Cadillac’s just-announced plans to relocate its headquarters to New York City may be part of a budding shift: companies that want to sell fancy consumer products are sometimes staking flags in the fancy places where their consumers live, experts said.
The pull isn’t just about the finance and media centered here. Even if a company doesn’t move its HQ, establishing design studios or marketing offices in cities like New York are a branding beachhead — New York itself is seen as “premium” product, and companies hope to glom onto that cachet by moving here. Chic city offices can also be a base from which to personalize offerings for the locals. And the talent sometimes refuses to live anywhere else.
New York remains in the early stages of cultivating businesses in the “knowledge economy,” said Thomas Lyons, a professor at Baruch’s school of business. But the more moves like Cadillac’s happen, the more rapidly others will “cluster” around it.
“Theres a trend worldwide for corporations to find cities to be the best locations for themselves,” Lyons said. “They need human capital. And where else on earth is the best place to find human capital?”
When the multinational aluminum manufacturer Alcoa officially moved its headquarters from Pittsburgh to New York city back in 2006, it was as much about the tastes and lifestyles of its executives as the exigencies of doing business.
The company’s current CEO dismissed a question last year asking again if they might move back to Pittsburgh, it’s rough and tumble ancestral home. First and foremost, he explained, Alcoa’s cosmopolitan leadership demanded assurances that their spouses could get jobs when they move to a new location, and that there’d be spots in international schools for their kids. Pittsburgh, literally and figuratively, didn’t fly.
Similarly, designer Vera Wang wheedled a New York office out of the penny-pinching Wisconsin-based Kohl’s when she put together a clothing line for the retailer. Inspiration apparently wilted on the flights to Menomonee Falls.
But in Cadillac’s case, experts said the company was buying a SoHo address rather than addressing a workaday need. While there were rumors that the company’s president Johan de Nysschen refused to run Cadillac from Detroit because he refused to live there, de Nysschen has denied them, steadfastly insisting that the move is about placing the company “at the epicenter of sophisticated living.”
In so doing, de Nysschen’s pulling a struggling company up at the roots, argued Jason B. Cohen, who heads up marketing for the O Group, which does consulting for luxury businesses.
“Would BMW, Mercedes and Porsche be the brands they are without their German heritage? How about Gucci or Prada without Italy? And that’s really what it comes down to: heritage,” he wrote in an email. And Cadillac, unlike corporate cousin Chrysler, with its “Imported from Detroit” advertising campaign, is cutting bait on its history — one that de Nysschen is betting stood in the way of its future.
But “modern loft offices” alone do not a new mojo make, cautioned Rama Chorpash, who teaches product design at Parsons. He recalled an interview several years ago he did with a publication Chrysler put out, when they asked him about his favorite car. “The New York subway car,” he retorted. “They couldn’t put that in the magazine.”
And so with Cadillac, “are the people who are coming here actually New Yorkers?” Chorpash asked. “Do they know what it means to take the subway as a car company?”