After hearing the news via NPR this morning that some of the top brass at GM had circulated a memo putting an end to the “Chevy” nickname, it appears that the company has already backtracked. Good call. While the point originally made in the memo—that “the more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer”—holds true, this is exactly the type of ivory tower thinking that ignores how consumers actually engage with a product and brand.
For one, it ignores the difference between an incumbent and an insurgent. The first is a brand that is already instantly recognizable and brings with it significant cachet. For all of GM’s foibles in the past few decades, there are tens of millions of consumers in Middle America—and at the ag school in Central California where I went to undergrad—for whom one of the most important decisions in life is Chevy or Ford. On a similar note, I had a former colleague in grad school, originally from Coos Bay on the Oregon coast, who said that buying a truck was a step taken in life before moving out from the parents’ house. If you’re Chevy, that’s an asset that should be the cornerstone for turning around public perceptions for the larger brand.
For comparison’s sake, an insurgent is a brand that has yet to achieve this type of instant recognition. For these brands, consistency and simplicity are particularly important, because there’s a need to break through to the blank slate of the consumer. For a recent case study in this, look no further than Barack Obama. His campaign succeeded in large part by identifying “change” as what voters were looking for and linking himself with change. Even for the opposition voters who disagreed with that notion, their criticisms often implicitly acknowledged that Obama was synonymous with change, even going so far as to argue against change. “What’s wrong with the way things are?” isn’t typically a winning position. An interesting anecdote that came out of the 2008 campaign is that Obama, who is known to disdain political theater, was never too keen on the “change” slogan or his campaign logo, two of the most powerful branding elements that have emerged in the last ten years. On this call, he chose to defer to his advisors (David Axelrod in this case), and the rest is history.
But Chevrolet—or Chevy, I can use both now, right?—is in a different position. In some ways, being an incumbent is more difficult, because you have to move perceptions inch by inch rather than beginning at the drawing table. To succeed here, you have to approach the problem differently. Know who your advocates are. Recognize the power of niche audiences. What works for one group—the Middle America truck driver—may not work for a suburban commuter, and a brand as large as Chevrolet/Chevy should be able to split that difference successfully.
But for all of the difficulties that incumbents face, most insurgents out there would do anything to have “Chevy” as a starting point. After all, as has been cited across the Web today, singer Don McLean drives his Chevy to the levee in the famous song, not his Chevrolet to the Levrolet. It’s good to hear that Chevrolet has embraced its inner Chevy in response to today’s news cycle. For their own sake, let’s hope that they genuinely do so in the future as well.