June 11, 2010

Another fender bender from G.M.

When I read that the management at General Motors had sent out a memo to employees ordering them to stop using the nickname “Chevy” to refer to their flagship automobile – all in the interest of global brand consistency – I thought I might be reading The Onion instead of The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/automobiles/10chevy.html


To be sure, after the firestorm of customer outrage ensued, G.M. threw it into reverse and laid rubber backing away from this decision, stating that the memo was “poorly worded.” (http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/g-m-says-chevy-memo-was-poorly-worded/?ref=automobiles)

Actually, the wording was fine. It was the idea that was bad. This top-down directive, apparently without any basis in sound strategy, reinforces the already abysmal reputation of G.M. management and shows how out of touch they are with their customers and their dealers. (In a postscript, the memo condescendingly directs the staff to place a quarter into a designated jar every time they use the word “Chevy.” My guess is that there might be some other things in the jar by the end of the day.)

No doubt, this directive will fade, now that G.M. has been made aware that their brand – and even their name – is owned by their customers, not by G.M. This episode should live on, however, in introductory textbooks about the basic principles of branding – as an illustration of what not to do. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos stated it best: “Your brand is what people say about you when you leave the room.” If customers are going to call the car you sold them a “Chevy,” you should be grateful they are not calling it a Ford. It’s not the customers who are confused.

Consistent nomenclature is an important facet of brand discipline, but it is very risky to try to change the way customers and stakeholders refer to the brand, particularly if it is embedded in culture and language. As the New York Times article points out, smart brand strategists approved the decision by Federal Express to follow their customers and change their logo to “FedEx” and no one at Coca-cola is suggesting that using the shortened “Coke” is confusing anyone. It is important to develop editorial and graphic guidelines so that the nickname is used appropriately and consistently.

Brand nicknames are not uncommon, particularly when the full name is longer than a couple of syllables. When we were working on the Nickelodeon brand, and our audience started referring to it by the nickname “Nick.” We considered creating a logotype for “Nick,” but we decided this could perplex our audience. When Nickelodeon decided to launch a separate brand for younger kids, though, “Nick, Jr.” was a natural, and we designed a separate logotype for that sub-brand.

We encountered another case of nickname nomenclature confusion when we worked on a brand strategy project for the New England Journal of Medicine. The goal of this project was to reposition the brand from being viewed as a print journal to being viewed as a source of medical knowledge available on multiple platforms (Web, mobile, etc.). The nicknames that were in use ranged from the list of initial letters {“N-E-J-M”) to “The New England” to “Neejum” to “The Journal.” Since our strategy was to position the brand as an online resource, and since the URL for the Web site is nejm.org, we went with NEJM as the preferred nickname, and we recommended that all NEJM staff begin to use this as the only nickname for the brand. Since this recommendation was based in sound business and brand strategy and was presented in this context, the staff embraced the change.

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