September 24, 2014

Confession #56: At last, we'll call it a Cadillac instead of a CTS

Photo: Cadillac
Yes, it's hard to name cars. Lots of names are taken these days. And then there's this need to build brand identity, which has brought the luxury car world firmly into the realm of alphanumerics.

Welcome to the second round of the alphanumeric era, where everything's made up and you shouldn't get used to the names.

Cadillac's third leader in two years is Johan de Nysschen. After doing good work at Audi and Infiniti to raise the prominence and focus of those luxury brands, he's tasked with turning Cadillac's line of good cars into a line of good cars that actually sell. So on Tuesday, Cadillac announced it was moving its headquarters to New York City. On Wednesday, it said it would change the name of its cars. It's been a busy week.

As explored a couple months ago, Cadillac has the problem of a critically lauded lineup of cars that just aren't selling, with its old crossover doing most of the heavy work. It's the really sore point in GM's lineup, especially considering this is their most prestigious brand. To add to that prestige, we've known Cadillac would finally get a rear-wheel drive sedan to do battle with the likes of the Mercedes S-Class.

And Tuesday, we found out this luxurious new flagship would be christened the CT6.

Dashing hopes Cadillac would once again honor its heritage with a classic name, the CT6 news also came with the revelation the brand would ditch the 13-year-old CTS and 3-year-old ATS names for CT-somethings when those models are up for renewal.

de Nysschen was notably at the helm of Infiniti when a couple years ago they changed the name of all their vehicles to start with Q. It's tough to follow the logic right now.

And it really doesn't help Infinitis all look sort of like the same car, just inflated to different levels. When your top marketing official can't get the names of the cars straight during a presentation, as I've observed, that isn't a reassuring sign customers will understand either.

But then that's beside the point. Marketers push for alphanumerics as a way to bolster brand identity. They don't want you to say you drive an Eldorado, you drive a Cadillac. So you have to wonder if the CTS name was starting to get too much equity for them. And how much longer will the Escalade nameplate escape the alphanumeric machine?

Pretty much everyone in the luxury field goes with alphanumerics, and they're still not satisfied with the way the names line up. Mercedes, for example, redid its structure back in 1994, and they've never been content with the way coupes were designated. Now they're realigning their SUV names, in the process ditching the M-Class they've had since 1997 and going with "GLE-Class." Much more catchy.

Land Rover had a similar problem with the Range Rover. No one valet parked a Land Rover Range Rover HSE, they had a Range Rover. No one knew what an LR2, LR3 or LR4 was, but they knew what a Freelander and Discovery were based on the line of them waiting for the service department to open.

But instead of retreating on further senseless alphanumerics, Land Rover went for words and made Range Rover a healthy sub-brand. In fact, it's actually like Tata's Jaguar Land Rover division should be called Jaguar Land Rover Range Rover.

Land Rover Discovery Sport (Photo: Land Rover)
And with its newly shown Land Rover Discovery Sport, the company is trying to make Discovery happen as a sub-brand. Right off the bat, Discovery Sport is a name you can remember. LR2 never was, which didn't bode well for that model.

And the lines make sense. Both Discovery and Range Rover have natural model progressions, each having the namesake as the top model in the range, with a "Sport" added to the next one down. Q50 and Q70, CT6 and CT5 and 4 and 3 make some sense to those who write about cars every day. To buyers?

Let's not forget, though, that Cadillac has the basics down. It has a real chance to challenge the European opposition – maybe even have a decent chance of selling in Europe if they ever get diesels, right-hand drive and a dealer network. Its problem now is its marketing funk, and is re-naming your lineup a good way to go to fix that?

And forget about them ever calling this new sedan Fleetwood or Brougham or anything like that – too land yacht-ish. But calling it the Sixty Special might have worked. That's sort of an alphanumeric.

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