How Did General Motors Use Cadillac to Create a Brand Among African Americans in 1923?

Brand image is important in separating one product from another. Brand image revolves around perception. It is this perception that creates world class brands. Brand image is significant in a social media era because there are just so many brands. A marketer must do something to set their product apart. Image is a powerful medium to do this.

Brand image is speech. Through image, a brand talks to their customers. Brand image says “success” as in the case of Cadillac in 1923. A famous brand image in contemporary marketing is an insurance company’s claim that “you are in good hands with…” followed by an image of a house in two hands. Another image from this company is “….the good hands people”. This is a strong speech. It tells people that if they sign up for this company’s insurance, they can depend on this company if times go bad. In 1923, if you drove a Cadillac, it meant that you were “successful”.

Albert Sloan was one of the first CEOs who understood the importance of brand image in creating brand. This is significant. In 1923, nine out of 10 cars on the road was a Ford. It seemed that GM would never overtake Ford. Mr. Sloan knew better. In engaging with people, his social media of the day, Mr. Sloan knew that the market was changing.

America now had a middle class. People used their car purchases as a means to define their professional state. Cars were more than just a means of transportation. Customers were looking for more than just a low cost car. People wanted a car that would brand them, as it were. Entry level people drove Chevrolet, supervisors drove Oldsmobile, and very successful people drove Cadillac.

Mr. Sloan understood that brand image would help him overtake Ford. Ford had one car, the Model T. People bought his car because it was inexpensive and it provided cheap transportation. In 1923, people wanted more than that.

Cadillac was a key brand in overtaking Ford because of the brand image Cadillac conveyed. The image that Cadillac conveyed was success. This cut two ways. Some people drove Cadillac—BUT ALL PEOPLE WANTED TO. This created a brand for the entire GM family of brands—“GM drivers are successful, I want a GM car”.

This image was significant in the Black community. Black people were now coming north. In the North, there was an enclave of blacks who were getting some opportunity. Though small, there was a group of blacks that were becoming doctors, lawyers, and business owners—successful people. These blacks wanted a car that would reflect that. To these people, who had to overcome significant obstacles to reach their state in life, a Cadillac was an important symbol.

This was a significant niche in the car market for GM. The black professional niche created a dependable group of people who would buy Cadillac on a recurring cycle. This created a significant brand in the black community, which was now beginning to become an important market segment. The importance of Cadillac transcended more than just the people who actually bought the car. It created an important touch point and symbol that helped GM create a significant brand in the entire black community.

Not all blacks could own a Cadillac, BUT THEY ALL COULD ASPIRE TO owning one. General Motors’ brand image was now “success”. Blacks now began to gravitate toward GM because “successful people drive GM”.

Dean Hambleton


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