Where the Stars Design the Cars
By Rob Kelley

(Business 2.0) – Rapper Xzibit, host of MTV's hit car-customization show Pimp My Ride, has a side project: pimping rides for Cadillac. Having noticed that celebrity endorsements and rap-song references are driving sales, the company is hosting focus groups made up of high-profile actors, athletes, and musicians. The first such hush-hush affair, held in September 2003 in Los Angeles, convened 32 stars to weigh in on several mock-ups of the 2007 Escalade, due out in January. In exchange for a sneak peek with Cadillac designers on hand, the stars suggested all sorts of tweaks, from the engine to the audio system. While the company isn't tipping its hand, it reveals that celeb input inspired new accessories and customization options. "Pop culture has embraced this vehicle, and we wanted to talk to the attendees as consumers," says Jim Van Kirk, marketing manager for Escalade.

Another celebrity event is rumored to be in the works for the 2008 CTS sedan. Not only do such sessions give Cadillac feedback from trendsetters, but they could also build buzz by planting Caddy in celebs' consciousness. In 2004, Cadillac cars were mentioned 70 times in song lyrics, up from 46 the year before. "This isn't just research," says Lucian James, president of San Francisco-based marketing agency Agenda. "It's also viral marketing and pre-PR." So far Cadillac seems to be the only company conducting celebrity-centric market research, and it will use the tactic sparingly. Says Van Kirk, "Only a handful of vehicles could attract this kind of attention." — ROB KELLEY