Project: Cadillac brand development, for General Motors

General Motors
Cadillac brand development

Rebranding an American icon … almost.

During the winter of 2009, we were asked to join a team of creatives led by Alicia Johnson and Hal Wolverton to pitch General Motors’ Cadillac marque on behalf of the British advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. BBH had little experience in the automotive or luxury sectors at that point, and Johnson+Wolverton had plenty of both, notably in their recent resurrection of the Jaguar brand.

Cadillac was ripe for similar treatment. Its managing director at that time, Bryan Nesbitt, was young and was already a storied designer in Detroit, having created counter-intuitive and successful models for Chrysler (the PT Cruiser, love it or hate it) and Chevrolet (the similar HHR; same proviso). For Cadillac, Mr. Nesbitt was making excellent cars (the modern CTS line with its V variants) and he and his patron, GM chairman Bob Lutz, wanted a brand that called to mind Cadillac’s swaggering past: the 1950s and 1960s.

Pitch film

An anthem piece to show GM senior execs how the creative should look and act. It acknowledges the brand’s fallen status without excuse, showing a new path toward renewal for the company and, for that matter, all Americans. These senior execs gave our presentation a standing ovation, and Mr. Lutz himself told us it was the strongest stuff GM had seen since the 1960s. We won the account.

We found out later, of course, that it is middle managers who make the rockin’ world go ‘round, and they didn’t care for it much; or, we should say they didn’t want the trouble an attitudinal change of this magnitude would require. A couple of months into production, GM forced Mr. Lutz out of his chairmanship; Mr. Nesbitt was relieved of his command and replaced with GM marketing managers from the Chevrolet and Pontiac brands.

We were well aware that the new management team would be skeptical at best of the creative direction. This is normal; they hadn’t bought it – their predecessor had. Still, we produced our first deliverables, and if they were a bit more – shall we say – conservative than our initial ideas, that was to be expected.

A few months later, GM reorganized again, this time bringing in a new chief marketing officer from outside the company, who brought his own people, and shortly after that we were dismissed and the work was ultimately awarded to Fallon. (They held onto it for about as long as we did, and then were replaced by Hill Holliday.)

So it goes: this film, and the work following, exist largely to show what might have been.

Brand guide

While this document delves a bit into specifics, it is more philosophical treatise than standards manual, showing GM in-house folks and selected partners how the traditional Cadillac brand accoutrements would be deployed and also telling them why. We certainly didn’t expect to be producing every bit of communication for the company; this document allowed us to share the campaign’s underpinnings with those who would, and also gave us a place to codify and keep them for ourselves. On a project of this scale, you make up a lot of things as you go along; which is fine, as long as you remember what they were and why you did them.


Brand guide: Marks

Previous (and current) brand language emphasized the Cadillac script, which was based upon the handwriting of Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac; we put it back in its place as a signature and traded instead on the shield (based upon La Mothe’s family coat of arms), which we used as a finial on all communications. Shield first, up top; then argument; then signature.



Brand guide: Shield

We also saw the shield as a governing form or container for content. Its lateral symmetry made it useful, when abstracted, to convey the “dynamic equalibria” of art and science. All of the creative made a point of balancing these two concepts: the enclosing form of the shield kept them orderly.



Brand guide: DNA grid

Moreover, the heraldric divisions within the shield could be used to create an Eames-type wunderkammer into which we placed smaller arguments. This is a direct reference to the language of mid-century modern design and the last time American industry felt totally confident. We called it “DNA” because it was easily scaled and repeated to create visuals that behaved organically and still held to a common principle.



Brand guide: Using the grid

Guidelines on abstracting and using the DNA grid. While we wanted every composition to start from the root grid, we knew that insisting that the whole thing must adhere to the root would quickly grow tedious and unworkable. For the most part, it was a guideline; good executions would reference the grid as a cue, without being slavish.



Brand guide: Typography

The principal font family for the brand was Benton Sans, Frére-Jones and Highsmith’s redesign of News Gothic, the original of which was a mainstay in mid-century modern communications design. We also commissioned Font Bureau to draw extended versions of eight weights (these pages use Clan, which Benton Sans Wide ultimately replaced).



Brand guide: Tier II print

For the uninitiated, Tier II advertising means retail: the print and broadcast ads with a dollar figure and a dealer name attached to them. Brand agencies typically hate Tier II; they consider it vulgar and uncreative.

But it’s an open secret in the industry that image advertising doesn’t really sell cars, and Tier II does. Johnson+Wolverton – educated by their experience with Jaguar – knew this, and so we spent quite a bit of time developing creative guidelines for Tier II. Ironically, it was the dealers who were happiest with our work; they were amazed and grateful that someone at the corporate level was taking them seriously.



Brand guide: Tier II print detail

GM and its dealers produce tons of Tier II ads, especially in print. These ads show up in hundreds of publications, each of which have slightly different page sizes and production guidelines, and each one has to be customized for each publication. It’s a lot of handwork; there are a lot of moving parts, and lots of opportunity to get it wrong.

We came up with a system to help. Because we were working on the Tier I (or brand) stuff at the same time, we could make sure that whatever we developed would fit gracefully within a defined geometry, and so the elements could be clicked together like Legos. The base module here was a half-inch square (something any newspaper could deal with), and each element in the toolkit (number, headline, model badge) occupied a certain number of squares. When an ad needed to be resized, the production artist could estimate the live area to the nearest half-inch, drop the elements on the grid and move them around with the cursor keys.

Collateral system

In 2010, Cadillac was still in bankruptcy, and its largest shareholder was the United States government. We developed a system of smaller brochures designed to replace the flashier books that dealers give to prospective customers. GM felt that they were under the government’s heel and were timid about appearing to spend money, even – or perhaps especially – on a luxury marque. These are written well by our old friend Timothy Leigh, and printed beautifully (under the exacting eye of BBH print boss Lauren Abbott).



An example of the brand language in practice:  a stripped-down reading of the DNA grid; small, finial-style application of the crest. Type is legible, but restrained. Emphasis is on the product, in this case – at front – a running shot of the V version of the Coupe made by John Higginson.



CTS: overview

Exterior view of the CTS Coupe. The magnificent profile shot was made by our mate Peter Jennings; running shot by John Higginson; details by Shu Akashi.



CTS: Interior

Photography here (and in all other interiors) is by Michael Ruppert. Making a car interior look natural is an insanely exacting process. Mr. Ruppert seemed quite sane to us, but we have limited experience with Tennesseans.



CTS-V exterior

Running shot by John Higginson; detail images by Shu Akashi. Profile image by Patrik Bolecek.



CTS-V interior

Cockpit by Michael Ruppert; details by Shu Akashi.



Odds and ends

Safety and warranty information, faced with color and upholstery choices. The back cover was a gatefold; swing open the color chip page, and you’ll find the technical specifications.

BBH New York
Creative directors
Alicia Johnson
Hal Wolverton
Art directors
Adam McIsaac
Patrik Bolecek
Ian Boyle
Peter Jennings
Keira Alexandra
Timothy Leigh
Keith Klein
Neil J. Gust
Photography (collateral)
Peter Jennings
Patrik Bolecek
John Higginson
Michael Ruppert
Shu Akashi
Motion graphics
Kiffer Keegan
Jack Ehrbar
Print production (collateral)
Lauren Abbott