ANALYSIS: Client Profile - GM’s Cadillac of pros set to reinvent brand. Cadillac used to own the luxury auto market, but it no longer commands the respect it once had. Chris Preuss and the Cadillac PR team are determined to kick the brand back int

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.’

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

new Cadillacs.

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.

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