Cadillac Is Your Great-Grandfather’s Car, and Here’s Why Its CMO Is Cool With That

Uwe Ellinghaus on brand's NYC move, fashion focus and more

Uwe Ellinghaus hates clichés. As CMO of Cadillac, his main directive is to avoid them: no ads with SUVs zooming down a mountain, or a litany of hot features. Some of Cadillac's latest ads don't even show a car. When your sales lag far behind your competitors, you have the freedom to do something drastic, and Ellinghaus, who joined Cadillac as marketing chief in 2014 after a stint as evp of marketing and sales at Montblanc and 15 years as a marketing exec at BMW, relishes that freedom. Once the height of cool in the 1950s and '60s, Cadillac today is a 114-year-old underdog brand. While its sales rose 2.6 percent in 2015, the automaker remains far behind the three top-selling luxury car brands—BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus—according to Automotive News.

In 2015, after more than 100 years in Detroit, Cadillac left the Motor City behind to cultivate a whole new identity in New York. German-born Ellinghaus, 47, thinks it's a mistake to try to "out German the Germans," as he often says. That means that rather than trying to emulate the top-selling German nameplates, Ellinghaus has positioned Cadillac as a luxury auto brand that's uniquely American: entrepreneurial, fashion-forward and art-focused—and now, one that calls one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities home.

Because younger drivers embrace art, fashion and culinary experiences, Ellinghaus has staffed up with individuals who have no automotive experience at all but, rather, marketers from the fashion and luxury worlds. Golf and motor sports sponsorships, which have long appealed to baby boomers, are out. Brand experience center Cadillac House—part coffee shop, part art gallery, part car showroom—is in, as is Road to Table, a dinner-party series hosted by celebrities and celebrity chefs.

His mission of attracting younger drivers involves reversing the game. The older consumers German luxury brands have courted in the U.S. over the last few decades are getting, well, older, Ellinghaus reasons, paving the way for the next generation to discover Cadillac.

"Not only can we take risks, we have to take risks," says Ellinghaus.  Mark Mann

Adweek spoke with Ellinghaus at Cadillac's SoHo headquarters in New York about how he is redefining the brand by embracing its challenger position.

Adweek: You're attempting to change the way people think about Cadillac and present it as a brand that represents American luxury. How has your earlier career at Cadillac's No. 1 competitor, BMW, and luxury brand Montblanc prepared you for that?

Uwe Ellinghaus: At BMW, I learned that having a clearly defined archrival is a wonderful thing to unite a company. For decades, BMW's goal was to beat Mercedes. That really motivated people working there. When it happened and BMW became No. 1 in the luxury segment globally, everyone said, "What now?" They achieved their dream target, so they just said, "Let's try to defend this position."

I realized that once you're so successful, the willingness to take risks goes down. You want cars that are safe solutions, but not necessarily brave solutions. The appetite for having cars that have very distinct design, very distinctive driving characteristics was compromised by the desire to remain No. 1. Cadillac is a challenger brand. Not only can we take risks, we have to take risks—not to repeat the successful formula of BMW, but to build an alternative to a BMW, Mercedes or Audi.

When I came here after being at BMW for 15 years [with Montblanc in between], many people were either hoping I'd do the same things or were scared that I would do the same things. I realized immediately that Cadillac has a completely different heritage. Cadillac is distinctly American and unique. If the German brands all go for No. 1 and can't afford risk, I think we should be the brand that takes risks, that has designs that everybody might not like, that appeal to people because they're different. The CT6 is a great example—we said the world doesn't need another 7 Series or S Class. The Germans build terrific cars and always will, but they're a little bit ubiquitous in suburbia. People always want to differentiate themselves, and it's probably more promising territory to go after those customers.

Montblanc was great because it taught me the power of intuition, that luxury purchases are very often spontaneous purchases, even one for a $50,000 watch. I learned that first, the brand needs to resonate with people, and as long as that isn't the case, you won't win them over with horsepower, newton metre, all the bells and whistles that the product has. Marketing in the automotive industry usually focuses on giving people arguments to buy a car rather than making the brand so irresistible and the design so appealing that people spontaneously say, "I want it."

We won't rattle off technical details or have the universal clichés of SUVs on beaches or convertibles on curving roads. That's a generic approach. Even though we want to double our sales in the next five years, we'll still not be a part of this race for No. 1 globally, which gives us a greater degree of freedom to have a more perfect brand positioning and be a unique face in the crowd.

Why was Cadillac's move from Detroit to New York so crucial to the brand's new positioning? Has it paid off so far?