• Ash Habib

The Cadillac of...?

In society, sometimes a brand name becomes so ubiquitous that it becomes the very definition and default when people refer to that product. This is the process of a brand or trademark transforming into a common noun. In marketing terms, it's basically what happens when a marketing team has done too good of a job, over a period of time, so that the general population when speaking about the product category can only associate that brand or trademark with it, and thus it becomes the default way to refer to everything in that category.

What starts as a marketing triumph can quickly turn afoul as the brand becomes less valuable as it becomes a generic term. In a lot of instances, companies can lose their trademarks, because people use their brand generically. Common brands that have become ubiquitous with their categories include: Band-Aid, Kleenex, Xerox, & Google (These brands have worked hard to maintain their trademarks despite this).

A few years ago, Microsoft scored a sponsorship deal with the NFL to promote it's Surface line of tablets. As part of this, all of the teams use Surface tablets on the sidelines, and all of the broadcasters has Surface tablets handy to refer to stats, etc. What ended up happening was that the broadcasters kept referring to the Surface tablets as iPads, Microsoft's worst nightmare. What they had spent millions on ($400 million US over 5 years!), had basically shown the world that the Surface tablet was still an also ran compared to the iPad.

Microsoft Surface for NFL

This continued on until Microsoft provided covers for all of the Surface tablets with bold Surface branding on it. So, much like our earlier examples, even more modern brands can transform the way we speak and refer to products, with iPod and iPad being frequently used to refer to any MP3 player or tablet.

The examples so far have all managed to keep their trademarks and branding their own, only narrowly in some cases. How about instances where the brand became so generic that the company lost their trademark? Yo-Yo became generic in 1965, Thermos in 1963, Escalator in 1950, and Zipper in the 1920's. I'm willing to bet very few people today have any idea that these words were ever brand names at all. Want an even crazier example? In the the 1920's Bayer lost trademarks for the names Aspirin and Heroin!

Bayer Heroin from the early 1900s

So, all of this talk about becoming generic or a noun, but what about when your brand supersedes becoming generic to the point of becoming an elevated standard? In sports you often see athletes referred to in comparison as a benchmark athlete. They're the Gretzky, Jordan, Tiger Woods, or Tom Brady of etc. These athletes, among others are or have been the best at what they do, and often for a substantial period of time. They've created their own mythos around themselves, becoming their own brand to a point where almost anyone can use them as a benchmark or quality or achievement in a simile to something completely unrelated. Like someone calling their favorite pizza the "Michael Jordan of pizza".

So, what's all of this leading to? Well, recently, Cadillac announced plans that they're going to develop a new electric vehicle, on a platform to be shared with other GM vehicles. There's not many details at this point other than the fact that it will be a crossover/SUV. Now, this isn't Cadillac's first foray into electric vehicles, that would be the Cadillac ELR from a few years back, which was a pretty hard failure for Cadillac as a brand. The ELR was a gorgeous design, but was only a slightly more powerful version of the Chevrolet Volt. The problem with this is that the Volt was a vehicle itself meant to be similar to the Chevrolet Cruze in size and function, and had a price of approximately 40K USD. The ELR started around 75K USD!

Cadillac ELR

Someone at Cadillac was either smoking something really potent, or had just completely lost touch with the Cadillac buying audience.

I think that last point is rally the most telling when it comes to Cadillac, as they're in a bit of a flux when it comes down to brand identity. We've all heard Cadillac used as an elevated standard benchmark before. "This is the Cadillac of pens, etc." have become a fairly accepted phrase, even if Cadillac's for a long time weren't actually that good.

From the mid 70s until the mid 2000s, most Cadillac's were just bad. Cadillac built up its brand by being the second oldest car brand in North America, and thus has a lot of history to draw on. Most notably, Cadillac's name became synonymous with large, lazy, smooth V8 engines, comfortable suspension and interiors that felt like you were riding on a cloud. And they were gigantic. American excess was almost defined by the size of the Cadillac. A Cadillac Deville in the 70s was 225 inches long, which to put that in perspective, a 2019 Chevrolet Tahoe is 204 inches long!

Cadillac was able to ride this wave until the fuel crisis of 1973. Gas shortages, meant that you were trading in your almost 19 foot long DeVille with a 7+ liter V8 for something you could actually afford to keep running. Cadillac was fairly slow to react to the fuel crisis and new emissions standards didn't help either, with massive 7 & 8 liter V8s now producing less than 200hp in the late 70s, Cadillac was no longer the benchmark. In the 70s and 80s, a number of Japanese and Korean companies would start taking customers looking for smaller, more reliable, fuel efficient vehicles, while customers that still wanted luxury started looking to Germany.

The 80s were the advent of the modern luxury car as we know it today. Luxury took on a new meaning, in that it wasn't good enough for your car to feel like the couch at home and soak up a pothole. There had to be a satisfying solidity to the car, doors that sounded like you were closing a bank vault, materials that didn't feel cheap, an engine that made you want to drive, but also didn't make you file for bankruptcy at the gas station. Mercedes, Audi, & BMW fully capitalized on this, and became the de-facto luxury brands most people think of now.

Cadillac fussed around the 80s and 90s, continuing to produce large, slow cars that were bland and uninspired. Basically, if your grandparents were of normal means, they probably drove something like a Ford Crown Victoria/Lincoln Grand Marquis, and if they had some extra cash, they splashed some money to get something like the Cadillac DTS. In the late 90s, Cadillac and fellow GM brand Buick, suffered the same issue; They were brands for old people.

Cadillac DTS

There's only 1 reason that Cadillac still exists today, because without this, it wouldn't have survived at all. Escalade.The Escalade, at first a mild re-badge of a Tahoe with some nicer leather, proved to be a big hit. By the time the second generation rolled around in the early 2000s, the Escalade was in every Rap/R&B music video of the time, often accented with heavy modifications, much like the 60s Cadillac's had been.

1998 Cadillac Escalade

Cadillac has continued on, with the team at GM trying to figure out what Cadillac should be. Should it be dedicated to luxury cruisers and sedans? They launched the DTS replacing XTS to little fanfare, and now the CT6, poised to become the flagship model in 2019, we're being told is only going to run for one year. Should Cadillac be hip and eco conscious, like the Volt based ELR? As told earlier, they couldn't figure out correct market pricing, and that led to dealers marking them down 20K+ just to get them off the lot later on.

So, what about sporty? Cadillac could be sporty, right? In 2004 Cadillac launched the CTS, their first real strike at the BMW 3 Series. Then, they launched the V Series cars, their performance line. Cadillac has had some success with this, as the V series cars have genuinely been good to drive, the 2nd generation CTS-V had a 556hp supercharged V8 and held the world record at the Nurburgring in Germany for production sedans. The current CTS-V sports a monster 640hp V8, and the ATS has been praised as handling arguably better than the current BMW 3 Series, yet the BMW outsells the Cadillac more than 3:1. The Cadillac also falls behind the Mercedes C Class which outsells it 2:1, and the Audi A4 which outsells it by about 5-10%.

All of this is largely because these brands were busy cementing their brand identity in people's consciousness over the last 40 years. It also helps that BMW, Mercedes, and Audi have figured out how to balance sport and comfort to deliver luxury in a way that Cadillac still doesn't.

The interesting thing is that Cadillac doesn't actually suffer from a lack of creativity or design prowess like you might expect based on their decision making. Far from it, actually. Cadillac actually has produced some of the most stunning production worthy concepts in recent years, but none of them ever get green lit, even though those are the cars people are begging for.

The electric revolution is currently in process, and Cadillac needs to get it's act together and make it mean something. They have an opportunity now like no other to redefine their brand identity. They need to start delivering vehicles that have quality interiors and materials (No cheap plastic and gloss black trim!), start utilizing adaptive suspension tech better for a good balance between handling and comfort, get their technology up to snuff (seriously the cue infotainment and all the touch controls are an abomination to humanity), and use the electric platform for both performance and eco purposes. Finally, they need to charge less for it. Cadillac needs to realize, they're not on par with the other luxury marques, at least not yet.

Cadillac El Miraj Concept

Cadillac Ciel Concept

Cadillac Escala Concept

Finally, Cadillac needs a Halo car again. A car people look at an instantly lust over. If Cadillac were smart, they'd find a way to make the El Miraj concept electric. Throw in some proper, modern tech, quality materials & surfaces, and there you have your 200K showpiece.

After that happens, maybe the phrase "The Cadillac of..." will actually have some real meaning again.