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Auto Luminaries: Deborah Wahl

Deb Wahl marketing CEO for Cadillac in front of an Escalade at a car show

When it comes to selling a product that is already a household name, a lot of people think that marketing isn’t important or necessary. Everyone has heard of Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s, and Cadillac, so why bother with advertising and marketing? And yet, the very fact that those products are already so known makes marketing all the more important—it’s not about getting the name out there as much as it is about letting people know what’s new and shaping how people regard those businesses. Innovation and forward-thinking are necessary, which is why Deborah Wahl has been so successful at it over the years.

Ms. Wahl is one of the best there is at looking to the future to determine how best to design a campaign and market a product today. That kind of thinking sets companies ahead of and apart from their competitors—it’s why you end up seeing some businesses leading the pack and others following behind. Her work at Cadillac over the last year has already demonstrated how she will use this type of forward-thinking to pull Cadillac into the spotlight of American luxury vehicles. By pushing out more new models than any other car company and looking to the future to become a leader in electric vehicles, Deb Wahl is showing marketing executives at other companies exactly how it’s done.

Background in Business and Economics

I find it interesting when looking at someone who has made a big impact in the auto industry (or any industry really) to consider where they started off. The education that a person received, particularly what they focused on, can say a lot about someone. Deb Wahl has an education that is very much what you would expect for a leader in marketing.

She received a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Wellesley College and a Master of Business Administration from The Wharton School—she also has a Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute. None of this is really surprising—she doesn’t have a degree in philosophy or anything outside of business. But it makes sense.

Clearly, she had a vision for where she wanted to go: business. Her degrees are pretty general: economics and business, rather than being specifically focused on marketing. That would seem to indicate that she knew she wanted to be in a corporate environment and discovered a passion for marketing once she was there. It makes sense—her aptitude for future-based marketing shows she has a sense of trends and what’s going on in multiple industries, and she applies it in a way that builds meaningful brands for influential companies.

Early Work in the Auto Industry

Ms. Wahl has a strong background in the auto industry: she served as Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Global Efforts at Chrysler Motors LLC starting in 2007. She also held senior positions in marketing at other auto manufacturers including Toyota and Mazda. The auto industry is different from a lot of other businesses for many reasons, and her experience and success in the industry shows she can adapt to changing marketplaces and new demands from customers.

The fact that she has worked at so many different manufacturers is not at all uncommon in the auto industry—especially in marketing. You can see people developing at one company, then taking their talents to another, and then going somewhere else or back to where they started years later. I don’t see this as based on the desire for more money as much as always seeking out new challenges. You can see that Ms. Wahl is never afraid of a challenge and her moves from one company to another almost certainly align with a desire to find new opportunities to build different brands and try out new ideas within the marketplace.

Marketing and Homebuilding

She has not only worked in the auto industry, however, and served as the Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President at Pulte Homes Inc. and PulteGroup, Inc. Homebuilders aren’t exactly the first kind of company you would think of when looking for marketing experience, and that’s exactly what I find so fascinating about her career. Ms. Wahl was, in fact, the very first CMO at PulteGroup—again, you can see her striving for opportunities to innovate and do something new.

The Golden Arches

Deb Wahl marketing CEO, giving a speech at a car conference

Which is, no doubt, what led her to become Chief Marketing Officer of McDonald’s Corporation starting in 2014. Just like a major car company, McDonald’s is a brand name that pretty much everyone knows—not just in the US but on a global scale. That creates marketing challenges different than just how to put together a compelling commercial.

At McDonald’s, Ms. Wahl was integral to changing the public’s opinion and view of the fast-food giant and she helped turnaround their business in numerous ways. She developed new strategies that reversed their sales decline and substantially improved their business and stock value. How important is marketing and the head of marketing at a major corporation like McDonald’s? Well, you have Deb Wahl to thank for the fact that you can get breakfast any time of day now at McDonald’s.

For that feat alone, she should be heralded as an innovator. She also pushed for higher standards and quality in their food and menu overall, as well as leading a push for digital marketing and better technology. Not everyone would think of McDonald’s and technology going hand-in-hand, but that’s how Ms. Wahl works. She innovates and leads wherever she goes.

Sudden Changes at Cadillac

Speaking of wherever she goes—let’s talk about Cadillac for a moment. For a while, Cadillac was in a good place—it was the leader of American luxury vehicles and was working to rebrand all of Detroit. Then there was a shift: the corporate headquarters moved from Detroit to New York, and a lot of people felt the spirit of the company did too.

Under the leadership of Cadillac’s President Johan de Nysschen and the CMO Uwe Ellinghaus, a more metropolitan feel became noticeable from Cadillac and people were not impressed. The commercials featured city scenes that felt like New York, with music that might best be described as stuffy and pretentious. People weren’t happy and the numbers reflected this – so that’s where Ms. Wahl comes in.

In March of 2018, Deborah Wahl took over as Chief Marketing Officer at Cadillac, reporting to then-President Nysschen, and immediately began making changes. She overhauled the image of the company—renewing the commitment to luxury and Detroit as their corporate offices returned from New York to the Motor City. The month after she took over as CMO, the President was rather abruptly “let go” and replaced by Steve Carlisle—all things moving forward.

The Road Ahead

Now, the changes coming out of Cadillac seem to be happening at a frenzied pace. Ms. Wahl has led a marketing revolution, overseeing the announcement that new models will be released by the company every six months. This is unheard of in the industry but indicates exactly the kind of forward-thinking you would expect from her.

Beyond this quickened pace for innovation and vehicle release, however, Deb Wahl has her sights on one thing: electric vehicles. While General Motors has struggled to break into the EV market in the past, they have shifted their efforts in a new way. With Ms. Wahl building their brand, Cadillac will become the flagship for electric vehicles from GM. It’s a bold decision, and one you can tell she relishes the thought of—planning every movement and delivering on each new expectation.

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