A few years ago, then-Mercedes-Benz North American public relations chief, Geoff Day, crashed then-Cadillac PR chief Nick Twork’s North American International Auto Show party at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit. Or, was it the other way around?
In any event, Day brushed away any awkwardness, maintaining there is no competition between Cadillac and his Mercedes. “After all, we’re a luxury brand,” he quipped.
Since that party, Cadillac has beefed up its rear-wheel-drive lineup with the compact ATS and with a larger, lighter and more luxurious CTS. It has replaced the DTS with the XTS and replaced the rear-drive-based SRX with a smaller, front-drive-based model in keeping with the segment standard. It has proven with the ATS and CTS that it can hang with the best from Munich, let alone Stuttgart and Ingolstadt.
And yet, as a luxury brand, Cadillac still lacks the cachet of Lexus, let alone Audi, BMW or Mercedes, and its sales in a luxury-friendly market are slipping. By the end of June, Cadillac’s sales were off 1.9 percent compared with the first six months of 2013, while every other GM division posted gains ranging from 1.3 percent for Chevrolet to 12.5 percent for Buick. Overall, GM is up 2.5 percent over calendar 2013 through June.
While we all like to think that good product is all you need to sell cars, it also helps to have a strong leader. Bob Ferguson’s resume on GM’s media website touts Cadillac’s near-30 percent global growth and 22 percent U.S. growth since Dan Akerson named him the brand’s global marketing chief in October 2012.
That’s where product—good or bad—helps. Those sales gains included Cadillac’s expansion into China and the addition of the ATS and XTS to an otherwise slim lineup here.
Ferguson no doubt was a good Washington lobbyist for GM when he got the Cadillac job, and he will be again. He returns to Capitol Hill full-time, as that has been his focus, anyway, what with CEO Mary Barra having had to testify before House and Senate subcommittees on the compact-car ignition key safety problem.
I think that hiring Johan de Nysschen away from Infiniti is a brilliant move. Cadillac product is in good hands, with Dave Leone leading engineering and Andrew Smith in charge of design. On that latter point, it will be up to de Nysschen to resist allowing more Buick design cues (like the softened rear quarter-panels on the new CTS) to assuage the Chinese market.
De Nysschen’s past experience at Audi of America, where he helped the brand finally live up to decades of unfulfilled promise, has made him an expert in turning semi-premium brands into luxury brands. Of course, the jury remains out on his influence at Infiniti, where his most immediate imprint was changing model names to a rather confusing collection of Qs and QXs, but there’s no question that in his seven years or so of running Audi’s North American operations, he made the most of a quickly improving collection of cars and crossovers. For example, he pushed Ingolstadt into importing the Audi Q5 to North America, which finally made Audi a force to be reckoned with in the market for premium crossover. Month after month, Audi set sales records in the U.S. under his tutelage, and it continued after he left.
That’s what Johan de Nysschen must do with Cadillac. He must manage and market the brand well enough that the effects extend beyond whatever his tenure will be. [Perhaps he can start by renaming some Cadillac models, only do the opposite of what he did at Infiniti and bring back names like Eldorado and Fleetwood.]
Managing the Cadillac brand means accepting no GM corporate compromises. As good a front-wheel-drive Cadillac as the XTS may be, it’s still a FWD Cadillac, and enthusiast publication accolades have been for the RWD cars. GM has the platforms, so why not use them? Of course, Johan de Nysschen’s Audi was stocked with FWD-based cars, but the brand went out of its way to design RWD proportions into its most profitable quattro sedans.
And here it should be noted, Johan de Nysschen’s task at Cadillac is more akin to what he was doing at Infiniti, since he’s in charge of the luxury brand from a global perspective. At Audi, Ingolstadt dictated the product as de Nysschen managed North American operations, including negotiating which models are sold here.
Whatever Ferguson might have accomplished in nearly two years leading Cadillac, he leaves its image still floundering, as good new models struggle to compete for sales. His successor’s task is clear: Make it impossible for Mercedes to joke that Cadillac is not a competitor.