For almost as long as Detroit has been bending metal into cars and trucks, it’s tried to associate its products with someplace else.

Carmakers have tried to capture the romance of Europe by branding vehicles after cities in Spain (Seville, Cordoba), Italy (Torino) and islands in the Mediterranean (Corsica, Capri). They sought market horsepower by naming a car Daytona. And when California surfing culture was the rage in the early 1960s, Chevy tried to catch a wave by naming its new car Malibu.

Now comes General Motors’ Cadillac division, which is taking its brand association another step further by moving its headquarters out of the Motor City and into Soho, New York, the Big Apple that Detroit carmakers have tried to take a bite out of many times in the past, naming models Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and New Yorker.

The idea this time is to create a physical and psychological separation with the mothership in Motown. This has drawn a fair amount of criticism of Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen in GM’s hometown, where the sense of feeling snubbed is worse than the economic loss, which is minimal.

As a native Detroiter who made his own migration to New York, I understand the hurt feelings of a proud city whose own brand has suffered plenty already. There’s no reason, however, why this move shouldn’t work out well for all concerned.

First, consider Cadillac, a brand once so strong that its name was synonymous with “gold standard.” Having lost that cache years ago, Cadillac needs a rethink. Enter New York and Soho, which are to modern popular culture what Malibu and Southern California were in the 1960s. New York is a magnet to the generations of people that Cadillac needs to attract if it is to have relevance in the years to come.

Cadillac is trying to live the brand that it wants to become and ingrain that thinking into the vehicles designed and built back home. That means immersing itself in the culture of the customers it wants to attract to develop the brand’s point-of-view. What are the values these customers hold? What turns them on? What turns them off? Where are they willing to compromise and where are they not?

Soho seems like just the place to learn: a cutting-edge neighborhood for fashion and luxury marketers where retailers test fresh concepts to assess customer acceptance before they try them elsewhere. The Bloomingdale’s store in Soho, for instance, looks nothing like Bloomie’s on the Upper East Side or in a suburban mall; they’re attempting something very different, elements of which will eventually be established in other markets.

It’s worth noting that Cadillac didn’t pick a part of New York City more closely associated with the brand’s heyday: Madison Avenue. GM built a signature skyscraper along Madison during the go-go days of Mad Men era, but that’s not where it’s at right now for a brand trying to shed its Old School cocoon and emerge a hipster butterfly.

Detroit, building its own edgy brand that Chrysler has effectively appropriated, will prosper if Cadillac succeeds. It remains the world’s automotive capital in terms of investment and engineering talent. While it will never again be the oligopoly it was in the post-war era, its car companies have rebounded from financial problems to regain market share, profitability and competitiveness.

To take that another step toward competitive advantage, however, Detroit’s car companies need to get closer to markets for specialized skills, as Ford did by setting up its Silicon Valley Lab near the cutting-edge technology essential for vehicles of the future. Over time, Ford can migrate that thinking – and some of the people – back to Detroit.

Even more important, Detroit carmakers need deeper understanding of their future customers. No doubt, Cadillac and the others are mining big data for insights. If they want to truly understand the numbers, however, they need to understand the people behind them.

It’s taken more than 50 years to figure this out, but developing an automotive brand is more than slapping the name of some far-away place on the side of a car. It’s living the brand in its business, which is what Cadillac is trying to do.

– Jon Pepper
jon@indelable.com

Jon Pepper is co-founder and partner at Indelable, a strategic communications firm that helps companies with change management, employee engagement, competitive positioning, corporate citizenship and brand activation through stakeholder involvement.