If you've ever been on Facebook, then you've likely fallen into one of those occasional black holes of online conversation where a post generates scores, if not hundreds, of competing comments that spins off in a dozen directions. This past weekend, one such vortex managed to swallow a good portion of the U.S. automotive media — all because a young executive dared to question some conventional wisdom about why people buy Cadillacs.
The talk began with this interview by Fortune of Melody Lee, a 33-year-old marketer hired as Cadillac's brand manager. Attracting more people Lee's age to buy Cadillacs will be her major challenge; the average Cadillac buyer is 59.5 years old, a full decade beyond the average Audi or Infiniti owner. She notes that she often finds herself in meeting to be not only the only woman in the room, but the youngest person there, and that changing the "old boy's club" mentality of the industry will be needed to get people thinking differently about Cadillac:
“I don’t buy products, I buy brands,” explained Lee. “I don’t use Apple computers because they are the best computers, I use them because Apple is cool. We need to show drivers what the Cadillac lifestyle is all about.”
And then the ruckus began.
In any other industry — and in relation to most other automakers — nothing said in this interview would have made a ripple. To understand the allergic reaction, you have to know, or worse, have lived through the recent history of General Motors, which saw its decline sped in the 1990s by the arrival of a marketing chieftain named Ronald Zarrella. Zarrella took over GM’s marketing in 1994, and eventually was directed by GM’s board to oversee its entire North American business due to his experience selling contact-lens products.
Zarrella data-driven approach put vehicle design last on corporate priorities throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. The result was catchy commercials for vehicles like the 1997 Chevy Malibu which spent much of their lives at rental counters:
So when someone comes into GM — and Cadillac specifically, a brand that enjoys a home-field, sentimental advantage among American car publications — echoing Zarrella-esque wisdom about the powers of persuasion over performance, many car writers clutch just a little tighter at their glowing Hobbit swords.
What’s really impressive was the sheer number and breadth of media that jumped in: within 24 hours the list included the editors of Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Jalopnik (current and former) and even yours truly. I’d say the majority echoed freelance writer John Pearley Huffman’s original take — “Doomed. Doomed. Doomed.” — with the rest saying Lee and Cadillac deserved a chance to succeed. And things got a little tetchy when a few noticed that the demographics of the critics reflected the kind of meetings Melody Lee was trying to overcome.
Eventually, new Cadillac chief Johan de Nysschen showed up fresh from the pharmacy with a bucket full of chill pills:
And he has a point. After all, that “brand” was strong enough for dozens of smart people to offer free advice — earnest, heartfelt words! — to a $150 billion corporation, as if it were a glum teen-ager losing another Saturday night to the fry line.
I could start another debate about how fussing over Cadillac’s marketing is just a proxy for worrying over the relevancy of automotive enthusiasm in general; if the product doesn’t matter much, perhaps we don’t either. But it’s not my punchbowl to take away. My comment was that the Cadillac brand needed all hands and fresh ideas to get out of GM’s shadow, a task that has no equal at any luxury competitor. Were I a young marketing exec trying to fix Detroit, I’d craft a Powerpoint deck full of data and wisdom showing why the first order of business should be killing the General Motors name altogether.
And then maybe we'd hash it all out on Facebook. Like the kids do.