When Cadillac announced last fall that it was leaving Detroit for New York's SoHo district, critics groused that the 113-year-old nameplate was desperate for some hipster chic to rub off. Whether or not they're right, one thing's certain: America's fabled luxury car—long ago left in the dust by German imports—could use a branding tune-up. Cadillac's CTS and XTS sedans have been lauded by critics, though their sales still trail the continent-size Escalade SUV. Can Cadillac regain its respect in a luxury sedan segment ruled by Mercedes-Benz? That task falls to CMO Uwe Ellinghaus (himself a German import, having worked for BMW for 15 years). Ellinghaus appeared at New York's Bryant Park Hotel to take the wraps off Caddy's new creative, and Adweek pulled him over for a quick chat.
You've been with Cadillac a little over a year now. What's the biggest change you've made?
Communications. Whatever you think of Cadillac's history in communicating what this brand is all about, you do not find focus, you do not find consistency, you do not find continuity over time. These virtues count far more for building a brand than earth-shattering creativity. So I needed to change the mindset that we do not simply need a new campaign; we need to identify what we want this brand to stand for.
What do you want it to stand for?
We want to be a little louder than the sober Germans, more distinctive and expressive in our designs—boldness is a good word for it. What sets Cadillac apart is, of course, Americans. In the past, Cadillac lost the self-confidence to say, "We are American, and this is a good thing."
You were most recently the evp, marketing for Montblanc. Did selling pens teach you anything that's useful in selling Cadillacs?
For sure. I learned how important the retail experience is for a luxury brand. We had customers who are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable. And if they go to a boutique and find a salesperson who isn't as knowledgeable as they are, we were in trouble. We have the same situation in automotive now.
You've been outspoken about not wanting Cadillac to go head-to-head with German imports. But if they're leading the market, why not?
The only answer to the question is, why should anybody buy a good copy when there is an original available? We need to build the brand on things that make it different to the Germans.
Your new TV spots are heavy on the New York City imagery. Is there a risk that Middle America might be alienated by that?
Of course, there's always a risk. But the vast majority of luxury buyers tend to live on the coasts. It's an intriguing backdrop—eclectic, contemporary, old yet renovated. The Germans have a tendency to go to the latest architectural masterpiece and use that as a backdrop. They can't take a New York backdrop. We can. We're American.
How will moving to New York help with your branding?
The spirit of New York is to reinvent itself, and this is the task that Cadillac has as well. We want to reinvent ourselves.
Well, that's why everybody moves here, right?
Absolutely. And the problem is the city is demanding. I live here. I know what I'm talking about.
New York is actually a very difficult place to have a car. Do you have any place outside the city where you can do some serious driving?
You just go up north, Westchester and further into Connecticut. Or you go over to New Jersey, west of the Garden State Parkway. I have really empty roads there.
What was the first Cadillac you drove? Do you remember?
Yes, of course. It was the ATS. It had just a two-liter turbo, and I just couldn't believe how it drove. So quick, so much fun.