In China, Cadillac is Hot; Here's an Inside Look at Its Marketing Strategy

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Cadillac's Chinese New Year ad, from McCann Worldgroup Shanghai's Cadillac Attitude unit
Cadillac's Chinese New Year ad, from McCann Worldgroup Shanghai's Cadillac Attitude unit Credit: Cadillac WeChat
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In China, the future of the Cadillac looks bright. In the first two months of 2017, the brand sold more than double the number of cars from the same period a year ago, rising 106%. That's in contrast to the U.S., where Cadillac sales shrank 6.5% so far this year. Chinese Cadillac buyers are young too, at an average age of 33.

In China, the car brand doesn't have the baggage it has in the U.S., where people grew up seeing their grandparents' generation drive Cadillacs. The premium GM brand didn't officially enter China until 2004; its central challenge is to compete with German brands.

Audi, Mercedes and BMW together control 75% of the luxury car market in China, said Jochen Siebert, managing director of JSC Automotive Consulting. Cadillac is in No. 4 place with about 6%, he said, adding that growth has been helped by dealer discounting on its XTS sedan and the introduction of the XT5 SUV.

Cadillac's marketing and ads in China have always cast it as a brand for people with a pioneering spirit, and now it's become a brand for people looking to express their individuality and stand out from buyers of German cars. Here are four insights from Alex Liu, Cadillac brand director at SAIC-GM, the joint venture with local state-owned carmaker SAIC that manufactures the brand in China.

Cadillac's "Dare Greatly" message needed adapting for a China audience. In the U.S., Cadillac has tried to reinvent itself for younger generations with Publicis' "Dare Greatly" campaign, featuring people who risked failure to drive innovation and progress. In China, the slogan is still about daring, but it has a slightly different ring to it, "All greatness comes from daring to begin," is the tagline. That's a cultural difference: For China, the brand wanted to stress achievement, not just risk-taking.

"To Chinese consumers, to dare is important, but you have to be a success," Mr. Liu said. The Chinese tagline ran on a recent Chinese New Year campaign for the brand by its main creative partner in China, McCann Worldgroup Shanghai division Cadillac Attitude; the ad urged people not just to make wishes for the new year, but to take action.

Cadillac plays up its reputation in China as the car for U.S. presidents, even in the Trump era. Around the U.S. election and inauguration, the brand did a social campaign about how it was first used by U.S. presidents in 1918.

"For the China market, the U.S. president is the biggest celebrity for the brand," Mr. Liu said, noting that Americans don't think about Cadillac that way.

After President Donald Trump's inauguration, the brand posted a retro photo of him from 1976 driving a Cadillac with his initials on the license plate. Out of 50 comments on microblogging platform Weibo, a few were negative, but many people just remarked how much Mr. Trump's appearance had changed over the years.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the brand just launched an ad during the Academy Awards to try to bridge the country's divides.

Cadillac emphasizes America's status as a tech pioneer. There's a perception of American cars as boat-like and gas-guzzling, though that's changing, Mr. Liu said. To help consumers get over any hangups around that, Cadillac emphasizes the U.S. role as a tech pioneer. Introducing a new infotainment system, it told a story about how Cadillac was the first car to have a trip computer in the 1970s, he said. That also plays into the brand's messaging about pioneers.

Product placement is important. Cadillac does product placement deals with about 10 Chinese TV series a year. It also appeared in the 2016 film "The Mermaid," the biggest box office hit of all time in China. The movie was a slapstick romantic comedy and an environmental parable about mermaids whose underwater habitat is threatened by property development.

Because media buys have grown so expensive in China, Cadillac began doing more product placement three or four years ago. Mr. Liu said he expected more brands to get aggressive on that: "In the future I think in that area we'll have more challenges, because everybody is paying attention to that."