The woman in my passenger seat says to kill the engine and restart it. I do, igniting a deep humming gurgle that crescendos, enveloping us in the reverberating neigh of 556 supercharged horses. The dials go green. The needles flutter past the redline. My audio-somatosensory experience has been fine-tuned to elicit maximum dopamine release, to provide an experience so radically unique that I might see an ancient thing in a modern light—even something as fossilized as the 110-year-old "Standard of the World," that old floaty boat, the Cadillac.
"I wanted you to experience that," says my passenger, 28-year-old Veda Partalo, planning director at Minneapolis-based Fallon, the ad agency tasked with completing Cadillac's decade-long makeover. It was proof: The car whose blinker your grandfather left on for miles—the car overtaken by Mercedes-Benz in the '70s, by BMW in the '80s, and by Lexus in the '90s, when rising prosperity meant rising demand for foreign stuff—is gone.
The new line, evolving since the 1999 Escalade, is beautifully tricked out. But in the car-selling business, particularly the luxury market, mechanics are not enough. Everything is shiny and fast. So Caddy has a unique marketing challenge: How do you shed the old stuffy image that brought it down 40 years ago and yet retain the thing that once made it great?
Other agencies took turns—pitching Caddy as edgier, hipper, sexier, ageless. But in 2009, as U.S. sales fell to 50% of what they were in 2006, a new CMO wanted a jolt of energy and passed the ball to Pat Fallon, in part for his firm's familiarity with the luxury auto market (it represented Porsche and BMW). Fallon tapped Partalo to lead, in part because she knew luxury goods, having repped American Express in a prior job.
Partalo began by scrapping the old approach of mini-campaigns for each model. "Sometimes you want to communicate to each buyer based on his individual needs," she says, her pumpkin-colored hair falling in waves around the Recaro bucket seat, a hand-stitched blend of black leather and saffron faux suede. "But the luxury buyer is different. He's more concerned with the brand's overall background, its heritage." If you're still claiming Standard of the World status, you better be able to prove it—especially when you're putting $70,000 of American metal up against Germany's finest. "So we wanted to do two things," she says. "First, bring Caddy back to its original standing. Second, do it through a campaign of substance."
By "substance," she means quantifiable evidence of craftsmanship. True, Fallon's ads lay it on thick—talk of "red-blooded luxury" and "derivative of nothing"—but it knows buyers won't care that Alicia Keys, Justin Bieber, Jewel, and Gisele all love their Caddies. They care that the Black Diamond Edition of the CTS-V Coupe, the car we're in now, destroyed the BMW M5 at Germany's Nuerburgring racetrack. They're titillated to find German engineering being called into question. They care about details. They care about Recaro.
Cadillac cares about details, too. Consider Partalo, who smiles like Jennifer Garner and drives a motorcycle. Her clothes (tight black T-shirt and black jeans). Her accessories (thick-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses, a knife dangling from her neck). Her ink (a pterodactyl-wearing phoenix on one shoulder; across the breastbone, just below the neckline, refugee sprawled in Old English font). The brand knows what it's doing. It hired a symbol of rebranding.
Partalo thinks her age is spot-on for Cadillac's goals. Her peers, raised on mass-manufactured goods, now associate quality with their grandparents' era. But there's more: She's a Bosnian refugee who fled civil war and spent 18 months in a Hungarian camp playing chess with her mother, a Muslim, and her father, a Christian. Then they immigrated to Minneapolis.
"There are two Americas," she explains, as I drop the six-speed Tremec shifter into fourth and punch the gas. Zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds. "There's the America of dirty Levi's, the land of old myths. And then there is the land that the immigrants see: Apple, Pixar, Times Square—a country of creativity, a place where anything is possible so long as you can dream it."
Cadillac has always been selling that ideal. An immigrant knows it resonates.
Partalo majored in marketing at the University of Minnesota, after realizing that cultural studies and comparative lit—with a focus on the portrayal of death and dying—wasn't the right long-term play.
At Fallon, she is a planner, a data wonk. It is her job to learn what kind of person might buy an amped-up CTS-V, or care that it includes Magnetic Ride Control suspension and 19-inch wheels. To her, the buyer, not the seller, determines the narrative. It is the buyer who wants ads that reinforce his essential rightness. She only figures out who he is and what he wants to be, then shows him a spot with a Cadillac besting a Ferrari on a windy racetrack.
"It took us a while to get to this," Partalo says. "I needed to know what makes a man choose Cadillac over BMW or Lexus. So I traveled to nice restaurants around Chicago, Detroit, L.A., and New York. I interviewed the valets, those pimply 18-year-olds. What makes car owners different? They dress and tip the same. It's in how they react when the valet scratches their car. I heard consistent stories: Lexus owners don't say anything and immediately call the police and insurance company. BMW owners scream at him—'I'll have your job!' That sort of thing. But Cadillac owners pat him on the back, say, 'It's gonna be all right, kid; we'll figure it out,' and then tip him anyway and drive off."
True or not, it's a good line—nourishing, if you own the car. A pre-Fallon, 2007 Caddy campaign showed Grey's Anatomy star Kate Walsh zipping down a tunnel, asking, "When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?" Partalo's ads, with their techy specifics, don't tease a buyer. They flatter a driver.
Conceptually, then, what does it take to drive a new Caddy? Well, listen: It comes off like this. It's not about youth or some conformist's emblem of success. For you, success is a moving target. You don't buy a Cadillac because you've made it. You buy because you're making it. Let Johnny Law School be safe in the Benz; Billy Banker harmless in his Beamer. But not you. You don't default to the South of France. You climb the Seven Peaks. You don't fritter life away in a job you hate, hoping the pension pays out just in time to croak. You take a chance. Do something about it.
"Slow up a little," Partalo says. "Dealership's just up here on the right." It's about yellow Brembo brakes that look really cool when contrasted with shiny black rims.
Sales are up 36% since Fallon took over.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.