Sunday, June 21, 2009
In December 1996 General Motors Corporation (GM) became the first major automaker in almost 80 years to market an electric car, dubbed the EV1. The car’s debut came just months after the California Air Resources Board had reluctantly decided to postpone a mandate requiring that 2 percent of cars sold in the state by 1998 be powered by electricity. Regulators agreed to change the mandate to 10 percent by 2003, but only if automakers began voluntarily introducing electric cars. With the EV1, GM effectively shifted the discussion about electric cars from the fringe to the mainstream. By most accounts, the car was a technological marvel. Its sporty aerodynamic design, which included an allaluminum frame, magnesium seats, and low-resistance tires, earned GM engineers 23 patents. But while the introduction of the EV1 was undeniably a watershed event, there were obstacles to the car’s success. It could travel just 80 to 90 miles before needing to be recharged, which took about three hours. The price was high, with lease payments coming to about $480 a month after various federal, state, and local tax incentives. And since there were only a handful of public charging sites, drivers would need to lease a charging unit for their garages or workplaces for another $50 a month.
Thanks to a steady stream of media coverage, there was pent-up curiosity about the EV1 when it became available on December 5, 1996. The $10 million advertising campaign developed by Hal Riney & Partners of San Francisco added to the mystique of the EV1. The campaign did not delve into the intricacies of the car’s technology but instead was aimed at building awareness and excitement about the fact that an electric car was available and that GM was behind it. While the target market for the EV1 was expected to be affluent people with an interest in technology and the environment, the early stage of the campaign was aimed at reaching a broader, more general audience. Teaser billboards and newspaper ads inaugurated the campaign, which was kicked off in full force on December 5, 1996, with the broadcast of a $1.5 million television commercial that featured an endearingly lifelike brigade of home appliances.
During the 1990s California earned the dubious distinction of having the dirtiest air in the nation. Car and truck exhaust could be blamed for at least half of the state’s air pollution, which spurred regulators to create a mandate for electric-powered vehicles. Similar clean-air mandates were in the works in other states, such as New York and Massachusetts that were also alarmed by worsening air quality. The laws that were passed varied, but in general they required automakers to begin offering vehicles that met the ultra-low-emissions-vehicle (ULEV) standard or the zero-emissions-vehicle (ZEV) standard. The mandates were controversial. The principal question was whether states should mandate production of the cars and hope that consumers and ample public charging stations followed or if consumer demand should determine how many electric cars automakers built. GM’s research suggested that consumers were receptive to electric cars, even if it meant sacrificing some of the conveniences they enjoyed with gas-powered automobiles. The lack of a public infrastructure was worrisome but not insurmountable to GM. In southern California, for example, utility companies had already begun installing charging sites in locations such as shopping centers, restaurants, hospitals, theaters, and public parking structures. By being the first to bring a car to market, GM would be able to stake a claim to technological leadership going into the next century.
Many in the industry believed that the EV1 and other electric cars could legitimize a new approach to transportation that would dramatically lessen air pollution. John Dunlap III, the chairman of the California Air Resources Board, was enthusiastic about the EV1: ‘‘This has the potential of being a revolutionary step.’’ Others, however, worried that if the EV1 failed it could set back development of alternative-fuel vehicles for years to come.
Not surprisingly, GM selected California as a launch state for the EV1. Arizona, the other launch state, also made sense, for its warm climate allowed for optimal performance of the car’s battery. A key marketing decision was made that, while the car would carry the GM badge, it would be leased through the Saturn Corporation subsidiary. The two-seater EV1 seemed to be a good fit with Saturn’s young, environmentally conscious buyers. Moreover, by offering the EV1 at Saturn dealerships, where 73 percent of sales were to people whose second choice was not a GM vehicle, GM saw an opportunity to reach import-loyal customers. Oddly enough, marketing the EV1 was as much about determining who should not drive it as who should. GM was quick to point out that the EV1 was not right for everyone. Joseph Kennedy, the Saturn vice president for marketing, told Popular Science, ‘‘Because the EV1 is a two-seat vehicle and does not have the longdistance range [of] 200 miles or 300 miles, it will play a role in the owner’s portfolio of vehicles.’’ He explained that the EV1 was not a primary household vehicle that could fulfill all driving needs but one appropriate for ‘‘shorter, quicker uses around town.’’
The groundwork for introducing the EV1 was laid in 1994, when GM’s PrEview Drive Program gave people in 12 cities the chance to drive a prototype model for two weeks. ‘‘We saw that it wasn’t going to be an ordinary buyer,’’ Necole Merritt, manager of corporate communications for Saturn, observed. ‘‘It was someone attuned to innovation, the kind of person who bought the first cell phone or first computer.’’ The PrEview Drive Program and other research suggested that potential drivers would be affluent college graduates, usually white, middle-aged men who were leaders in their fields. They were expected to be 35 to 54 years old, with an annual family income of more than $125,000 and a high interest in technology and the environment. Frank Pereira, GM’s EV1 brand manager, noted that the car ‘‘really speaks to those who have a desire to be in the forefront of directing the evolution of technology.’’ Once the vehicle was in the Saturn retail facilities, sales consultants narrowed the target market even further. Each facility had a consultant trained in EV1 technology who screened customers to be sure that an electric vehicle was appropriate for their needs. Next, would-be customers made an appointment with an electric vehicle marketing specialist who spent up to 12 hours making certain that their driving habits and expectations were a good fit with the EV1. ‘‘It’s important they convey to customers what this car can and cannot do,’’ explained Donald Young, Saturn’s representative for the EV1 program. ‘‘We don’t want to sell it to someone who drives 60 miles to work each way.’’ The specialists also coordinated a home and garage inspection to determine how to install the EV1’s charging unit.
In 1996 a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote that, ‘‘while other major auto makers have held their electric vehicle cards close to the vest, GM has been center stage.’’ Every major automaker, however, was under the same clean-air mandate, and they all kept watchful eyes on the public’s reaction to the EV1. What they observed was a market, albeit a small one, emerging. Other automakers followed on GM’s heels. Toyota produced an electric version of its RAV4sport utility vehicle, but for government or company fleet leasing only. In 1997 Ford produced an electric vehicle for fleet use. Ford, however, seemed to be taking a different approach from GM, with its efforts directed at creating alternative-fuel vehicles that would meet ULEV standards. Consumers’ Research Magazine reported that Ford offered the best range of ‘‘street-worthy’’ alternative-fuel vehicles, including the electric Ranger pickup truck, a Taurus sedan that ran on methanol and ethanol, and several other sedans that ran on compressed natural gas. In May 1997 Honda presented the most formidable challenge to GM’s electric car yet when it introduced its EV Plus, which boasted a longer-life nickel-metal hybrid battery and a greater driving range. Advertising for the EV1, however, did not address any of the emerging competitors. For the time being there was plenty of room for all electric carmakers on the playing field.
To build public awareness of the EV1’s introduction, GM hired Hal Riney & Partners, the same marketing and communications partner that had created Saturn’s award-winning advertising. Teaser billboards in Los Angeles and San Diego were the first element of the campaign to be unveiled. The billboards displayed a lightning bolt and the words ‘‘You can’t hear it coming, but it is.’’ The day the cars went on sale, new billboard ads went up with a photograph of the EV1 and the words ‘‘The electric car is here.’’
The campaign’s centerpiece was a 90-second television commercial that showed animated household appliances greeting the battery-powered EV1. Its eyecatching special effects were created by Industrial Light and Magic, a studio started by Star Wars creator George Lucas. The commercial began with a thunderstorm that knocked the electricity out in a home. When the power came back on, the appliances sprang to life. They unplugged themselves and waddled out the door to watch as the EV1 approached on the street. ‘‘It’s intended as a celebration of the arrival of the electric vehicle,’’ explained Saturn’s Kennedy. Both 30- and 60-second versions of the commercial also aired for 12 weeks in late 1996 and early 1997.
Newspaper ads during the introductory campaign tried to show consumers what a dramatic departure the EV1 was from gasoline-powered cars. For instance, a two-page ad in the Los Angeles Times depicted reeds blowing in the wind as the car drove by. It read, ‘‘There is no noise. No pistons. No valves or exhaust. Just the whir of an AC motor. And the wind. And your thoughts, of course. As you drive the electric car.’’ Because the automobile was available only in limited markets, the heaviest concentration of newspaper advertising was regional. Newspapers ads appeared in the California edition of the Wall Street Journal and in the Los Angeles Times, Arizona Republic, and Phoenix Gazette. Magazine advertising during the introductory period was placed to reach leaders in technology and innovation. The media plan included such periodicals as Business Week, Inc., Scientific American, Wired, and American Benefactor. Magazine ads had the same thoughtful, laid-back approach as the newspaper ads. One ad, for instance, showed the blur of the car on a stretch of highway and read, ‘‘You will never again use the words ‘fill’er up.’ Or ‘check the oil.’ Never utter the need for a tune-up. Or a smog check. Nope. You will simply say, ‘Unplug the car and let’s go.’ When you drive the electric car.’’ Following the 12-week introductory campaign, the marketing efforts for the EV1 shifted into a lower gear. The remainder of the advertising budget went primarily into direct-mail pieces and a handful of ads in magazines favored by technology buffs.
Time magazine’s Margot Hornblower criticized the marketing approach used for the EV1. Describing a billboard that showed a single headlight in the darkness and the words ‘‘Electrohydraulic power steering, digital clock, EV1,’’ Hornblower wrote, ‘‘The low-key print campaign has been so esoteric as to be nearly incomprehensible.’’ This subtle approach also was frustrating to members of the EV1 Owners Club, who felt that the car’s features should be spelled out more clearly in order to lure potential drivers. In fact, Marvin Rush, cofounder of the club, purchased airtime on KFI in Los Angeles with his own money and ran unauthorized spots for four weeks in early 1998. Rush told the Los Angeles Times that EV1 owners ‘‘consider ourselves evangelists. We’re trying to get GM to change its advertising.’’ In the end GM’s lawyers reviewed the radio ads for misstatements, found none, and opted to let the renegade campaign run its course. ‘‘They’re actually pretty good,’’ EV1 brand manager Frank Periera confessed to the Los Angeles Times.
The EV1 advertising campaign received critical kudos. Bob Garfield, a reviewer for Advertising Age, wrote that the television commercial used ‘‘eye-popping digital effects to communicate the revolutionary significance, the drama and the exciting implications of this introduction.’’ He added, ‘‘The march of the electronivores! It’s a wonderful concept, wonderfully realized. Even the unplugged among us will not be able not to stare at the futuristic vehicle Californians and Arizonans can buy right now.’’ A print ad for the EV1 took home the prized $100,000 cash Kelly Award for best magazine advertising as well as nonmonetary Kelly Awards for meeting the campaign’s objective and for design and graphics.
While the EV1 got rave reviews for its advertising, the car itself had no shortage of critics. Automotive analyst Christopher Cedergen told CBS News, ‘‘Overall, the electric car concept is premature. The technology really isn’t there yet.’’ Richard de Neufville, professor of transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was quoted in Time magazine as saying, ‘‘They gave a party, and nobody came.’’ GM declined to make sales projections when the EV1 rolled out, but industry sources speculated that fewer than 2,000 would be leased in the first year. That figure proved to be optimistic, for only 300 EV1s were actually leased. Some speculated that the advertising had missed the mark by failing to link the EV1 with Saturn dealerships. Joe Ricciardi, who led GM’s EV1 effort in Arizona, acknowledged in the Arizona Republic that ‘‘there are a lot of people who don’t know it [the electric car] is out there and don’t know where to find it.’’ To some the EV1 was most remarkable in its role as a stepping-stone to other clean-air transportation solutions.
Phil Hodgetts, president of the Electric Vehicles
Association of Southern California, said in the Los Angeles Times, ‘‘The biggest advantage of the EV1 has been to excite public interest in cars that will be nonpolluting, in pure electric vehicles running on batteries. I think it’s the start of something big.’’ GM executives contended all along that the goal of the EV1 was to build a market for alternative-fuel vehicles and that sales volume was less important than giving early drivers a good experience. Despite tepid leasing numbers in 1997, GM’s commitment to the EV1 remained firm going into 1998. The car was introduced in the metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Sacramento, the advertising budget was increased from $10 million to $15 million, and GM stepped up efforts to create an infrastructure by committing $750,000 for the development of public charging sites in the car’s markets.
While the basic approach remained the same, advertising leading into 1998 introduced a welcome touch of humor to the sometimes awestruck tone of the 1997 campaign. A few print ads even cleverly capitalized on the public’s dubiousness. An ad that ran in newspapers in northern California, for example, showed an overhead view of the EV1 and stated, ‘‘All the skepticism in the world can’t stop it. The electric car is here.’’
Although ownership of a Cadillac was for decades widely considered a part of the ‘‘American Dream,’’ Cadillac Motor, a division of General Motors, saw its share of the luxury-car market begin to decline in the 1990s. The company also saw the rise of a new subcategory in the luxury-car field, the entry-level luxury car (or ‘‘entry-lux’’), exemplified by new models such as the Lexus and new, lower-priced Mercedes models. Cadillac responded to these trends by taking a risk in 1997 with a new entry-lux model, the Catera. The sporty, comparatively affordable Catera was unlike anything Cadillac had ever sold before. It was also the first Cadillac made entirely overseas (in Germany). To launch this groundbreaking new model, Cadillac implemented a marketing campaign unlike any it had done before, calling the Catera ‘‘The Caddy that Zigs.’’ The campaign—which included a variety of television and print advertisements—used humor and clever copy to communicate to car buyers that the Catera was a whole new kind of Cadillac. The campaign even used a quirky red cartoon duck as a prominent symbol, another move that broke with the more staid marketing usually associated with Cadillac.
The campaign received harsh criticism from media and auto-industry critics. Surveys also showed the public had a mixed reaction to the campaign (especially the duck). But Cadillac executives were pleased with the sales figures for Catera’s first year, and they reported that the campaign overall had made a positive impression on the public’s traditional perceptions of the car maker.
Since its early days Cadillac was a company that specialized in luxury cars. Eventually car buyers identified the Cadillac name as synonymous with American luxury cars (‘‘Cadillac’’ even appears in some dictionaries with the definition ‘‘luxurious’’). Marketing campaigns emphasized the car maker’s tradition and quality and were aimed at an older, wealthy, male demographic. But the emergence of luxury cars from foreign manufacturers made a dent in Cadillac’s market share. Competitors like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Lexus gradually eroded Cadillac’s long-time dominance of the luxury field: from 1990 to 1996 Cadillac’s share of the luxury-car market plunged dramatically from 22.2 percent to 14.8 percent.
One of the reasons for the drop was that other car makers were building the popular entry-lux vehicles. Traditional luxury vehicles controlled 52 percent of the overall luxury market in 1991 but only 34 percent four years later. During the same time period, the market for entry-lux cars grew from 25 to 39 percent.
The typical buyer of a Cadillac automobile was male, in his late 50s or 60s, affluent, and usually but not always college-educated. David Nottoli, Cadillac’s Catera brand manager for 1997, said the Catera campaign sought a different market. ‘‘We were looking at the 45–50 age bracket,’’ he said. In addition to this narrow market, Cadillac wanted to expand on its traditional customer base by pursuing more female customers. The car maker was hoping 50 percent of Catera customers would be women. In addition, Cadillac hoped to draw an audience that was almost 100 percent college-educated. Nottoli added that non-General Motors customers were also targeted by the Catera campaign.
According to the Catera Brand Book for Cadillac dealers, ‘‘The target buyer for this car is young enough to be the son (or, just as likely, daughter) of people currently driving DeVilles [a larger, older Cadillac model]. Their definition of luxury bears no resemblance to their parents’ generation. For them . . . BMWs, Volvos, and Infinitis say more than Cadillacs and Lincolns. When it comes to luxury, Cadillac is status quo. And these buyers don’t want status quo.’’
By 1997 Cadillac was increasingly concerned about its decreasing market share as well as the growing popularity of entry-lux autos. The buyers in this new market tended to be younger, more performance-conscious, and more open to automobiles built overseas such as Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. Cadillac executives’ attention was especially drawn to the cases of two competitors’ vehicles launched in the 1990s: The Lexus ES 300, which sold 39,367 units in its first year (1992); and the Mercedes-Benz C class, which sold 23,793 units in its launch year (1994). Cadillac’s Nottoli noted that these cars were introduced with essentially the same marketing strategies traditionally used for upscale automobiles. Television and print ads were geared for an affluent audience, with dignified shots of cars rolling along country roads or displayed in luxurious settings. Cadillac knew it had to pursue a different style of marketing campaign for its Catera, as it wanted to make a major impact in the competitive entry-lux market.
To launch its ambitious Catera campaign Cadillac worked closely with its national advertising agency, the Bloomfield, Michigan, office of the international firm D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (DMB&B). The car maker spent an estimated $40 million on the campaign. According to Nottoli, Cadillac knew most car buyers saw the company as the manufacturer of serious, luxury automobiles. To challenge this perception, Cadillac wanted to emphasize a lighter side in the Catera campaign. ‘‘We tried to focus on fun,’’ he said.
They started with the campaign’s slogan, ‘‘The Caddy that Zigs.’’ Although auto enthusiasts and Cadillac owners had long called the cars by the ‘‘Caddy’’ abbreviation, the company had never used the shortened term in any advertisement before the Catera. This simple break with tradition was an important one for Cadillac, as the company wanted to emphasize that the Catera was different from any car the maker had produced before. When Cadillac and DMB&B faced the issue of which symbol or spokesperson to use for the campaign, they turned to the family crest of the founder of Cadillac (the crest is on each automobile made by the company). That crest featured six ducks—actually mythical birds called merlettes that are similar to ducks. In the crest all six ducks face left. Cadillac officials decided to play off the crest—a symbol rooted in years of family and company tradition—for its Catera ‘‘spokesperson.’’ Cadillac and DMB&B creative teams decided to turn one of the ducks in the crest to the right. The idea was that the duck ‘‘zigged’’ away from Cadillac tradition, just like the Catera. Thus the slogan ‘‘The Caddy that Zigs’’ was born. The use of a cartoon duck—red, no less—was meant to emphasize fun and irreverence, Nottoli said. Cadillac knew the use of a cartoon animal to promote a luxury car was not without its risks, but the company also knew it had to take chances to reach its younger target market. ‘‘The goal of the duck was to show how luxury and fun could come together,’’ Nottoli said. ‘‘It was representative of a whole attitude.’’
The 1997 Catera campaign got off the ground in January with a spot in a prime advertising location: the Super Bowl. The Catera spot, featuring the red duck and model Cindy Crawford, generated quite a bit of attention—not all positive—for the car maker. Several more television spots followed, all emphasizing the duck and a younger, irreverent attitude. One full-page magazine advertisement played on this attitude with a paean to ‘‘duck logic’’: ‘‘Ducks think differently than you and me. They would never forget a birthday. They have never sponsored a negative political ad. They avoid talk shows like the plague. They dance in the rain and take great pains not to walk around the puddles.’’ Ads later in the year noted the performance features of the car. One 30-second television spot was set on a curving, mountain road. The Catera drove along with two competing entrylux cars following. The voiceover announced, ‘‘You follow the leader. You follow the pack. Then you get a Catera. Suddenly, you don’t follow anything.’’ The background music was upbeat techno-pop, and the spot closed with the ‘‘Caddy that Zigs’’ slogan and the duck. In a unique promotional move, Cadillac displayed Cateras at an Atlanta mall for five weeks in January and February 1997. Cadillac-trained specialists were on hand to answer questions about the cars, and special kiosks were set up for curious shoppers. The idea was to expose the Catera to the public in an environment not traditionally associated with automobiles, with the goal of interesting consumers who might not normally consider buying a Cadillac in test driving a Catera. Figures showed about 70,000 people visited the mall display. Other innovative direct marketing techniques were employed. One Cadillac dealer took Cateras to golf and tennis tournaments, events populated by affluent, younger car buyers. The same dealer also used Cateras to taxi people to and from National Symphony Orchestra performances. In another unique move, a six-page foldout ad, which ran in fashion magazines, tied the Catera’s styling to the work of trendy fashion designers.
There were strong, divergent views on how successful the 1997 Catera campaign was. For Nottoli, the campaign was a winner for bottom-line reasons: the Catera sold well in its launch year. ‘‘In the end you judge the outcome based on results,’’ Nottoli said. Those results included the sale of 25,411 Cateras in the vehicle’s first year, surpassing Cadillac’s sales goal of 25,000. But Nottoli remarked that sales figures were not the only measure of success for the Catera campaign. He noted that the age of the typical Catera buyer—a factor that had been a crucial part of the marketing strategy—was lower than that of other Cadillac buyers. While Cadillac and industry experts differed on what the median Caterabuyer age was (while Cadillac claimed the median age was 52 years old, 13 years younger than the median age for traditional Cadillac buyers, auto industry observers claimed the age was closer to 58), Nottoli said the undeniable fact was that the car was bought by younger consumers.
The gender makeup of Catera buyers was also promising, Nottoli said. About 51 percent of Catera buyers were male, which was right on target for Cadillac’s goal of having an equal number of female and male buyers. This gender equity was much different from the typical Cadillac customer base, and Nottoli said the Catera marketing campaign played a big part in drawing female customers.
In addition, Nottoli said the Catera was successful as a ‘‘conquest vehicle,’’ an auto industry term for a car that brings in buyers who had previously not purchased a vehicle from that brand. In the case of the Catera, the campaign helped draw non-General Motors buyers into the Cadillac showrooms, another of the campaign’s key goals.
While Nottoli considered the 1997 Catera campaign a success, he acknowledged problems, most notably the red duck. While Cadillac originally adopted the duck as a spokes-symbol to emphasize fun and irreverence, the cartoon character soon began receiving too much attention. ‘‘We couldn’t get people off the duck,’’ Nottoli said. ‘‘People took it too far. They had a love-hate relationship with the duck.’’
Criticism of the Catera campaign was consistent and strong. From the beginning of the campaign, viewers were critical of the use of the duck. They also questioned whether the target market would accept a Cadillac. USA Today’s fourth annual survey of advertising agency creative directors reported it as one of the worst campaigns of 1997, writing, ‘‘More than a third of the panelists name Catera as their first choice for 1997’s worst ad. Cadillac wants to attract younger viewers to its $30,000 car, but ad executives say it was a mistake to link a luxury brand in a commercial with a wise-cracking cartoon duck.’’ In addition, USA Today’s Ad Track survey reported that only 9 percent of consumers surveyed liked the Catera duck (below the 22 percent average) and only 11 percent found the ad campaign very effective (compared to a 25 percent average).
Cadillac dealers were also critical of the campaign, complaining that the Catera campaign focused too much on fun and not enough on the car’s features. ‘‘We don’t need a quack as our spokesman,’’ Jacques J. Moore, president of a Cadillac dealership, told the Washington Post. ‘‘The Catera is a heck of a good car, an excellent car. We need an advertising campaign that sticks to the merits of the car, that emphasizes the quality of the Cadillac name.’’
Nottoli responded by saying that Cadillac was aware of the campaign’s weaknesses. He added that his one regret was the campaign was a little too ‘‘silly’’ and not sophisticated enough. But, he added, ‘‘We took a risk. I’m glad we did.’’
Nottoli said focus groups conducted by Cadillac showed solid awareness of the Catera, but that awareness did not necessarily bring buyers to the point where they bought the car. He added that many focus group participants did not consider the Catera a Cadillac; they considered it to be a different car altogether. Cadillac owners also did not consider the Catera a ‘‘real’’ Cadillac, but rather a ‘‘little Cadillac,’’ he said.
Nottoli said this was part of the ‘‘Cadillac baggage’’ the Catera marketing campaign fought to overcome. Cadillac’s traditional image as a maker of big luxury cars for older people played a big part in the acceptance of the ‘‘Caddy that Zigs’’ message. ‘‘We didn’t start with a clean slate,’’ Nottoli said. ‘‘The Cadillac baggage hurt us.’’ In 1998 Catera advertising downplayed the duck and emphasized the car’s performance features. The duck only appeared at the end of ads as an icon. Catera sales for 1998 were up considerably over sales in 1997, and the age of Catera buyers continued to decrease, Nottoli said, demonstrating the effectiveness of the ‘‘Caddy that Zigs’’ campaign.
Cadillac, a division of Detroit-based auto giant General Motors Corporation (GM), had long been GM’s luxury division, offering higher-priced, roomier vehicles. The brand had been in trouble for several years, however, and saw sales tumble almost 10 percent between 2000 and 2001. One of the primary culprits was Cadillac’s aging customer base. By the early 2000s the average age of Cadillac buyers was 65 years old. Younger drivers tended to prefer European and Japanese luxury automobiles such as BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus. To help reach younger consumers, Cadillac developed the CTS, a sedan that was priced as an ‘‘entry’’ luxury car, along the lines of the BMW 3 Series.
Cadillac earmarked nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for a new campaign, which was implemented by advertising agency D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. Titled ‘‘Break Through,’’ the campaign revolved around a television spot that premiered at the 2002 Super Bowl. The commercial first invoked the brand’s post–World War II heyday by showing a young professional driving a 1959 Cadillac. The commercial really kicked into gear with the arrival of the new CTS, which passed the 1959 vehicle on the open road while Led Zeppelin’s ‘‘Rock n’ Roll’’ played in the background. Led Zeppelin was one of the most successful rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, and Cadillac believed that the band’s iconic status and hard-rock sound offered the right combination of nostalgia and edge.
Representing a major achievement for the campaign, the average CTS buyer was 55 years old. Cadillac expanded the ‘‘Break Through’’ campaign for several years, making it a division-wide affair. It became a key component in the company’s efforts to revitalize itself.
Cadillac rose from the remains of the Henry Ford Company. After Ford left the company, his former partners decided to continue in the automobile business. In 1902 they formed the Cadillac Automobile Company. The organization took its name from Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of the company’s home city of Detroit. In 1909 Cadillac was purchased by General Motors. As the twentieth century progressed, GM grew to become the largest automaker in the world. Cadillac developed into GM’s luxury brand. The vehicle never sold well outside the United States, but within the country Cadillac became synonymous with quality and luxury. By the early 2000s, however, the brand was under pressure from European and Japanese luxury brands such as Lexus and BMW. Between 2000 and 2001 the company’s sales dropped about 9 percent, bringing to 40 percent the sales slide that had been going on since the mid-1980s.
As Cadillac’s customer base aged, the brand began to get a reputation as an ‘‘older’’ company aligned with establishmentarian attitudes. In fact, by 2001 the average Cadillac buyer was 65 years old. This presented a problem for GM because the division’s future depended on attracting baby boomers—people who were in their 40s and 50s in 2001. The company also had trouble getting women to purchase its vehicles. In an effort to reach out to younger drivers, for model year 2003 Cadillac replaced its sagging Catera model with the CTS, which was designed to be sleeker and flashier than the Catera. The CTS operated on a 5-speed transmission, reminiscent of that used in BMWs, and it used a 220-horsepower V-6 engine, which provided a smooth ride. It also offered OnStar, a computerized guidance system.
The new CTS was positioned as an entry-level luxury car for drivers who tended to be well established in their careers. It was intended for professionals and other consumers who were interested in a roomier, more luxurious ride but who were put off by the price of such Cadillac mainstays as the Seville, a midsize luxury vehicle that would soon be phased out in favor of the STS. Cadillac hoped to attract a younger audience for the CTS: baby boomers (those born from World War II to the early 1960s) and members of Generation X (those born in the late 1960s and 1970s).
The company was concerned that Cadillac was being seen by consumers as an older, un-hip brand. Imageconscious boomers tended to shy away from Cadillac in favor of flashy foreign luxury brands such as BMW and Lexus. The company also felt that it needed to appeal to more women drivers. Cadillac wanted to reach those consumers with the CTS, with the anticipation of luring them to buy higher-priced Cadillac models, like the Seville/STS, in the future. While the company enjoyed its reputation as a classic luxury car, it wanted to freshen up that image to help meet the challenges of the early 2000s.
As an affordable, entry-level luxury car, the CTS competed with similarly priced vehicles from other luxury automobile brands. Chief among these was the Lexus ES 300, manufactured by the Toyota Motor Corporation’s Lexus division. The ES 300 was the latest in the popular ES sedan line, first introduced in 1989. Lexus introduced the ES 300 in model year 2003, at the same time that Cadillac brought out its new CTS. Because the ES 300 launch was a major priority for Lexus, the CTS faced intense competition from the beginning. Acura would also be launching a new design of its luxury vehicle the TL, though with less fanfare than Lexus. Other imports that competed directly with the CTS included the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Audi A4, the BMW 3 Series, and the Infiniti G35, made by a subsidiary of Nissan. The Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln luxury division was long considered a chief competitor for GM’s Cadillac division. Lincoln, however, did not have a strong entry-level vehicle available at the time. Its flagship model, the Town Car, did draw from some of the CTS’s market share, but it was more expensive and competed more directly with the Cadillac Seville.
Cadillac wanted its new campaign to accomplish many different things. Most importantly, it needed to introduce the CTS successfully. Its other goals were to reverse the previous year’s substantial decline in sales and to burnish the company’s image in relation to import luxury brands. Cadillac enlisted ad agency D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, based in Troy, Michigan, to run its new campaign, which would cost more than $240 million. The agency had worked with Cadillac before and understood the company’s concerns.
To drum up advance publicity, Cadillac offered the CTS for use in The Matrix Reloaded, the 2003 sequel to the popular science fiction movie The Matrix. At the core of the campaign was a series of several television spots, all of which featured the Led Zeppelin song ‘‘Rock n’ Roll.’’ Led Zeppelin, who recorded nine studio albums between 1968 and 1980, was one of the first hard-rock bands and also one of the most enduringly popular. While the band still appealed to younger fans, its original loyal fan base was now comfortably middle-aged.
It was believed that Led Zeppelin’s music possessed a combination of nostalgia and edge that would appeal to baby boomers. The band’s untitled fourth record, featuring the classic-rock staple ‘‘Stairway to Heaven’’ as well as the hard-charging ‘‘Rock n’ Roll,’’ was one of the best-selling records of the 1970s and was seen by some baby boomers as a touchtone of their youth. Because Led Zeppelin had an outlaw reputation in its heyday, attracting various stories and urban myths about its members’ over-the-top parties and decadent lifestyle, the band never acquired a stuffy reputation, even with the passage of time. Also, the band’s classic status—it was in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and was generally regarded as the exemplar of the hard-rock genre—helped to underscore Cadillac’s reputation as the classic luxury car. The campaign kicked off during the 2002 Super Bowl on Fox television, at a cost of more than $10 million. The event, which served as the championship game for the National Football League, was typically the most watched television event of the year, and the advertisements that ran during it garnered not only a large audience but also a significant amount of media attention. The Cadillac spot began by showing a young professional driving a vintage 1959 Cadillac. He was stuck in a traffic jam but then managed to turn off down a side street, which led to an open highway. At this point the Led Zeppelin music began, and a CTS appeared in the rearview mirror. A unseen announcer then declared: ‘‘A legend—reborn.’’ Soon the CTS passed the older car and rocketed down the open road, as the music played louder and louder. The spot closed with the tagline ‘‘Break Through.’’
Other brands, including Coors Light beer and
Sheraton Hotels, also used popular 1960s and 1970s songs in their advertisements during this time. As baby boomers aged, they continued to buy products that celebrated 1960s and 1970s recording artists, such as the Beatles Anthology CDs. Led Zeppelin itself had released several popular box sets in the 1990s, and in 2003 it put out a successful collection of live performances recorded in 1972. On January 27, 2004, Cadillac paid to become the official vehicle of Super Bowl XXXVIII, which was broadcast on CBS. Cadillac featured a new 60-second spot called ‘‘Turbulence’’ that expanded upon the ‘‘Break Through’’ campaign. It featured a voice-over by the actor Gary Sinise, who had played a major role in the Oscarwinning 1994 film Forrest Gump. The commercial retained ‘‘Rock n’ Roll’’ on the soundtrack and highlighted four key Cadillac models: the Escalade and SRX sports utility vehicles (SUVs), the XLR, and the CTS. The spot showed the four cars driving in the desert. The CTS, Escalade, and SRX all met at an intersection, creating a swirl of ‘‘turbulence’’ that eventually subsided to reveal an XLR with its top down, driven by a young woman. Cadillac ran three other spots during the broadcast, featuring the Escalade, SRX, and XLR individually. All three ended with the ‘‘Break Through’’ tagline. The musical focus of the spot dovetailed with Cadillac’s decision to offer XM radio in its DeVille, Seville, CTS, and Escalade models. XM was a popular satellite-radio service that provided a diverse array of music, sports, and entertainment channels. The subscription service required a special radio, which Cadillac began to offer for the CTS and other lines.
The CTS did not fare well competing head-on with BMW or Mercedes, but its competitive pricing—it came in at under $35,000—meant that Cadillac could reorient its campaign to take on the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Otherwise, the campaign met with success. Automobile journalists awarded the CTS the North American Car of the Year at the Detroit-based North American International Auto Show in 2002.
Cadillac was pleased with the ‘‘Break Through’’ campaign results. Eventually the company’s website even carried the ‘‘Break Through’’ tagline. As late as 2005, 85 percent of respondents to an internal survey still saw the campaign as fresh and different. Most importantly, within nine months of the ‘‘Break Through’’ campaign’s inception, the average age of CTS buyers was down to 55, a marked improvement over the Cadillac division’s average of 65. Nearly 40 percent of those consumers were women. Internal data showed that approximately half of CTS buyers would not have previously considered purchasing a Cadillac