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The Once and Future Cadillac

The Once and Future Cadillac
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TRUE talks to Cadillac’s Melody Lee about her quest to restore the brand’s luster and push it beyond luxury automotive to just plain luxury.

Q: Describe your position at Cadillac. Why was it created, and what do you hope to achieve?

Lee: My title is director of brand and reputation strategy for Global Cadillac. It is the first position of its kind at General Motors, and I’m proud to say that it’s something that is rather cutting-edge for our industry in terms of putting two halves of a coin together—brand and reputation. My job every day when I wake up is to think about how to build the Cadillac brand and protect and maintain its reputation at the same time.

Cadillac recognized that its communications with its various stakeholders needed to be consistent. They needed to reinforce what it stood for every time they reached out. That recognition was the genesis of my position.

I come from the agency side of the world; I was not an auto industry expert by any means. But that is exactly what made me attractive to Cadillac—my experience with a variety of other brands. It’s very important to us at Cadillac to understand how outside brands are behaving, because our goal in the end is not just to become a top-tier luxury automotive brand; it’s to become a top-tier luxury brand, period. We want to be mentioned along with Cartier and Louis Vuitton. We don’t necessarily just want to be mentioned along with Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

Q: Cadillac has a long and storied history. How is Cadillac perceived today and why?

Lee: The Cadillac brand is perceived today in a very mixed way. I think there is still a part of our public and audience that recognizes us as the Cadillac of the past, essentially a vehicle for an older demographic. I think that there is another contingent that views us as a somewhat trendy, hip-hop type vehicle as well. So I believe there’s a lot of different views of what Cadillac is, and I believe that it’s the confusion about what it is that gives us an opportunity. But neither of those is Cadillac today. Our identity today should be cemented by the fact that we have the best products in maybe 20, 30 or even 40 years. That’s what we need to build our brand on.

Q: What constitutes a strong brand?

Lee: I think the strongest brands out there don’t need much more descriptors than their own name. If you say “Apple,” people immediately think of a premium product, a certain kind of customer, accessibility to its products, beautiful design. But you don’t even need to say any of those things because Apple’s brand is so strong. For so many years in our history, the word “Cadillac” was used as an adjective; people loved to talk about the Cadillac of health plans, the Cadillac of refrigerators, or the Cadillac of other appliances around the house. And eventually I want Cadillac to just stand on our own again, because we were there once and we can do it again in the future.

My goal for Cadillac, if I do my job correctly, is to have it be culturally relevant once more. From its very beginning, Cadillac has always been known as the pinnacle of success, a celebration of success. People bought a Cadillac because they had “made it.” I think that’s evolved a little bit because that mentality has evolved along with it. I think people no longer just want to rest on their laurels; they don’t want to just have “made it.” They want to continue the journey; they want to keep driving, they want to keep moving forward. And I think that is what we aspire to do at Cadillac as well. That’s our heritage, actually. We have always been a brand that looked forward. We have always been a brand that was optimistic, and I think that we want to find that spirit again.

Q: Would you talk about the potential among professional women for Cadillac ownership?

Lee: At Cadillac, it’s not just about reaching a certain demographic. We try to look at it from a total market approach. But if we’re going to become successful at becoming the global brand that we want to become, then women have to be a big part of our efforts. Professional women, in particular, are a huge part of that. We know from our research that this is a group that we have trouble with, we have trouble reaching them, and frankly, they don’t put us on their consideration list when they’re going to purchase a vehicle. But it’s a group that we cannot afford to ignore, and we cannot afford to pretend is not a problem for us. Women today are purchasing up to 65 percent of vehicles themselves, but they’re influencing up to 93 percent of total purchases, which is really, really significant. So in an industry that may be traditionally male-dominated or may be male-oriented, in terms of its communications, we’ve got to start thinking like a woman and thinking about how to communicate to women.

Q: How does the ELR electric coupe fit into your brand strategy?

Lee: For us we understand that we must be out there as innovation and technology leaders. That’s what’s defined Cadillac for its 112 years, and we aren’t about to change that. But we do know we have fallen behind in some regards and that we need to play catch-up. That’s why it was critically important for Cadillac to debut an electric coupe like the ELR. Although we may have had a period of time where our leadership languished just a little bit, I’m confident in saying that the ELR is representative of the fact that we are back in that leadership position. It is an electric luxury coupe that has won design awards; it’s cutting-edge in the way that it looks and cutting-edge in the way that it works as well. For example, you take your ELR to work and then you decide you want to go on a two- or three-hour trip. It’s no problem. You couldn’t do that in a Tesla; you’d have to go home and recharge the car. In an ELR, you can keep going. For us, we see a consumer who doesn’t want to make compromises in the way that they live, and I believe that the ELR is the perfect vehicle that bridges where we are today in America and where we’re trying to go in the future with electric vehicles.

Q: Does culture inform brands or do brands inform culture?

Lee: The way that culture and brands interact depends, I believe, on the strength of the brand. At points in time when Cadillac was strong, it influenced culture. At points in time when it was weak, culture influenced the brand. It’s a synergistic relationship that changes, depending on the strength of the brand. If I am doing my job correctly, I believe that Cadillac will not only become part of the conversation but will be helping to mold the conversation and mold the culture.

Q: Please explain the role of experiential marketing at Cadillac.

 Lee: Experiential marketing is very different from traditional marketing. It puts consumers into vehicles, or at least into a situation where consumers can see vehicles outside of a dealership, and form an impression of our products on their own. A consumer can come in, experience our vehicles, and then draw some conclusions of their own—not just about our products, but about what a Cadillac lifestyle might be, or what a Cadillac experience might be.

A car is the second largest purchase most people make after a home. It’s not one that they take lightly. It’s something that they really need to be able to think about for a long time and then really have a meaningful experience with before they’ll take that leap. So for us, experiential marketing is crucial to our future and where we take this brand.

Q: What is a quintessential Cadillac experience? What do you want consumers to take away?

Lee: A quintessential Cadillac experience would first of all be bold and a little bit unexpected. It ties back to the way that our cars are engineered and designed, and back to the kinds of consumers we’ve seen purchase our cars in recent years. There’s a certain boldness and a certain willingness to defy the norm a little bit.

Q: What have been some of your most successful examples of experiential marketing?

Lee: Our approach is a little bit different from our competitors in that we’re more interested in micro-targeting and getting to the right groups at the right times. We want to try to take a little bit of a grassroots approach to our experiential marketing more than anything else. We may not be able to do a huge flashy sponsorship, but we know that getting to the right kinds of people and the right kinds of influencers is key to changing opinion about our brand.

Some of our more unexpected but successful relationships have been getting our vehicles and our brand in front of audiences that might not have ever noticed us or don’t know anything about the new Cadillac. IvyConnect is one of the partnerships that we are very proud of at Cadillac. IvyConnect was started as a social network for Ivy League graduates, but has now expanded both geographically and in terms of membership to all sorts of thought leaders, next-generation influencers in both the West Coast and the East Coast. And we felt that it was a huge opportunity to get our brand in front of a group of people who were on the cusp of being the next generation of successful business and political leaders.

Photo: Classic Cadillac (General Motors); Melody Lee (Getty Images)

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About the author

Melody Lee is director, Brand & Reputation Strategy at Global Cadillac. In this role, she oversees events and sponsorships that impact Cadillac’s broader brand image, and coordinates market research, analytics and communications. In her previous roles, Lee, who speaks conversational Mandarin Chinese, gained a wealth of experience in high-stakes crisis and transaction situations, and she was a member of the team that provided international communications, media relations and research assistance to the International Olympic Committee in 2008.