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A former BMW marketing executive, Uwe Ellinghaus was hired by Cadillac in 2014 to accomplish a formidable task: take a slowly expiring car brand and make it relevant again. Ellinghaus spoke candidly with The Hollywood Reporter about the steps he is taking to overhaul Cadillac’s image.
You’ve shifted some of Cadillac’s marketing emphasis from golf tournaments to sponsoring Hollywood events, including THR’s pre-Academy Award party. How important is Hollywood to the Cadillac brand?
We will kick off our new brand point of view at the  Oscar celebration. We will have our own event but will also have in the Oscar show several blocks of media that we bought because we have one of the best audiences that we can have: people that are interested in Hollywood and everything that the lifestyle Hollywood stands for, and I think that’s a natural brand fit for us. So I’m not interested in Super Bowl, I’m far more interested in the Oscars.
You joined Cadillac after 14 years at BMW. What did you discover when you arrived?
When I came here from BMW I had some very foundational work to do because, believe it or not, in 112 years of the brand’s history, nobody ever defined what Cadillac actually stands for. We were in a dead end with the brand. We realized the hard way, by declining sales, that nobody had an appetite any longer for the cars we were producing. And the brand couldn’t change that perception. So Cadillac needed to embark on a new journey which started with the ATS and the CTS [sedans] — smaller cars, but still distinctive in their design, but far more performance and driver oriented than Cadillac used to be.
Beyond launching new cars, how do change that perception?
The problem with our brand is we have a relevance issue, as the marketing people call it. People don’t necessarily have a bad image of Cadillac. What we lack is that people say “I want this car.” They say, “Nice but not for me.” And this is something I need to change. Firstly, I need more street presence of our new cars. Our presence in Detroit, in Dallas-Ft. Worth and some other areas is terrific. But at the coasts, where the luxury market is, you hardly see the ATS and the CTS. And this is why activities like our partnership with American Airlines is so important. Firstly, to have cars in airports on display so [potential customers] are confronted by the car in places where they didn’t expect them, because they don’t go to dealers, because the brand is not relevant. Secondly, we chauffeur American’s best frequent flyers in our cars — not just Escalades, but also the CTS. To a certain extent you almost need to force customers into our cars where they cannot escape to change their perception on what a Cadillac is.
Despite your efforts with the CTS and ATS, the Escalade SUV is still by far Cadillac’s best-selling model.
I wish I could get more product allocation. We are back to the most luxurious problem in our industry and this is demand that is so much higher than supply. The demand has definitely exceeded our expectations and our industry cannot quickly ramp up production particularly when the other SUVs of General Motors are also in high demand and are produced in the same factory.
Cadillac’s ELR plug-in hybrid, on the other hand, has sold so slowly that dealers have resorted to five-figure discounts.
The ELR is a perfect example of what happens when you have a terrific looking and driving car but you have a brand perception that does not yet encompass things like sustainability. This is the greenest car we make without green-washing the brand — it’s not a rolling declaration of sacrifices, because people don’t want to give up on styling. We said, Let’s load the car fully and put everything in it that you could possibly want. But of course that pushed the price point up to an amount where if you look at the MSRP, this car is not significantly below what a competitor from California who shall remain unnamed currently charges. But their cars come naked for the same amount and ours are fully loaded. But that’s not the way customers approach the purchase process. So they are saying, hey, that’s [marketed] as a Tesla — Cadillac you are mad? And if you say, but wait, the Tesla is naked and this is fully loaded, the discussion is already over. The mindset is: too expensive.
What’s your prognosis for Cadillac?
We have many changes, but I’m not denying that this is a task that will take many, many years. We now simply need to stay on this course, and I’m very optimistic that the cars we present here and the cars that we plan to launch will have a good chance to succeed and reestablish Cadillac to the iconic luxury brand that it once was.
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