An Inside Perspective on Building Brand Trust at Cadillac

An Inside Perspective on Building Brand Trust at Cadillac

By Claire Zulkey

Melody Lee, director of brand marketing at Cadillac, is responsible for building the company’s global brand identity while driving a clear and consistent strategy across all of the company’s channels, products and markets. Here, she discusses the challenges particular to an established brand building trust with a new set of customers.

How is Cadillac seeking to put itself at the center of fashion, design, and entrepreneurship?
Traditionally, brands like Cadillac have had fairly straightforward relationships with partners in fashion, art, travel or entrepreneurship. It’s been an exchange of funds: The brand gives money to the fashion or entrepreneurship event, and the brand gets a little bit of recognition, usually in the form of a logo on a banner, a car parked in front of an event or used as a courtesy vehicle.

We’ve chosen a different approach. We’re doing it as an experiment to see if it builds a greater amount of trust. We sit down with a partner and ask, “What is it that you really need? Let’s talk about what resources Cadillac can give you beyond just money, and create something with you.”

What’s an example of how this “Trust Experiment” has worked?
We sat down with the CFDA—the Council of Fashion Designers of America—and asked them what resources we could provide the designers they support. They said that—more than anything—their designers on the cusp want their own stores. Well, we have Cadillac House—a 12,000 square foot brand experience center in West SoHo, New York. And so we said, “We’ll give you this space in the back, 800 square feet”—normally that’s a stratospheric lease for a New York designer—“and some cash as well.” We also assembled a board to give them advice on the mechanics of retail. So beyond just saying, “Here’s $100,000, put the Cadillac logo somewhere,” we said, “We’re going to give you a whole suite of tools to experiment with, and to grow as a fashion designer.” It’s allowed us to have real conversations with our partners in each of the different industries.

How long does the process of building brand trust take?
A very long time. As a marketing team, when we talk about success around here, we are measuring it in years and decades, not in months. Traditionally in this business, it’s about hitting the sales bogey every month, but we’re keeping our eye on these ten to twenty year horizons. We believe building that trust in the brand will ultimately bring the sales that we need. It’s a very antithetical way of thinking in the traditional automotive model.

How Do You Convince People To Focus Less On The Short Term?
My boss, the CMO, constantly tells the team, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” But he also says “You must hold onto the small victories along the way.” You’ve got to look at the positive news: we’re bringing the right people at the right time with the right messages and our events are working. You’ve got to move the smaller needle so the bigger needle will move.

Consumers often have a hard time trusting companies when they try to amplify their events and content via social media. Can you share any lessons learned?
It’s a lot of trial and error. When you try to push messages out via brand channels, people really get skeptical. Something we really have going for us is that we have an actual rich heritage at the center of culture. We’re the presidential limo. We’re the car that Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis all drove. We have to be very careful about letting word of mouth take its own path.

How do you build trust with Generation Y?
What we’ve learned listening to Generation Y themselves is they just don’t view car ownership the same way that previous generations did. For Generation Y, cars are a little more of a tool, a commodity, something to get them from point A to point B.

So in New York we’re piloting a program that is less about ownership and more about membership in the Cadillac brand. It addresses these millennial and Gen Y tendencies to look at experience and not ownership. It’s this idea that you could pay a certain amount a month and have access to any Cadillac you’d need. If you’re going to the Hamptons you can get an Escalade, but if you’re tooling around on the FDR you can get one of our sedans.

How do you rebuild brand trust when it’s been lost?
My background’s in crisis communications, so I have seen it from both sides. Losing brand trust is so much easier and happens so much faster than building it back. With the right devastating talking point or news item, you can lose brand trust in a matter of minutes. Building it back is such a long journey.

The work of building a brand, arduous as it can be, is worth it, because when you do have that devastating news item, you have brand equity in the bank. So you can make withdrawals. Your consumers will give you the benefit of the doubt. I’ve seen brands with no brand equity in the bank and nothing to withdraw from.