DETROIT -- Cadillac has touted its cars as having the performance cred to take on German luxury makes -- occasionally even calling out BMW in its advertisements. But Uwe Ellinghaus wants to convey a new message: how Cadillac is different from those brands.
Ellinghaus, the 44-year-old former BMW marketing executive who became Cadillac's global marketing chief last month, says BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi have become "ubiquitous" and "mainstream," aping one another's design and product features. That leaves an opening for Cadillac to define "American luxury" for buyers who are pining for something new, he says.
"None of the German premium manufacturers can any longer afford to offer cars with distinctive styling," Ellinghaus told Automotive News. "Their volume aspirations are such that they must go mainstream with their major cars."
Meanwhile, "tiny little Cadillac has a higher degree of freedom," he said. "We can be a little bolder, a little more distinctive. We have something they do not have."
Not on the list
Ellinghaus' new Cadillac post here is his first U.S. assignment after nearly 15 years at BMW, mostly working on brand strategy at BMW headquarters in Munich.
It didn't take him long to zero in on an oft-cited problem: Despite awards and critical praise for cars that many critics put on a par with BMW and Mercedes, Cadillac still is not turning the heads of shoppers who think German luxury first.
The redesigned 2014 CTS mid-sized sedan won Motor Trend's Car of the Year award and is "more BMW than BMW itself," Consumer Reports declared. Car reviewers heaped similar praise on the ATS compact sedan, which was launched in the fall of 2012.
Yet during the fourth quarter of 2013, just 4 percent of consumers who searched Edmunds.com for a BMW 3 series also kicked the digital tires on an ATS -- not even in the top 10 of vehicles cross-shopped against the 3 series, according to data provided to Automotive News. Meanwhile, 13 percent of ATS shoppers also looked at the 3 series, which was No. 2 on the ATS' cross-shopping list.
Ellinghaus acknowledges that performance alone won't elevate Cadillac to its growth aspirations, which include at least a 10 percent U.S. sales increase this year and a tripling of sales in China by 2015, to more than 100,000 units.
"I think people tend to say, 'I like Cadillac's cars and I know that they are better than ever,'" Ellinghaus said. " 'But will it send the right signal to my peers if I'm seen driving in one?' This driver imagery is an important consideration."
Jim Sanfilippo, an independent marketing consultant and former executive at ad agencies for Ford and Hyundai, buys into Ellinghaus' notion that plenty of luxury customers are ready to try something new. He points to the growing number of Teslas prowling the roads around his office near Anaheim, Calif.
"But it will require Cadillac to convey a message that's authentic and gives a very clear definition of exactly who they are," Sanfilippo says. "Right now consumers have to walk past BMW and Mercedes and Audi and sometimes Lexus and Infiniti before they get to Cadillac. That's a long walk."
Design as a differentiator
Ellinghaus sees Cadillac's bold exterior styling and tailored interiors as a key differentiator. The so-called art and science design language, born 15 years ago, has morphed from its hard lines and sharp angles to incorporate more creases and subtle surfacing, but with even more-exaggerated vertical headlights and taillights.
Andrew Smith, executive director of global design for Cadillac and Buick, says Cadillac's styling is "evolving and maturing" from the flashiness of a few years ago, as seen on the hard-edged CTS coupe. "The cars have this confidence to them," he told Automotive News. "That's because a Cadillac buyer is confident and individual."
Cadillac has been playing up the idea of American luxury in recent commercials. A CTS spot from advertising agency Rogue equates the performance sedan with other breakthroughs "started in an American garage," including the Wright brothers' airplane and punk-rock band The Ramones.
Howard Drake, owner of Casa de Cadillac in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and chairman of the Cadillac National Dealer Council, calls Ellinghaus "a high-energy guy that cranks out ideas."
"Cadillac is still searching for the right marketing and go-to-market strategies to fully leverage our new products," he says. "Uwe is a big piece of that."
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org