William Joseph Communications

What Cadillac Can Teach Us about Positioning a Brand

Positioning is about reflecting what you offer, who you offer it to, and how it’s different from the competition. Stated simply, a brand’s position is the space it occupies in consumers’ minds. A strong position can be a powerful asset for a brand. Volvo is the safe car. BMW is the ultimate driving machine. Both positions have served those companies well. Cadillac has tried to position itself as many things over its history with varying levels of success: comfortable and luxurious, bold and sporty, and artful and advanced. Positioning is more than a single association with a simple concept though, it defines what a brand does, who it’s for, and what makes it different.

To position a brand is to control perceptions of it in the marketplace relative to the competition so that it owns a certain position in customers’ minds, whether it is a product, service, or company. A well-positioned brand will be one of the top ones a consumer calls to mind when she needs what that brand offers. There are many forms of positioning, such as positioning for a certain type of customer, positioning relative to the competition, or positioning in a certain category, but all should present the brand in a differentiating, compelling, and most importantly authentic manner.

If a brand’s performance is weak or worsening or its offering is changing, a company might try to reposition it to excel under current market conditions. Repositioning involves changing a brand’s distinct position relative to the competition. It differs from rebranding in that a rebrand is more of an aesthetic overhaul of a brand. With a rebrand, the positioning statement and foundation of the company could stay the same, but the name, logo, colours, taglines, messaging, and even customer experience might change. One need not necessarily rebrand to reposition.

Since 2014, Cadillac has been repositioning itself to better attract younger buyers who are expressive, entrepreneurial, and nonconformist. Cadillac, once the car of Sinatra and Dean Martin was becoming the car of anyone from that era still around to drive. Cadillac was stuck in the past and not speaking to the right audience. Bring in Uwe Ellinghaus, Cadillac’s new CMO. With a CV that includes Montblanc and BMW, Ellinghaus had the insight that no other automobile was aligning itself with the entrepreneurial, fashion-forward, art-focused, and food-obsessed people of America’s metropolitan cities.

Because Ellinghaus understands Cadillac’s customers, its business, and its current environment, he has been able to successfully reposition the cars for a new audience while remaining true to the brand. The old Cadillac was powerful and luxurious. It catered to every need of its drivers and their passengers.  The pinnacle of the automobile industry, it was associated with sophistication, distinction, and the highest quality. It was the Cadillac of cars. It was also distinctly American and bold in styling. Under Ellignhaus, Cadillac is a brave American icon, a car that isn’t afraid to push boundaries and is unapologetically daring in its styling. Cadillacs stand out, and Cadillacs are for people who are bold enough to stand out, not just in terms of image, but in terms of pursuits and accomplishments. According to Cadillac, “Our world burns brightest for those who fly highest. For those for whom the life worth living exists just beyond one’s limits, Cadillac is the co-conspirator in their irrepressible pursuit of life.”

The key to Ellinghaus’ success repositioning Cadillac is authenticity. Before him, the company made several unsuccessful attempts at repositioning itself. For example, best known for enormous, comfortable luxury vehicles, Cadillac once tried to be sporty and high-tech. That’s not Cadillac. Cadillac is bold and American, with its art deco styling, entrepreneurial history, and powerful engines. Its new positioning seeks to attract a new audience, but authentically. Cadillac today is still based on the same brand identity: Bold Passion (breakthrough originality), Optimism (the spirit of America), and Sophistication (the quest for the exceptional). Its cars are still luxurious, powerful, and audacious in design, only they aren’t just for your grandfather anymore. Cadillac’s new position and marketing advances all its differentiating attributes, but in a manner that’s more compelling to younger audiences.

Though early, Cadillac’s efforts are already proving effective. In 2016, Cadillac sold the most cars since 1986, with an 11.1% YOY increase. In December 2016, global sales for the month rose 15.5% over the year prior.

“It was a stunning year for Cadillac’s global growth in 2016. Drawing more customers than any year in the past 30 is an excellent springboard for the robust product offensive from Cadillac in the coming years. While growing the business significantly and attracting a youthful and affluent demographic, we continue to elevate the aspirational character of the brand.” –Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen

Repositioning isn’t as easy as changing a positioning statement. Cadillac has completely transformed its marketing and even its operations. The company moved its headquarters to New York; it now focuses more on an aspirational lifestyle than the car itself in advertisements; and, it aligns itself with art, food, and fashion by hosting and sponsoring events related to them, among other tactics. Even with successful marketing, repositioning a company can take years, even a decade or longer. Cadillac’s resurrection as a boldly American automobile is just starting.

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