There are times in the car business when I feel like I am watching a movie I've seen before and this is one of them.
General Motors president Dan Ammann this week unveiled the company's plan to move Cadillac's headquarters to New York in 2015 and make Caddy a separate business unit within GM. "Cadillac's mission," he said, "is to reinstate the brand to a pre-eminent position among global luxury brands…More than a division or brand, Cadillac is becoming a centre of excellence for our company."
Cue the harps…
Back in the fall of 2001, then-Cadillac general manager Mark LaNeve told me this about the all-new CTS and Caddy's ongoing renaissance: "We're really launching the new era of Cadillac. We're going to do this. We're going to get back to one of the world's premium brands."
GM, then, has been reinventing its 112-year-old Cadillac brand for at least 13 years, if not longer -- through at least five CEOs, four product chiefs, one bankruptcy and a global recession. The saga continues.
Perhaps this will be the plan to stick, to return Caddy to glories enjoyed before the German brands essentially took over global leadership in luxury cars. Perhaps the new Cadillac president, Johan de Nysschen -- who jumped to Caddy after a relative hiccup at Infiniti, following time as a senior manager at Audi – is the right person to craft a winning Cadillac game plan.
Perhaps it's enough for GM to give Caddy its own leadership group, from president to marketing boss, from finance boss to dedicated engineering and design chiefs. Perhaps it's enough for Cadillac to become nearly autonomous.
But is Cadillac becoming autonomous? GM was at pains to point out that the company will not change the "technical product development teams located in Michigan, nor does the plan impact manufacturing or assembly operations." Cadillac will be marketed out of New York, but its products will be crafted in Michigan.
To be fair, we've seen some life at Caddy over the past 12-18 months. Global sales grew 28 per cent last year and were up a whopping 44.6 per cent in Canada, mostly on the success of the ATS compact car. Caddy sales this year are up 10 per cent overall and 75 per cent in China.
We've also learned the name of Caddy's upcoming rear-drive BMW 7-Series/Mercedes S-Class-fighter due late next year: the CT6. Mark Reuss, GM's product chief, says Caddy needs a car like the CT6 to be taken seriously as a luxury car brand, and he's bang-on.
Reuss was also correct when he told reporters in Detroit, "The brand perception of those (Cadillac) products and what people buy into has probably lagged" Cadillac's products themselves. For instance, the ATS is a terrific small car, a legitimate rival to similar-sized cars from BMW, Audi and Mercedes. Did you know that?
Lack of awareness about Cadillac is a problem the marketing department's move to New York is intended to address. The even bigger issue for Cadillac, however, is the brand's lineup itself.
BMW, Audi and Mercedes offer dozens and dozens of models and variations on models. You can literally buy a German luxury car in any shape or size. The Germans offer a dizzying array of power train choices and even all-electric models made of super lightweight materials. Not at Caddy, not yet.
Despite the obstacles and GM's spotty track record with Cadillac, the company is right to persevere. There are big profits to be made and the prestige that comes with a top-notch premium brand is invaluable.
What's troubling is de Nysschen's timeline. According to Automotive News, de Nysschen thinks it could take 10 or 15 years for Cadillac to reach "the pinnacle of aspirational brands."
If that's true, GM will have spent the better part of three decades fixing its Cadillac problem. De Nysschen is 54. Does he truly expect to be a senior citizen of 69 before his Cadillac mission is complete?
When Cadillac moves into its trendy loft space in New York next year, here's hoping a heavy dose of urgency arrives with the new desks and chairs.
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