Detroit Veteran Deborah Wahl Gets Behind the Wheel at Cadillac


Deborah Wahl - Cadillac CMO

Cadillac is going back into the heart of automotive marketing experience by recruiting Deborah Wahl as its new global chief marketing officer at a time when the GM-owned luxury brand is at a critical juncture in its global growth.

The veteran Lexus, Chrysler and Ford marketer—as well as McDonald’s former U.S. CMO—takes the position recently vacated by Uwe Ellinghaus, who stepped down in December for health reasons.

Cadillac may have made another splash with its high-profile sponsorship of the Oscars on Sunday, where it positioned its brand as high-end and future-looking. But the GM-owned brand continues to face tough competition in the premium auto market. Now it’s up to Wahl to “Dare Greatly” — the tagline of its three-year-old brand platform, which she will no doubt want to change as she puts her mark on the brand.

“Deborah’s diverse experience, as well as her proven track record of building successful global brands, makes her a natural addition to our leadership team,” stated Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen.

“Cadillac has made incredible progress over the past several years in our long-term journey to regain our position as the pinnacle of premium luxury brands. Deborah’s experience and strategic vision will build on that progress and help propel Cadillac forward during our next phase of global growth.”

Deborah Wahl - McDonald's

Wahl’s most recent position was as U.S. CMO of McDonald’s, where among other things she doubled down on the “I’m Lovin’ It” tagline. She helped revive the brand in partnership with CEO Steve Easterbrook, extending breakfast to an all-day meal and rolling out digital kiosks and customization, among other moves.

Before McDonald’s, however, she was a Motor City and auto-industry denizen, serving as the first-ever CMO of Detroit-based homebuilder Pulte Group and head marketer at Chrysler and Lexus, in addition to different marketing and communications roles at Ford. Her predecessor at Cadillac, Ellinghaus, was a BMW marketing executive who came to the brand via luxury pen-maker Mont Blanc.

A Wealth of Experience

Wahl, who brings over 20 years of experience with high-level marketing and brand work, serves on the Boards of Directors of Groupon and media software company Mediaocean. She helmed marketing for three years as Chief Marketing Officer at McDonald’s, where she played an instrumental role in transforming the business and increasing brand perception.

Ellinghaus tried to refresh Cadillac’s perception by luxury buyers by making New York City the brand’s global HQ in 2016 and by launching “Dare Greatly,” a campaign that tried to elevate the brand to European-luxury territory with an American twist.

Not only has de Nysschen been getting more utility vehicles into the GM product-development pipeline, which is coming to the rescue soon, but also he has been trying to bolster the brand from the other end, where Cadillacs are retailed. He has eliminated tactics that have harmed the brand’s image for years, such as sales to rental car companies and steep end-of-the-month discounts.

But taking those tools from dealers’ toolbag has put even more pressure on Cadillac to present a brand image that brings buyers into showrooms, and the Wall Street Journal reported that dealers are frustrated. The brand also needs to keep pace with other luxury makers by improving customer service and overall relationships, which is one reason Cadillac launched its Book subscription service last year.

Detroit native Wahl now will be bringing her collective experiences to identify and pursue smart opportunities to grow the Cadillac brand. Fortunately, her new boss has patience, stating that “Great brands are not built overnight.”