It’s an incubator for what the brick-and-mortar economy does that the internet can’t.
By: Brett Berk
May 24, 2016
Accompanied by the kind of fanfare usually reserved for a visiting R&B star—champagne, models, exclusive parties, and the launching of helicopters over the Hudson—Cadillac opened a New York headquarters late last year. Mostly used to house its communications departments, the grand offices on the top two floors of a West SoHo tower are meant to imbue the rejuvenated Detroit luxury brand with the trendy vitality of New York City, as well as the cosmopolitan east coast talent that lives here.
“We have great product. Our challenge is relevance,” says Melody Lee, Cadillac’s brand manager, as we walk the halls of the space. Those halls are lined in chevron-embossed leather meant to evoke, but also update, the marque’s vehicular heritage. According to Lee, consumers have a false familiarity with Cadillac; the brand may have positive and luxurious connotations, but they’re dated. “In order to change perceptions, we need to build connections between Cadillac and current luxury consumers’ interests,” she says.
The brand is taking an almost Mormon approach to this conversion mission, seeking not only new audiences, but new partners in the far-flung worlds of fashion, art, food, and culture. But in order to truly fortify a new identity, a contemporary brand must build a fort—a temple that embodies these projections, a dream board made real. Red Bull has its Studios, filled with extreme video and other disruptive lifestyle bullshit. Apple has its Apple Stores, filled with austerity and smugly superior Geniuses. Mars has M&M’s World, filled with candy colored candy and pre-diabetic tourists.
Into this fray Cadillac has opened Cadillac House, a showroom—but not sales room—for contemporary and vintage automobiles, as well as an art gallery, a retail fashion incubator, a coffee bar, and an event space on the corner of Charlton and Hudson. If Cadillac had an actual brand Ambassador, this would be her Embassy.
“We want to bring people into the Cadillac world. Our interpretation of what luxury means to us, which is warm, inviting, funky, and emotional, not austere,” says Eneuri Acosta from Cadillac’s department for lifestyle-, influencer-, and partnership communications.
The space, designed by the San Francisco architecture and design firm Gensler, reflects these notions, with surprisingly human materials like pebbled leather, cork, jute, and wool, along with an audacious use of neon and mirrors. Reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and polished concrete are the familiar icing on this cupcake, but the space still manages to transcend the de rigueur global upscale urban style I like to call “unique sameness.”
I live around the corner, so I look forward to visititing—Cadillac House will be open to the public daily—to drink Joe’s coffee, attend lectures and openings, and maintain my aversion to recherché loungewear. But does any of this brand experience misheggas move the needle with actual luxury consumers?
“It’s interesting because it’s very commonplace for brands to think that if they just create a place to hang out, that people are going to hang out. And I think that’s a little naïve,” says Milton Pedraza, head of premium sector research and consulting firm The Luxury Institute. “I think it’s probably not going to do anything significant for the brand.”
If this is the case, then why do so many luxury makes chart this flashy retail route? “Well, I think there are two fundamental reasons,” Pedraza says. “First, because brands and their agencies mistake gimmicks for effective action. And second because the really hard thing to do—to create a brand experience—are beyond their imagination.”
According to Pedraza and his surveys of luxury consumers, the enlightened path to retail engagement requires the imbuing of three characteristics: empathy, trustworthiness, and generosity. “People want to make personal, emotional connections,” Pedraza says. The difficulties that luxe brands have in this sphere comes mainly from failing to adopt a brand culture—and retail employee training program—that privileges these interactions. “They don’t know how to scale the humanity of their associates,” Pedraza says.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, all of this is more, not less, important given the ubiquity of online shopping. According to Pedraza’s research, 80 percent of luxury consumers do significant virtual Internet research prior to entering a store. They come into the store looking for more than what they can find online. “I don’t expect you to be my hotel concierge and make reservations for me at a restaurant. I mean, it’s nice, but that’s not the expectations I have when I enter an apparel, or a watch, or a jewelry shop,” Pedraza says. “I expect them to be experts on what they sell, and the competition, so that they can inform me more than I would inform myself with my friends, my peers, and going online. I don’t need that again. I need more information, or better information. Or affirmation.”
John Bricker, creative director at Gensler and lead on the Cadillac House project, concurs. “Product is product,” he says as he gives me a tour. “The reason people go to a bricks and mortar space is about experience. I can buy just about everything I need online.”
Just about everything, of course, except a car. Due to of our anachronistic, if purposeful, automotive retail system, in most places you can’t just click over to Cadillac.com and purchase a new CT6, as much as you might like to. You have to go to a dealership. Herein lies the big discovery of my visit to Cadillac House.
Cadillac has very publicly announced an emphasis on improving its retail experience—the last mile in the brand’s $12 billion investment in product and positioning, but the first point of contact for consumers. To this end, Caddy will be requiring its 900 dealers to make significant capital improvements in facilities, technology, and training. (In exchange, it will offer upgraded incentives, compensation, and profit sharing.) Certainly this new NYC space is about showcasing aspirational and urbane partnerships. But in addition to being an incubator for a hipper Cadillac brand, it’s also an incubator for the real world physicality of Cadillac’s new retail outlets.
When I ask about this directly, Melody Lee confirms my hypothesis. “Experimentation here will find its way into our facilities, our next generation dealerships,” she says. “That could include things like design and mood and layout, but also technologies like holographic imaging, which we’re working on.”
All of this is further borne out when I enter the small conference room behind Cadillac House’s main showroom. Here, attractive and elegant New York-based product specialists are being trained to offer Cadillac House visitors information on the XT5, CT6, CTS-V, and other new Cadillacs that will line this new showroom.
“The one thing that a computer can’t do, that coffee can’t do, that freebies can’t do, is have great people that are engaging you in a relevant experience within the context of what you sell,” says Pedraza. If Cadillac’s broad plans are to come to fruition, Pedraza-style, these brand-imbued specialists will need to fan out across the country, conducting trainings, and replicating themselves in hundreds of newly renovated dealerships—all of which will resemble Cadillac House, at least in tone. Their practiced scripts and gestures, with an air of New York sophistication, and emotion, will become the human face of a changing brand, on the road to changing minds.