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GM is launching a massive overhaul of Cadillac's marketing, with many of its traditional stock photos replaced by images like this one of a 2016 CTS-V -- and with a new ad that doesn't show any Cadillacs at all. Source: General Motors.

What is General Motors (NYSE:GM) thinking with its latest new Cadillac ad?

I asked that same question last year, when GM got America's attention with a cheeky -- some would say arrogant, even outrageous -- ad for Cadillac that ran during the Winter Olympics.

But this year's ad isn't outrageous. Many might find it mystifying, though. What's GM up to here?

A Cadillac ad that doesn't show any Cadillacs
The new Cadillac ad, which is expected to make its TV debut this Sunday night during the Academy Awards broadcast, is unusual for a lot of reasons, starting with this one: It doesn't show any Cadillacs.

Take a look.

 

Source: General Motors.

If you didn't watch it, here's the gist: A female narrator reads a long quote from Theodore Roosevelt over a montage of city scenes, most of which appear to have been filmed in the "DUMBO" (short for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass") neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

The Roosevelt quote includes what appears to be Cadillac's new catchphrase, "Dare Greatly." But... is this really how you advertise a line of cars nowadays?

It's not. But it might be how you start to shift perceptions of a brand.

Here's what Cadillac is probably trying to do
As I've been saying for a while, Cadillac has an interesting problem right now. Its latest models are as good as the best from Germany -- but German-brand loyalists aren't giving it much consideration.

Why? Because the Cadillac brand isn't yet up to the standards of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But GM is making a very big bet that it can change that.

Decades of mediocre "rolling sofas" left Cadillac with a dwindling audience of old-school loyalists, while BMW and Mercedes-Benz and Audi had moved to dominate the global luxury-car market with a completely different vision of what "luxury car" means.

New Cadillac sedans like the CTS and ATS are very competitive with Germany's best -- but the brand hasn't yet acquired the same status. As Cadillac market chief Uwe Ellinghaus sees it, getting on the radar screens of younger buyers is the brand's biggest mission now, and the way to do that is centered on the idea of "passion."

But as Ellinghaus would surely acknowledge, it's not just about "passion." As he told me recently, it's also about getting people to take Cadillac seriously as a luxury brand

Marketing that is intended to shift perceptions of a brand can be much more subtle than what we're used to seeing in car ads. That's what GM is up to here: It's starting what could be a long process of shifting luxury-car buyers' perceptions of what "Cadillac" means.

In that sense, I think the new ad hits a worthy note. "Dare Greatly" is a good description of what Cadillac itself is trying to do, in separating itself from the GM corporate mother ship and making a bold bet that it can beat the Germans at their own game.

If it can convince well-heeled buyers that they might like to be associated with that idea, that Cadillac is a more "daring" brand than the German stalwarts, then Cadillac might be on to something. 

As odd as it seems on first viewing, this ad could turn out to be a much more worthy step in that direction than last year's attempt.

A very big change from last year's approach
Last year's ad, which featured actor Neal McDonough walking swiftly through a big house extolling the virtues of America, was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing

But most observers agreed that it didn't do the job Cadillac most needs done: drawing more of those German-luxury-brand loyalists to Cadillac's showrooms.

Cadillac's U.S. sales fell 6.1% last year, though I'd argue that the ad didn't have much to do with that. Cadillac is going through a complicated transformation, and it's at the point where its old buyers are turned away by higher prices -- but it hasn't drawn enough new buyers yet.

The good news is that Cadillac's average transaction prices are up significantly -- to over $52,000 last month. That's an increase of roughly $8,000 from a year ago, Cadillac officials say.

But now, Cadillac has a new president, a new ad agency, and a new plan: To relaunch itself as the luxury brand that dares -- greatly. It's certainly a Cadillac-size idea. 

Will it work? What do you think? Scroll down to leave a comment with your thoughts on Cadillac's new ad.

John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.