Rebuilding a Brand: Cadillac's "Under 5" Campaign

May 16, 2006

Cadillac's Brand Situation: Slow Decline, Recent Revitalization

Since the introduction of the redesigned Escalade in 2001, the Cadillac brand has experienced a renaissance. But during the decades before that the brand had been in decline.

From Premium to Antiquated

For generations of Americans the brand had traditionally defined luxury--the phrase "the Cadillac of . . ." meant the "best of the best" in any category. But the brand had lost its way in the late '70s and '80s. It had become a commodity--a "re-badged Chevy"--and was generally thought of as "an old person's car."

Why was brand allowed to decline? These were largely efficiency-driven decisions. For example, the Cadillac Cimarron ended up looking like the Chevy Cavalier. These tactics were cost-effective in production terms but fatal for the brand image. It took almost 20 years of neglect to nearly kill the brand . . . although there was still great "latent fondness" for Cadillac. But the attributes most people associated with it were nostalgic: big, floaty, velour, leather, no handling, an "old person's car." Cadillac had come to stand for the idea of "old luxury" as typified by ornate tailfins.

But coming into 1999/2000 the brand was undergoing a product renaissance.

GM management made some bold decisions and redesigned the car completely--ditching the standard profile and inventing new distinctive styling that deeply polarized the user base. Following the early success of this $4-5 Billion product investment, the Cadillac brand was being positioned as the "tip of the spear" for a revitalized GM.

GM had demonstrated bravery in radically redesigning the vehicle line-up and were looking for similar courage in their marketing, encouraging a more brazen advertising approach. But the revitalization was not just about marketing--in the automotive category "the reality is in the hardware."

The luxury category had also shifted--it was now also about performance. Cadillac had no previous credibility in this area, and the challenge was to change that perception.

Cadillac introduced the V-Series, three cars that offer extreme performance and styling. In developing the line, Cadillac engineers achieved a remarkable feat: all three cars goes from 0-60 miles per hour in less than 5 seconds, a unique claim that set Cadillac up to reposition the brand as a leader in both luxury and performance. This surprising fact--Cadillac's high performance--needed to be radically conveyed.

Marketing Campaign Strategy

This core product truth--breakthrough performance as evidenced by the under 5 seconds acceleration fact--was the basis for the marketing campaign.

This "0 to 60 in under 5 seconds" was a "game changer" that established Cadillac's performance credentials. For the marketing team the challenge was: How do you bring that to life? How do you make it real for the audience? How can we help them feel it?

The overall strategy was to leverage the "5 seconds" concept--to make "Under 5" synonymous with Cadillac. The initial approach was to create TV commercials that lasted just 5 seconds. This was a way to dramatize the feel of 5-second acceleration. These groundbreaking commercials were shown during the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Academy Awards and showcased the performance factor and captured the speed and excitement of Cadillac's line-up in a way consumers could actually experience in real time.

"Everyone agreed that the 5 seconds idea "felt big." After developing 5-second TV commercials, we encountered the next challenge: getting airtime in those increments. . . it was difficult to actually buy 5 seconds of media time. We ended up leveraging GM's media muscle and buying power, and using splits, breaking up pods into 5- and 25- seconds spots. Or 3 x 5 for a 15 second spot."

The Cadillac Under 5 Film Festival Promotion

The next question was how can we use a promotion to take the concept to the next level. The best ideas seem obvious in hindsight, but we had a lot of interesting elements floating around, and from this mix we came up with the idea of a five-second film festival.

This worked for Cadillac on many levels: we could engage consumers in a relevant activity that resonates with the "Under 5" claim; and we could leverage Cadillac's existing partnerships with the NFL, MGM, the Oscars; and, most critically we could take advantage of a partnership with the MGM movie "Be Cool."

This relationship was serendipitous in various ways: Chili Palmer, the character played by John Travolta, is a Cadillac-loving gangster turned movie producer, so there is authentic affinity between the brand, the property and the promotional theme.

Be Cool director F. Gary Gray is also a "Caddy guy" and was an enthusiastic supporter of the co-branding opportunities: Be Cool content (and even out-takes from the earlier "Get Shorty" movie) was posted on the site, including exclusive images, behind-the-scenes videos and special 5-second clips from the film.

For marketing cognoscenti, the 5-second Film Festival concept also "neatly turns BMW films on its head," but more importantly, in getting users to submit their work we were at the leading edge of the burgeoning user generated content trend.

Promotion Details

Speed was the watchword of the promotion in every sense: the contest and promotion site--seeded with sample 5-second films produced by Cadillac's agency--officially opened on Super Bowl Sunday. With a tight deadline that again emphasized "speed," entrants only had 12 days to create and submit their 5-second films online.

To publicize the promotion, grassroots outreach to Film Schools and the Sundance Festival were used to stir interest. "Be Cool" billboards teased the promotion, and the stars of the movie appeared in character on the contest web site.

Eventually a remarkable 2,700 entries were submitted. Finalists were chosen and posted to the site on February 25, with winners announced March 4, the day of the Be Cool Hollywood premiere.

Campaign Performance Results

  • Over 2.5 million Unique Page Views on
  • Over 1 million additional unique visitors to, a 358% increase in traffic from the previous year
  • 43,000 additional requests for the location of a Cadillac dealer (versus the previous year)
  • 2,648 five-second film entries received in less than two weeks
  • Created a new art form, the 5-second film, or "film haiku," that is eminently enjoyable to experience so lots of deep and repeat browsing of the site
  • Be Cool is now John Travolta's most successful movie opening ever, which he and the director attribute in large part to Cadillac Under 5

What were the greatest challenges in this promotion?

The critical challenges included timing and the very tight timeframe. The promotion was developed in a three week period over the holidays with a hard deadline for the 2005 Super Bowl. There were difficulties and doubts about feasibility--this program nearly died two or three times along the way but always managed to come back to life.

There were various legal nightmares, more than a few technology issues, and, of course, the tribulations associated with dealing with Hollywood personalities and getting scripts approved by the multiple creative gatekeepers.

How did you manage the user content control issue?

We kept a tight rein on the content, everything was screened and rules clearly prohibited any product placement or unacceptable content. We did not give users free rein in a way that would have allowed the content to reflect badly on us, the way the recent Chevy Tahoe program backfired.

There were almost 2, 700 submissions. We only posted 30 finalists. We managed user expectations sensibly, informed people of the vetting/judging process. We experienced no negative feedback, there were barely 2 complaints in the whole promotion.

How did you sell the campaign to senior management and what was the ROI objective?

Apart from the tactical goals (boost web site traffic, etc.) the overall objective was to maintain brand momentum--to keep Cadillac on people's radar--not to sell cars immediately (two of the models featured were not widely available at that point). One danger the brand was facing was the lag in relevancy, and the introduction of the V series was pulled ahead to counter this lag. Our strategic objective was to keep people excited about the brand.

This was actually one of the easier sales to upper management. Once you told people about the 5-second concept, everyone immediately "got it," and they were asking "what else can we do to leverage this?"

There were brand image objectives too. Cadillac had an image problem--it lagged BMW, Lexus, Mercedes especially in qualitative research on Performance perception measures. When performance credibility is established in the consumer's mind, there's a high correlation to positive opinion which is in turn related to sales.

Still it was something of "leap of faith," but GM upper management very much wanted Cadillac to be equated with "Cool" once again and to represent the "tip of the spear" for GM, to be the prestigious image brand of the GM portfolio.

Other lessons learned

The key learning from this success is to create promos based on an idea that is rooted in the product and brand promise. For Cadillac, the "5-second" concept was a key product truth that defined our new performance capabilities.

Smooth integration between the various agencies working together is also enhanced when you have a "pure idea" like the 5-seconds concept. This instills a sense of shared purpose, and everyone needed to be equally invested in this project - the tight deadline demanded phone meetings on Christmas Day, etc. But people were volunteering to help out colleagues, there was passion, and people cared about the success of the campaign. This doesn't always happen--whether you're part of a shared holding company family or not.

There were risks of failure involved and there were definitely two camps in the mix - a more risk-taking group and more risk averse one. When the naysayers said "this can't be done" there needed to be energy to rally the believers and overcome the obstacle to meet the commitment.

Looking ahead

We have set a new bar and high pressure performance is now expected: "you did it once, now beat it." But there's also a sense of confidence gained from going through an intense yet successful campaign like this.

Online movies and other highlights from the Cadillac Under 5 promotional campaign are showcased in case study materials presented at the Arc Worldwideweb site.

The campaign was also recently awarded First Place at the PROMO Interactive Marketing Awards, and was also a winner at the 2006 Reggie Awards.

The detailed case study submission for the Reggie Awards which includes links to the "5-second" TV commercials and other marketing collateral from the campaign can be viewed here.


"Rebuilding a Brand: Cadillac's 'Under 5' Campaign." Tom Hassett, Cadillac Advertising Manager, General Motors; Bill Rosen, Chief Creative Officer, Arc North America; Tim Irvine, VP-Creative Director, Arc North America. ANA Promotion Marketing Committee Meeting, 05/16/06.