Melody Lee is a 32-year-old woman, a minority, and stands four feet eleven inches tall. These details shouldn’t matter, but they’re nonetheless relevant to her perspective as the director of brand and reputation strategy for Cadillac, the 111-year-old luxury car brand strongly identified with an older, male audience and an oversized ride.
Lee’s role at Cadillac is unique within General Motors–neither Chevy, Buick, nor GMC have someone with Lee’s responsibilities–and was created partially because, as Lee says, “what we suffer from is a brand perception issue, and a brand relevancy issue, which is that no matter how good our products are, there are still people who say, ‘Cadillac is not a brand for me.'” When Lee came to Cadillac in February 2012 from PR firm Hill + Knowlton Strategies, where she focused on corporate communications and crisis management, her charge was to get those people–primarily women, who studies indicate influence up to 85% of car purchases–to reconsider their options.
As the Detroit Auto Show kicks off this week, Cadillac will introduce its first compact luxury coupe, the 2015 ATS Coupe, designed to appeal to younger consumers and women looking for fast, light, decidedly non-boat-like handling. The car will also be the first model to sport Cadillac’s new flatter, streamlined crest, a futuristic nod to not-your-grandpa thinking. But beyond an expanded product line, Lee has been hard at work positioning Cadillac as a female-friendly lifestyle brand. Fast Company recently spoke with Lee about how she’s tackling the challenge, what she brings from outside the auto industry, and why she thinks women and younger consumers will thank her for it.
FAST COMPANY: Your job as Cadillac’s director of brand and reputation strategy is unique at GM. What is it about Cadillac and its brand legacy that you think makes this an important job description to be explicit about?
MELODY LEE: Historically, we’ve been very focused on our products at GM, for good reason. We talk about our cars individually, and sometimes we talk about our cars as a lineup. But what we have often not been so good at, particularly at Cadillac, with a luxury consumer, is to worry about the brand itself. The reason that’s important is that we’re making the best products we’ve possibly made in our history, but what we suffer from is a brand perception issue, and a brand relevancy issue. Which is that no matter how good our products are, there are still people who say Cadillac is not a brand for me. And my job is to make it so that when people are making plans to shop, Cadillac is on that list.
On the reputation side of things, I think it’s becoming clear that reputation management in the corporate world is as important as anything else. By that I mean a proactive, concerted effort to protect and maintain the reputation of a brand. Because that’s arguably as important as building it.
Describe your approach to bring women to the brand, as it seems that to be effective it would need to be nuanced and multifaceted.
If you look at market research, something that’s really important to women is this ability to connect with a brand on an emotional level. It’s arguably important to both men and women, but with women it’s even more important that a brand actually stands for something, that it becomes something they embrace as much as the product itself. So one of the big efforts for me was to take Cadillac out of just the automotive world and really push it into a luxury and lifestyle world, so women could see Cadillac as a brand they could drive as much as Louis Vuitton is a brand they can wear or carry. I pushed it away from just Car and Driver, and Road and Track, and Automotive News out into this world where Vanity Fair is covering us, where W magazine wants to partner with us for an event (a recent Golden Globes-related celebration of W‘s Best Performances Portfolio at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont).
We want Cadillac to be a culturally relevant brand. A lot of people like to talk about how Cadillac is a brand for older consumers, but I don’t even think it’s about age. I think it’s about relevancy, and we’ve just lost our way.
Was your decision to sell a limited edition of the ELR Coupe hybrid exclusively through the Saks Fifth Avenue holiday catalog a new tactic for Cadillac?
For us it was definitely new. The relationship with Saks Fifth Avenue is even bigger than selling the ELR in their catalog, though. It was a multi-pronged partnership, in which we were also organically folded into their holiday issue. They shot their catalog by incorporating some of our vehicles and accessories. We also hosted party and events at five locations, and had a holiday window installation in one of Saks’s iconic New York displays. We were able to display the 2015 Escalade in a really creative way. Overall it was a way to reach an audience we traditionally have trouble with.
How does the release of the smaller, lighter ATS Coupe fit in with your efforts?
I think for a long time this industry has been pretty guilty of designing cars for men. That’s starting to change. There are these stories from GM, that like 10 years ago, they didn’t have enough women engineers, so they literally dressed smaller male engineers in dresses and heels. It sounds clumsy, but it was their attempt to really try to figure out how it was for a woman to experience a vehicle, and what they would change in order to build cars that meet everyone’s needs.
One example is in our bigger vehicles, our pedals previously were not adjustable. Now in the 2015 Escalade, you can move the pedal up. I can tell you this from experience. I’m driving one now, and I’m 4’11”, and I would never be able to drive this car because I would be so close to the airbag that I would look like a little old lady driving down the street. But they’ve made the pedals adjustable so I can drive this car and not look ridiculous.
Regarding the ATS Coupe, market research also shows that women have the highest propensity to buy our smaller and crossover vehicles. So we knew that the next evolution of the ATS, which is attracting all kinds of brand new consumers to the Cadillac brand, had to be the coupe. Coupe drivers are younger, really looking for a thrilling drive, and it’s really important to get to those people. I’ve talked a lot about women, but millennials were also part of my charge. The brand is maybe less worried about attracting a millennial buyer, but very interested in attracting millennial attention, because we need to be in the buzz.
I can see why it would be valuable to Cadillac, which has a very strong historical brand identity, to broaden its customer base. Do you think there are any risks to this, identity-wise? Do you have to take any steps to make sure you don’t turn away your traditional customer base?
Absolutely. We do know that our traditional base is a little bit older, and has interest in areas like golf. So a huge part of our experiential or events and sponsorships platform is still geared around the interests of our traditional audience. I think in our products, we just make sure there’s a wide range of products that appeal to different people. So while the ATS may appeal to a younger generation or a woman, we need to make sure that the vehicles that the older generation are buying or the men are buying are still there.
So it’s not a rebranding of Cadillac, it’s diversification to meet the needs of more consumers.
I think rebranding, that’s where you really start to take on the risk. Let’s just be real for a second: It would be funny to rebrand a 111-year-old brand. It feels kind of cliché. It’s less about that, and more about the way Cadillac has always been in its past, which is in a constant state of evolution. Except for a period from the ’80s to the early 2000s, where a lot of us have a knowledge that we became really complacent, it’s grown with its consumers, it’s evolved; we’ve always been at the forefront of technology. Whether it’s first the automatic starter or introducing the first touch-screen interface inside of a vehicle, we really pride ourselves on being about design, technology, staying a little bit ahead of the game.
How does your experience in agency-based PR and crisis management serve you in this in-house role?
The best companies are made up of a good mixture of outsiders and insiders, because the auto industry is so complex that you can’t just bring in a bunch of outsiders who think that they can run this. The complexity requires car gals and car guys, but I believe that bringing a different perspective, especially about luxury communications and luxury branding really helps. Because like I said, we think about cars and about products, and talking about the engine and StabiliTrak, when we should be thinking as much about the brand itself and how it’s being communicated. When I worked at the agency, one of my biggest clients was the International Olympic Committee, and one of the things that I learned there was the importance of being a global brand much more than just being an American luxury brand. We have a lot of work to do in that regard.
What are one or two of the biggest misconceptions about Cadillac you’ve heard, and how do you counter them?
One thing that’s maybe not specific to Cadillac but to American cars is a quality issue. The fact that our 2014 CTS is winning every award out there is a testament to the fact that that’s a fallacy nowadays. We’re building amazing cars, their quality is holding up, their rankings are going up in the JD Powers studies; people who get into our cars are saying this is a totally different car than they expected. It’s not floaty, it’s fun to drive. Which is a difference, because a lot of people think of Cadillacs not only as a car for old people, but really comfortable, really soft, and that’s just not the case anymore.
The other thing is that Cadillac is the fastest-growing luxury car brand. We took a point of share from 2012-2013, which puts us at the top of growth for full-line luxury brands. The only brand, full-line or not, that is equivalent to that one point of share is Tesla. So on one hand you have Elon Musk’s company that was started 10 years ago, and on the other you have Cadillac that was started 111 years ago, and we’re growing at the same rate.