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Humbled Caddy Needs Products – and Patience – Admits Global Brand Boss

Opinion: Cadillac is far from again being “the standard of the world.”

by on Oct.08, 2013

The 2015 Cadillac Escalade will again serve as the luxury brand's de facto flagship.

It was inevitable that at least one Cadillac executive would repeat the tired old cliché, describing the brand as “the standard of the world,” during a preview of the new 2015 Escalade in New York City on Monday night.

But Caddy’s global marketing chief Bob Ferguson put a more realistic frame around things when, in a later interview, he admitted that new models like the Escalade and 2014 CTS sedan are, “right now stronger than the brand.”

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It’s been nearly a half century since Cadillac could bill itself the unquestionable standard in the luxury market, and more than a decade since it gave up its U.S. sales lead to import makers like Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

The 2014 Cadillac CTS is a contender for another trophy as N.A. Car of the Year.

Not for lack of trying.  It entered the new millennium with a surge of momentum from products like the first-generation CTS and an Escalade that almost single-handedly created both a new market segment and a dictionary definition of the term, “bling.” But that momentum faded fast as a series of product mistakes – including the ill-conceived XLR roadster and STS sedan missed their targets by a wide margin.

Now, however, Cadillac seems to be regaining its focus. Its little ATS sedan was named 2013 North American Car of the Year by a jury of 50 U.S. and Canadian journalists last January. And the third-generation CTS is winning strong reviews – and a spot on the short list for the 2014 Car of the Year. But the new Escalade could be an even more important update, contended Ferguson, noting that it has long been the virtually “flagship” for the brand.

(Click Here for a closer look at the 2015 Cadillac Escalade.)

That’s in the absence of a true flagship that can compete with the likes of the BMW 7-Series and the all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, of course.  Cadillac has long been struggling to find the right product to serve as the true pinnacle of the brand – though the striking Elmiraj concept unveiled at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August hints that Caddy may finally be honing in on the right solution.

But, for now, the 2015 Escalade will have to fill the bill.  It’s something of a controversial choice: to some, the big SUV is an example of the best in luxury motoring. On hand for the NY unveiling, mega-billionaire Donald Trump loudly proclaimed, “I want to buy one.” But there are others who disdain the ‘Slade as much as they do “The Donald,” as symbols of wretched excess.

(Cadillac plans to tackle Tesla in the battery-car market. Click Here to find out how.)

That said, analyst Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting, said he had high hopes after checking out the new Escalade, suggesting it will generate “extremely valuable gross profits” that will help fund the development of a broad range of new Cadillac models.

Among the possibilities: a second large ute that would use a car-based crossover platform, rather than the 2015 Escalade’s truck-like body-on-frame design. That was something “we looked at,” Ferguson confided, adding that the concept is “still under study (and) might give us a range of options,” much like Mercedes offers the truck-ish G-Wagen, as well as the unibody GL. But Caddy’s global chief quickly stressed that the maker “hasn’t made any decisions yet.”

Since joining the brand a bit more than a year ago, Ferguson has been trying to get his team to reimagine what Cadillac needs to be in today’s very different luxury car market. For one thing, that means coping with the rapid proliferation of products underway among the Germans. Meanwhile, Caddy has to cope with the reality that the luxury market no longer ends at the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines.

The maker recently began producing the XTS sedan in China, with more models to follow. And Ferguson told a Chinese reporter that the Escalade has market potential there, albeit as a niche vehicle. Meanwhile, after repeated failures, Caddy is yet again trying to gain some traction in Europe.

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Prior to joining GM in 2010, Ferguson spent several years as a global strategic planner working with, among other clients, the International Olympic Committee prior to the 2008 Beijing games.  It may be that experience that has given him a different perspective from the General Motors lifers who have always seemed certain renewed success was just one new model away.

The reality is that some of the best new Cadillac models are probably better than the brand itself these days. Caddy has serious challenges simply getting recognized as a viable competitor in Boston and San Francisco, never mind Berlin and Shanghai.

So, despite Car of the Year awards and well-received product launches, Ferguson was blunt and humble when he acknowledged that, at the very best, getting Cadillac back up on a par with competitors like Mercedes and BMW – never mind making it once again the global standard – “will take some hard work over several years.”

Indeed, even that timeframe may be a trifle optimistic.

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One Response to “Humbled Caddy Needs Products – and Patience – Admits Global Brand Boss”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    The problem is that auto makers have run out of “luxury” items to add to a vehicle. More toys and useless crap is not more luxury. It’s crowded at the top unlike the days of old.