A look back at Cadillac’s product marketing disaster

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Cadillac Cimarron

Thirty years ago, General Motor’s Cadillac Division faced the prospect of selling unappealing cars in the middle of a recession where–unlike in today’s low interest-rate environment–interest rates climbed to record highs, making car financing very expensive. That, combined with a fuel crisis where supplies were limited due to the Iranian Revolution, forced gas prices to also reach record highs. To make matters worse, in the midst of all this bad economic news, American luxury car buyers were also rejecting the Cadillac brand and switching loyalties to its European rivals–Mercedes, Audi and BWM.

To try and save Cadillac, management resorted to what could only be described as a ‘Hail-Mary’ product strategy move by attempting to launch a new model–the Cimarron–based on GM’s J-car compact designed Chevrolet Cavalier. By repackaging the Cavalier as a Cadillac–the only noticeable changes being leather seats and a luggage rack bolted on to the trunk–Cadillac committed every mistake possible in their “badge engineering” strategy.

According to Thomas Bonsall, author of Trouble in Paradise: The Story of the Cadillac Cimarron,

Simply put, the Cimarron was a Cavalier with a Cadillac grille insert and Cadillac badges. Even car “nuts” had to get close enough to read the badges to tell the two cars apart. True, the Cimarron featured some minor suspension tweaks, leather upholstery, and every available J-car option as standard equipment, but the $12,000 asking price didn’t buy much in the way of Cadillac distinction.

One point lost in most discussions about the J-car, though, is that it was not merely a second-rate Cadillac, it was a second-rate car, at least in its 1982 form. With the original 1.8-liter engine, it was grossly under-powered. Worse, the automatic transmission was so poorly matched that it simply magnified the engine’s shortcomings, while the four-speed manual — which, on paper, should have been a viable alternative — felt as if it had been supplied by John Deere.

But the story gets better. When the Cimarron was launched in 1981, Cadillac was so embarrassed by the new model that they initially refused to market it as a Cadillac. Here’s how Thomas Bonsall described the world’s worst product marketing plan and the results:

Technically, it should be pointed out, the 1982 Cimarron was not a Cadillac. It was marketed as the “Cimarron by Cadillac” and salesmen were trained to correct customers who innocently referred to it as a Cadillac. This indicated a certain nervousness on the part of the division (well-founded, as it turned out). Beginning in the 1983 model year, the silly pretense was discarded, but Cadillac dealers were still stuck selling an over-priced Cavalier whose main “Cadillac” distinction was its leather interior.

The division had hoped that the Cimarron would appeal to “near luxury” buyers in the BMW 3-series class, but the last thing they wanted was a clunky General Motors J-car. Cadillac’s traditional clientele felt much the same way. As a result, the division’s confident predictions of 20,000 Cimarrons during the remainder of the 1981 model year and 50,000 per year thereafter came a cropper. Only 8,786 were built during 1981 and a paltry 14,889 found buyers in 1982.

Seven years after it was first launched, the Cimarron model was discontinued. Sales had slipped so much that less than 6,500 cars were produced in its final year–a far cry from Cadillac’s prediction of 50,000 sales per year.

In the 22 years since the model was discontinued, Cimarron’s brand legacy remains negative. The car is generally thought as one of the worst cars ever produced and marketed. Forbes listed the Cimarron on its list of “Legendary Car Flops”. Author Hannah Elliott explained that the Cimarron “appealed neither to Cadillac’s loyal followers, who appreciated powerful V8s and Cadillac’s domestic luxury edge, nor to buyers who favored Europe’s luxury brands, whose cars out-handled and out-classed the Cimarron in every way.” And finally, CNN Money proclaimed the Cimaron the leader of “GM’s junk heap” of unsuccessful nameplates. It was simply a high-priced Chevrolet Cavalier – neither a good Cadillac nor a good value.

Here’s the takeaway: GM’s product strategy of ‘Badge Engineering’–the use of common platforms and parts across different brands where only the nameplates (and price tags) are different–was probably more responsible than any other single factor in diluting the once prestigious Cadillac brand into one today where it is fighting for its survival.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

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