Detroit. I’ve been writing about the looming marketing battle between Cadillac, with its new CT6, and Lincoln, with its new Continental, for the better part of a year now. The two domestic luxury competitors with a long history of jousting with each other are back at it again in the U.S. market, and the early retail returns are starting to trickle in.
As a reminder, the Cadillac “Touring 6,” as it’s officially called, is a sophisticated machine bristling with the latest thinking from GM’s True Believers in terms of materials, manufacturing techniques and overall vehicle development. On paper alone it is the superior vehicle to the Lincoln entry, and by a wide margin too.
That the Cadillac entry suffers from poor name recognition - CT6 means exactly zero to consumers in the target luxury market - is not a surprise. As a matter of fact, the only time you will see the car’s actual full name anywhere is in this column, as Cadillac operatives have taken great pains to avoid revealing the car’s full name to consumers. This model naming strategy is consistent with Cadillac CEO (and longtime former Audi chief here in the U.S.) Johan de Nysschen’s desire to remake Cadillac’s brand image in Audi’s likeness at every opportunity, so a generic, borderline blandtastic name for Cadillac’s most sophisticated vehicle is just fine with Cadillac’s overlords.
Generic naming is not the only similar characteristic to the Audi approach with the CT6, because other than a grafted blend of the front ends from the Ciel and Elmiraj concepts making up the “face” of the CT6, the rest of the car boasts conservative, Audi-esque styling, especially in profile view and from the rear. As you see the car approach on the street it elicits a positive impression about its presence and stance, but as it passes by it’s as if the air is let out of a party balloon, and it just fizzles away.
The new Lincoln Continental, however, doesn’t suffer from the built-in burden of the Cadillac’s lackluster name. Continental is one of the iconic names of American motoring history. It’s a majestic moniker that promises taste and represents a sense of luxurious American optimism, and the name resonates with even the most casual consumers.
The car itself isn’t all that extraordinary technically or mechanically compared to the Cadillac, however. Built on the MKZ/Fusion platform (although radically massaged), the Continental is inherently a front-wheel drive design and the car doesn’t quite have the impact of the concept revealed at the New York Auto Show because of that fact. The best view of the car is the ¾ front view with its prominently distinctive grille, and its profile is slightly more handsome than that of the Cadillac; but like the CT6, the rear is underwhelming and borderline forgettable.
As far as marketing goes, the two manufacturers couldn’t be more different. The marketing campaign for the CT6 is decidedly uninspired, with nonsensical visuals and a juvenile-sounding female voiceover that has grated from the moment the campaign appeared. That GM’s media buy for the CT6 is heavy makes the effort all that more excruciating, and updated takes on the campaign have been even more disappointing. Needless to say, the campaign hasn’t worn well in the least.
If you’re wondering why the Cadillac campaign elicits a “huh?” reaction from most everyone who sees it, let’s not forget that de Nysschen’s Chief Marketing guru, Uwe Ellinghaus, decided that directing advertising at anyone over 35 was a waste of time, because by the year 2020 the Millennial demographic will swamp every other consumer group. So, by steadfastly ignoring people who actually might want to buy the CT6, let alone those who can actually afford one, Ellinghaus and Co. keep clinging to the notion that creating advertising that’s too hip for most people to understand – from their perspective at any rate – is preferable to creating advertising that actually works successfully at enhancing brand image, generating the kind of “I want to know more” desire that may in fact resonate with actual real live auto-buying consumers.
In comparison, Lincoln marketers are faring much better in the marketing arena with a campaign that bristles with taste and sophistication. Working off the theme “That’s Continental,” the new Lincoln campaign features photography from the iconic American photographer Annie Leibovitz and everything about it exudes creating an unapologetically luxurious feel for the brand that’s unmistakable and unlike other luxury automakers.
Lincoln marketers understand the inherent advantage they have with the Continental name, and they also understand that effective advertising is as much about creating a look, feel and tone for a brand as anything else. The fact that the CT6 is a more advanced product has been made meaningless by the level of sophistication and style projected on behalf of the new Continental. It’s no contest, in fact.
Where does that leave this discussion?
In one corner, we have a technically advanced product in the CT6 with a painfully generic name that was overpriced from the outset and continues to be tragically mis-marketed at every turn and by every conceivable measure.
In the other, we have in the Continental a sophisticated expression of American luxury in both look and feel, and though not the technical rival of the Cadillac, the image of the Continental comes off as something special and one to be desired.
I suggested long ago that this would be a most interesting marketing test, and I predicted that in this market at least – the future of both nameplates will actually be played out in China - the inherent goodness and resonance of the Continental name would prove to be formidable and could very well take the measure of the generically-named Cadillac.
And the early results are in.
The tale of the tape? In November, Cadillac reported sales of the CT6 at 1,169 units, while Lincoln reported sales of 1,419 Continentals, and this is with the current incentives offered of $9,747 on the CT6 and $5,542 on the Continental (thanks to AE reader Kyle Rohde for reminding me that Nick Bunkley first reported these numbers on Twitter). When factoring those incentives in, Lincoln isreally taking it to Cadillac.
In today’s automotive world having a superior product isn’t enough if it’s saddled with a less-than-compelling name and you’re unable – for whatever the reasons – to market it properly.
Will Cadillac operatives learn from this exercise? Uh, how about no? I don’t expect them to change a thing, in fact. Because after all, when they’re stumbling around wallowing in their delusional “Damn, we’re right about everything” thought balloons, why would they think anything is wrong or needs to be changed?
And will Lincoln operatives finally move away from their alphanumeric stew of confusing names, based on the very positive impact of the Continental? I'm hoping against hope that someone will see the light.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo