Cadillac Turns To A 28-Year-Old To Reinvent The "Standard Of The World"

To break from its past, Caddy turned to someone who is different in every way.

<a href=Veda Partalo and a Caddy. Together, they almost look like an advertisement. | Photo by Michael Edwards" />
Veda Partalo and a Caddy. Together, they almost look like an advertisement. | Photo by Michael Edward

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.

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18 Comments

  • Marc

    Cadillac, and now Lexus, have done an excellent job of going after the younger crowd. Just check out the new Cadillacs and Lexuses!

  • Johnny

    Headline should have been: Cadillac's fate in hands of 28-Year-Old Bosian Refugee Lady. LOL they probably did this for a tax writeoff

  • Rusty

    OK - so after reading this article I felt compelled to drive the CTS-V (coupe) to see if the marketing matched the product.  Up front I want to admit and express that I truly wanted to love this car.  Let's also throw away the notion that I have been influenced by any prior Cadillac models performance or legacy.

    So sitting in the car for the first time I shared the authors zest for the raw power that existed under the hood.  Taking it out of the lot and onto the streets continued the "ride" portion of my total experience.  This, as mentioned in just about any car review, was like no other Cadillac ever in a positive way.  Enough said.  

    Where the deal was lost for me was when we returned to the lot and the representative started going through the interior and driver interactive features of the car.  If the article above is correct and the target market is the "up and comers" this is where the CTS-V failed to live up to the hype.  Please feel free to run your own independent test - but in my opinion if Cadillac had focused equally on both the driver interface and the driving/handling/braking experience in combination they would have nailed the product that Veda's hard work is creating market demand around.  Remember this is a driver's car and it is that very driver who must be impressed both inside & out in order to purchase.

    Best of luck to Veda and Cadillac as they move forward - there is definitely potential in this model and branding strategy.

  • Skeptical

    "Veda Partalo and a Caddy. Together, they almost look like an advertisement." 

    Yes, they do...almost TOO much like an advertisement.  You don't suppose that this...this was...premeditated?? 

    Of course it was.  This is just advertorial for Cadillac disguised as a piece about Ms. Partalo.  They talk about the car as much or more than they talk about her.  Or think about it this way:  If Ms. Partalo were plain-looking, in her mid-forties and favored pantsuits we'd be seeing her here?  Do you think she just happened to show up in those clothes for the shoot?  Or that the writer just happens to describe her hair (down boy!),  the tats, and her necklace?  PR knew she would be perfect to showcase in an article in a magazine with a demographic they would like to hit.  They got a love letter of an article and later on Fast Company will get access to GM personnel they might need for an interview at a vehicle launch or something similar.

  • David Connell

    This is a decent article with some good insight on how Partalo and Fallon are subtly changing the image of Cadillac, which
    has been on an upward trajectory for years now. They've ditched sex
    appeal and suggestion in favor of tapping into more complex emotions and
    desires of car buyers -- almost exclusively male car buyers, it seems.

    As with a lot of Fast Company pieces, there's a lot of
    fawning over looks, image and the product itself -- Slater practically
    makes love to the Cadillac he's driving. It's funny, Fast Company is basically an amalgam of Forbes and Esquire.
    It's a formula that I find simultaneously repugnant and incredibly
    alluring, which is why I've been a subscriber for several years. 

  • MediaAceStar

    Congrats to Veda Partalo.  Check out Bob Lutz's book about the fall and re-birth of GM (Car Guys vs. Bean Counters).  Bob would love Veda's campaign.  Bob's book is a great lesson on how not to turn your company over to the "bean counter" know-it-alls.  Because, it is product that counts (just ask Apple). 

  • VW

    It appears that most authours of the previous comments did not read the article in its entirety. As a designer, I appreciated the insight into Ms. Partalo's marketing strategy and thought process. It would seem Mr. Slater's descriptions are aimed to help us understand just how much of departure Ms. Partalo is from who most would expect Cadillac to have guiding their re-branding. I must admit, I am one of the people who has always viewed Cadillac as passé and "a boat". This looks to me like a bold, new step for the company, and as a car lover, I enjoyed the article. Keep up the good work Fast Company.

  • CT

    I'm glad I left Mpls. Pseudo rebel hip savvy art girls with tatts are a dime a dozen. Most are annoying. The key is positioning so you can be the one lucky enough to get picked X agency. And we all know most agencies are BS in the first place so its an important skill. That said good for her and her success. She had sound, usable ideas. I do like way Cadillac is being branded... I'd consider buying one. 

  • mailfetch

    I do not think that any car should have 556 horsepower.  That is insane.  Its no wonder these cadillac drivers are idiots on the roads, swerving and weaving all over the place.   The bottom line is that we can only do 55 or maybe 65 and thats on the freeways...  Dont need 556 HP to get up to 55.   And around town, these people with massive HP engines are driving like whackos (and getting reported to 911 by me and many others more and more) because one tap of the foot on the accelerator and their doing 45.  They tailgate everyone and their aggressive behavior is dangerous to all.

  • Whatafool

    I don't think people should be allowed to post statements not pertaining to the article, but here you are.

  • Spit & Spite

    Agreed, "Her ink (a pterodactyl-wearing phoenix on one shoulder; across the breastbone, just below the neckline,..." Wtf?

    Weird to think too much information and still want more (actual) Information right?

  • Carol Herriges

    I looked through this whole article twice to find the description of Fallon's hair. Is it pumpkin colored? Does it fall anywhere, including the seat? What does Fallon smell like? He is the one the company chose to head up this rebranding, isn't he? Why is the woman described like a plate of food at new restaurant, while the man's description just mentions his background and his decisions? I am interested in Partalo's decision making and strategy, not how delectable she is. Fast Company apparently is a backward thinking e-zine and has no credibilty.

  • Wize Adz

    Did you miss the 80% of the article that was about Veda Partalo's perspective, background, and key contributions to the marketing campaign?

  • Wize Adz

    "...so it's part of her job to present a certain image when talking to the press.  It seems like she has certainly accomplished that"

    Thankfully, I'm neither qualified nor interested in this kind of work, 

  • Wize Adz

    Also, our society discourages men from distinguishing themselves with their looks.  The most complementary term for this is "metrosexual", and that's not really complimentary in most circles.   Yes, it's plain old sexist discrimination against men, but it is what it is.

    On the other hand, if you described me using the same terms as Partalo, it would go something like this: "Wize Adz is a short pudgy geek with thinning hair and a bushy beard.  His generically colored hair doesn't fall any which way, unless the wind blows or he's forgotten to get a haircut recently.  He doesn't smell like much of anything, probably due to his daily showers and use of deodorant.  He's really made no effort to have an interesting look whatsoever, and it shows in his frumpy boring clothes.  His wife doesn't seem to mind, though, for whatever reason, and seems happy to have him around.  His main distinguishing feature is that he's able to handle Unix computers with ease, and that he can change the oil in his car better faster than most of the people in his MBA class."

    Seriously, who wants to read that?  Partalo's clearly put some effort into her appearance, and she's a marketing professional, so it's part of her job to present a certain image when talking to the press.  It seems like she has certainly accomplished that.

  • Bill

    You're a rebel, you take a chance!...?  This still harkens back to the awkward status quo jargon for me, and all I see from the article is a new contender in a long line of advertising hopefuls that ambitiously targets hopeful but not probable target demographics before any big-picture groundwork is achieved (or undertaken) to repair and solidify this venerable brand.  Where's the substance discussion?  ...and from this core discussion ask, why would someone in their 20's to 30's really want to buy a Cadillac?