restored.