Wahl, 56, an automotive veteran who also has spent time in the fast-food and homebuilding industries, will be charged with adapting to new norms as marketing and advertising dynamics continue to change throughout the industry.
Marketing extends far beyond traditional TV ads, as companies explore new ways to reach potential customers and harness more consumer data.
Throughout her career, Wahl said, she has been working with a model that tries to predict the likelihood a certain type of customer will buy a product. Today, with the necessary technology and platforms, "we can actually act on that," Wahl said in an interview last week before her promotion. "It's changed the way we think about content, how we serve messages."
Wahl became chief marketing officer for Cadillac in 2018, after three years as the marketing boss of McDonald's USA. She was chief marketing officer of Chrysler in 2007-08 and previously held marketing positions with Lexus, Toyota and Lincoln-Mercury.
Wahl has one of the best resumes in the automotive marketing community, said a marketing consultant who asked not to be identified because he works with GM's competitors.
"GM has a real need for sharpening up their marketing and raising that game. She can solve some of those problems," the consultant said. "I really expect a lot from her. She has a great challenge of having a big voice in that company."
GM's last global chief marketing officer was Joel Ewanick, who was fired by then-CEO Dan Akerson in July 2012 over a costly Chevrolet sponsorship deal with the Manchester United soccer team. Chevy Chief Marketing Officer Tim Mahoney, who retired March 1, oversaw much of the company's marketing duties after Ewanick's departure.
After being out of the auto industry for a decade, Wahl said she found a changed culture upon her arrival at GM last year.
"The focus on innovation and transformation is palpable here," she told Automotive News. "And it's really lived and breathed by the leadership. I think the whole culture — certainly for women — and the opportunities here are incredible."
With Wahl's promotion, three of GM's top executive seats are filled by women: Mary Barra as CEO, Wahl as chief marketing officer and Dhivya Suryadevara as CFO. With Joy Falotico serving as chief marketing officer of Ford Motor Co. since March 2018, two of the Detroit 3 now have female marketing chiefs.
Wahl's promotion was one of several executive moves by Barra last week, including putting GM Canada President Travis Hester into a newly created role of vice president of customer experience. Wahl will report to Barry Engle, GM's president of the Americas. Melissa Grady, director of Cadillac media and performance marketing since September, will succeed her as the brand's CMO.
"By aligning marketing across GM under Deborah's leadership, we will build stronger brands while ensuring more effective, efficient and agile customer engagement," Barra said in a memo to GM employees.
A leader to oversee the marketing strategies of all four brands could improve awareness of and customer consideration for each brand, Brinley said. Everyone knows Chevy, for example, but GM has to figure out how to make the new Chevy models stand out.
"If you've got somebody at the top who can kind of see where this is going and keep the guardrails wherever it is they need to be, you still have the ability to respond," she said. "You have four really strong brands that need to find a way to stand out."
At Cadillac, Wahl pivoted from the series of dramatic and contemplative "Dare Greatly" ads, which debuted in 2015, to a more lighthearted tone for the XT4 and XT6 crossovers.
Considering the core and foundation of a brand is the key to making an impact, she said.
"When you understand that how that translates today, that usually finds success, especially with brands of such longevity as Cadillac has," she told Automotive News. "We really refocused from 'Dare Greatly' to letting Cadillac be Cadillac, sort of getting back to our core, who we are, what makes us different."
Cadillac has always been about earners and high achievers, she said. "We're really defining that, and there's an enormous energy and grit and tenacity about that that we didn't feel was being reflected."
The XT4 ad also helped bring the share of female buyers of the compact crossover up to 49 percent, 9 points above the luxury average, Wahl said. "We're seeing things like that that are really important."