Cadillac's Melody Lee has a 10-year plan for millennials

Why she plays the long game to connect the car company with a younger audience.

Melody Lee’s first car was not a Caddy, but it was a General Motors car—a 1989 Oldsmobile. Although the director of brand marketing never grew up favoring cars to dolls, the Fort Worth, Texas native says she did have a natural affinity for them: "Whether that is the Texan in me or having grown up with a father and brother who really liked anything with wheels, I don’t know." Still, she admits she’s "not a car guy," but when Bob Ferguson, a former colleague and Cadillac president at the time, asked Lee to take the reins of the iconic brand in fall 2012, she couldn’t say no.

"I thought that was a really interesting challenge," Lee said. "I come from the world of crisis management, and the opportunity to turn around a brand is not unlike that world only on a much grander scale and on a longer time line."

Lee, who came to Cadillac from Hill+Knowlton Strategies as an executive VP, is now part of CMO Uwe Ellinghaus’s marketing team and is tasked with convincing her millennial peers to buy the 115-year-old brand. She’s given herself a decade to do it.

Through experiential initiatives like Gensler-led "Cadillac House" and Jack Morton Worldwide's "Road to Table," "real" influencers on social and the Publicis-created "Dare" TV campaigns, Lee aims to ingrain the car brand into American culture. But not just any culture—luxury culture. It’s a "10-year plan," she said. "It requires an enormous amount of patience, taking the long view, and sticking with the strategy no matter the naysayers."

Those naysayers include her German competition—BMW and Mercedes-Benz—as well as "gear heads" that publicly cringed when GM moved the Cadillac headquarters from Detroit to New York in 2015 and when Lee famously claimed it wasn’t just about the cars: "We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don't want to be an automotive brand." She also experienced backlash when Reuters reported on a casting notice for "alt right" actors for a commercial. Cadillac has since distanced itself from the Austin-based casting company Cast Station, and Lee said she learned "that a tempest in a teapot can be created quite quickly thanks to social media today."

But, Lee is playing the long game. This week, at the start of the Detroit Auto Show, it looks like Cadillac is on the rise. The company reports that it sold 308,692 cars worldwide in 2016—the most since 1986 and a 11.1 percent increase from 2015. Last week, the brand announced subscription car service Book, which Lee compares to Netflix, but for luxury rides. The service is flexible (only month-to-month commitments) and easy (cars are delivered and picked up for you), she said, and it’s just one of the many weapons in Lee’s marketing arsenal.

On a cold day in January, the pearl-clad, Louboutin-heeled Lee warmed up at the Cadillac House in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood to discuss her plans to make Cadillac the car of choice for Generations X and Y by 2022.

What are you doing to make Cadillac interesting to younger consumers?

One of the things that we have going for us at Cadillac is a sense of emotional appeal. Our competitors often differentiate themselves on technology, on engineering prowess, on technical ability. There's no denying that they are very, very good at delivering against that with their products.

There is no good brand without good product. There is also no good product without a good brand. My focus is the brand simply because what I want to do is make the brand so compelling that a customer comes to us and says, "Which Cadillac should I drive?" Because you can talk about the attributes of any product until you're blue in the face, but if Cadillac is not a brand for them, then I haven't done my job.

It’s more about lifestyle and a dream than the car itself. You're seeing this resurgence of American luxury really coming back again. American luxury is meant to be used. It's not that old-world luxury that's put in a glass box or on a pedestal or worshiped or put away in the closet to be passed down. It's stuff you use. I think that's where we really are trying to differentiate ourselves, to make you feel something when you drive a Cadillac.

How do you define good creative?

I don't think that there's a secret sauce for good creative. You can laugh, you can cry, you can be mad, it can really offend you. It's such a wide range of things, but if it is touching you and pulling and eliciting an emotional response from you, I think that's job No. 1. No. 2 is it has to say something about the brand. It's got to say something about you and say something in a way that changes perceptions, that provokes reappraisal. Those two things are absolutely necessary. Everything else is gravy—is it disruptive, is it provocative, does it make you think twice? Is it beautiful and cinematic? 

Car commercials are often formulaic. How is Cadillac avoiding that trap?

Cadillac's had a lot of success over the last two years dispensing with these formulas. Our "Dare Greatly" debut in 2015 utilized about six seconds of a car in the commercial, but for the first 54 seconds, featured people and celebrated the spirit of dare greatly within each of them.

Then we followed that up last year in 2016 with the "Don't You Dare" campaign that celebrated the achievements of younger people but sort of played on that phrase you heard a lot as a child, "don't you dare." Both of them were really important, to be completely different than what you see from normal car companies because we needed to turn heads, to break through.  

How are you making Cadillac synonymous with luxury culture?

We'll continue a program called "Road to Table." The idea is that people drive our cars to a restaurant, normally one you can't get a reservation at. We take the restaurant over. They have an amazing experience with the chef also present. Then they're driven home or back to their cars in an Escalade.

On June 1, 2016, we opened "Cadillac House." We could have built a traditional show room, a cathedral to the brand and our cars, but we've built a space that is a home for daring. People come here to meet, to create, to innovate together. We are also talking about global expansion. Shanghai opens later this year, with several other cities under consideration.

Culture, I'm confident we can say, is being created here through the Retail Lab (a partnership with the CFDA that gives emerging fashion designers mentorship and their own pop-up shop) and art gallery. The Warhol exhibition that has just left the space is a great example of how innovative we can be. It's easy enough to find five letters to Andy Warhol and put them in glass cases, or you can build truly immersive experiences around them that draw people into a world that they've never encountered.

Many of your influencer partners aren’t household names. Why?

I want to use a word that I think is really overused, but because we want it to be real. That's why. With guys like DJ Mick, with Marcus Troy, with the other influencers with whom we've worked, it's really important to us that they come across as genuine to their audiences. It's important to us that we don't just pursue paid influencer relationships, which is the easiest thing for a brand to do, but that we build real relationships with these people. For example, Mick and I are friends, and we talk.

Do you think that brands are millennialed out?

Oh absolutely. As someone who straddles the line right between Gen X and Y, there's probably nothing more annoying to me than hearing sweeping generalizations of millennials. It kind of stuns me that people still think that millennials are this massive, homogenous block instead of a very diverse group of people with different tastes and preferences.

I think brands are starting to figure that out that you can't just communicate to them en-masse. There’s so much opportunity there with Gen X and Y composing 80 percent of the luxury market in the next four years—as they come into wealth, become luxury consumers and grow their families.

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