Time was when the word ’Cadillac’ was a synonym for something at the top of its class. Americans would talk about the ’Cadillac of golf clubs,’ or the ’Cadillac of lawn mowers.’
Time was when the word ’Cadillac’ was a synonym for something at
the top of its class. Americans would talk about the ’Cadillac of golf
clubs,’ or the ’Cadillac of lawn mowers.’
Sadly for General Motors’ luxury car line, those days are over.Over the
past two decades, Cadillac has seen its premiere position in the luxury
market rivaled by imports such as Mercedes, new brands like Lexus, and
even domestic competitor Lincoln-Mercury. Baby boomers have shunned
Cadillac, thinking of it as something white-haired retirees drive.
’Cadillac used to have the luxury class all to itself,’ recalls Jack
Teahan, senior editor with Automotive News, an auto trade magazine. But,
Cadillac ’woke up one morning and found that the parade had passed it
by.’ In other parts of the world, the brand conjures up thoughts of
America in the ’50s, not an image conducive to selling luxury cars in
today’s global market.
Chris Preuss is determined to help change all that. A second-generation
auto PR pro (his dad was a Ford PR man), Preuss, the 34-year-old
director of communications at Cadillac, came from Chrysler two years ago
to revitalize the brand’s image and appeal to fellow 30-somethings.
New concept: proactive PR
Preuss’ initial challenge was made more difficult by the fact that
Cadillac had no new models to tout at the time. GM also wasn’t
accustomed to proactive PR, relying on advertising and marketing to sell
its products and seeing PR as a reactive tool.
Add to those problems the need to do some major crisis communications
work in early 1999 when Cadillac admitted it had lied about ’98 sales
numbers so it could still call itself the number one luxury car in the
States, and you could see Preuss’ PR plate was more than full.
With a four-person in-house staff along with two pros from the Detroit
office of Manning, Selvage & Lee handling worldwide PR, Preuss hasn’t
let any of those factors slow him down.
Using techniques he learned working under then-Chrysler PR chief Steve
Harris, he started creating buzz about Cadillac in 1998 by stressing
Stories about Cadillac’s night vision system and its OnStar navigation
system have peppered the press since his arrival. He’s also pushed the
company’s Northstar engine in the auto press, getting largely favorable
Internationally, Preuss has spanned GM organizational boundaries to
recruit PR help in GM’s European and Asian operations to start creating
a new image for Cadillac in those markets. Since international GM PR
people don’t report to him, he’s had to use a few carrots to get their
He’s tried such things as printing Cadillac press kits in the US that
can be used overseas, saving his international PR brethren budget
He’s also flown Japanese writers to the States this spring to test-drive
Preuss understands events have to be tailored to local mores. The April
event in the US, for example, allowed journalists to test drive
Cadillacs and their luxury competitors to compare them. Such competitor
comparisons are considered a bit gauche in Europe: ’We want the global
partners (within GM PR) to understand our strategic vision. What we
don’t want is to go out there and dictate to them how to do things.
There are just so many nuances of doing business on a global basis,
until you’ve done it you really don’t understand it.’
Flop to faith
Preuss knew of consumer and press skepticism about Cadillac when he
arrived. He had worked with an outside agency on the Cadillac account
about nine years ago and recalls that even then the automaker was
claiming it had changed - only to have its products flop. Hard-core auto
writers had come to see Cadillac ’as a metaphor of everything not
working at General Motors,’ he recalls.
While thousands of writers cover the auto industry, Preuss decided the
best way to change the media’s image of Cadillac was to target 30
reporters and industry analysts with his new PR message: ’We knew we
needed to continue to challenge every paradigm that these people had.’
He gave them off-the-record looks at future Cadillac models, trying to
create a buzz among this group that others in the press would pick up
’Chris has helped earn Cadillac some believability of late,’ says Paul
Eisenstein, an auto writer who runs the Detroit Bureau, a Michigan-based
freelance operation. ’He’s gotten folks to contain their criticism and
add the word ’healthy’ to their skepticism.’
The arrival of Harris as head of GM’s PR in 1999 removed an
institutional speed bump to Preuss’ efforts. ’Suddenly (Preuss) wasn’t
the lone voice advocating this approach to PR’ at GM, notes Eisenstein,
who is on Preuss’ key target list.
New Cadillac models, as well as new concept cars, have given Preuss more
ammunition, and he has milked those for all the media attention he can,
doing things like releasing grainy photos of the Evoq concept car in
1998 to create media buzz.
Preuss’ efforts, along with new models such as the 2000 DeVille, seem to
be getting at least some consumers to reconsider Cadillac. Davis Butler,
a baby boomer and executive manager of Suburban Olds, Cadillac, Buick in
Troy, MI says, ’A lot of my friends and business associates wouldn’t
have driven a DeVille before’ but seem to like the new model. DeVille
sales for the first six months of the year were 56,141, so the model is
poised to outpace 1999’s sales of 90,755 units.
Preuss is trying to create a hip image for the DeVille by focusing
attention in Hollywood on a special DeVille being created for
Detroit-born comic Tim Allen. He craves the attention of what he calls
the ’Microsoft millionaires’ - rich, relatively young techies - who are
looking for cool cars. ’This generation is more likely to do what their
grandparents did than their parents,’ he says of Gen X.
He’s hoping the four new models Cadillac will introduce between now and
2002 will appeal to them, but in the meantime he’s stressing things like
the PC-equipped DeVilles and Sevilles planned for next year. ’The
drumbeat that we started two years ago is turning into a steady rhythm,’
Preuss says of his efforts.
Ultimately, Cadillac’s approach to designing new models will show
whether the company can return to its prominent role in the luxury
market. Says Eisenstein: ’Chris can open the door to get the media to at
least be willing to take another look. But if they don’t come through
with the product, there is nothing he can do.’ That’s a challenge Preuss
seems willing to live with. By 2002, he claims, the world will have a
new image of Cadillac and PR will have been in the forefront of creating
PR chief: Chris Preuss, director of communications
Size of internal PR staff: Four
External agency: Manning, Selvage & Lee.