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General Motors' Completely Stupid Idea

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Imagine hearing that Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) was pushing its employees to stop using the word "Coke" to refer to its flagship product. Or that McDonald's officially disowned the "Mickey D's" nickname. Sounds nuts, doesn't it?

I mean, what kind of company would waste the time and energy to try to kill an affectionate brand nickname that had been part of the American lexicon for decades?

I'll tell you what kind of company: General Motors. According to a report in this morning's New York Times, executives in GM's Chevrolet division have issued a memo ordering employees to stop using the word "Chevy" -- an iconic, immediately recognized term that has been used in GM advertising for over half a century -- in place of "Chevrolet".

That's the stupidest thing I've heard all week -- and it's been a pretty stupid week.

What are you people thinking?
Why on Earth would they do such a thing? According to the memo, signed by Chevrolet vice presidents Alan Batey and Jim Campbell, the problem is consistency of branding. As they say in the memo: "When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding...The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer."

The Times was entertained by Batey and Campbell's mention of "Coke" as an example of a consistent brand, and so am I. The Times also notes, "Apple is not commonly used in reference to its products, which are known simply as iPads, iPhones and MacBooks."

But that misses the real point, which is this: Are you guys serious? These clowns are seriously worried about whether the Chevrolet brand is recognized by the American consumer?

Listen up, Batey and Campbell: If you've got hard data showing that Chevy has some sort of brand recognition problem, I'd love to see it. Because I'm thinking that Chevrolet is, if anything, a little too recognized. Recognized for decades of building cars and trucks with paint that flakes and fades, cheap plastic interiors that squeak and rattle, bizarrely huge wheel-well gaps that scream "loser rental car", moaning power steering pumps, all kinds of leaks... I could go on and on, as could millions of former Chevrolet owners. Emphasis on former.

The real problem with Chevy
Guys, the problem isn't that the American consumer doesn't recognize your brand. I don't need a million-dollar marketing study to know that. The problem is that the associations the American consumer has with your brand aren't what you'd like them to be. It's true that you've gone a long way toward transcending the chronic problems I listed above, but you haven't transcended the perception of those problems. (And you haven't transcended the perception that GM is run by a bunch of idiots, which this isn't helping. But I digress.)

Think about where we are right now, historically speaking. Thanks to its government bailout, post-bankruptcy GM has a second lease on life -- a window of time in which to restore some of its luster and market position and become -- once again -- a sustainable global industrial giant. But it's just a window, because the competition is fierce: Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) has struggled recently, but it remains a mighty global competitor. And Ford (NYSE: F  ) -- which should be GM CEO Ed Whitacre's model, and probably is -- is executing brilliantly on its daring turnaround plan, thanks to its relentless focus on the things that matter.

GM can't afford to waste time on semantics. It's long past time for the General to follow Ford's footsteps and focus -- relentlessly -- on the things that matter in the brutal global auto marketplace. "Chevy" versus "Chevrolet" isn't one of them.

Read more Foolish auto coverage:

Fool contributor John Rosevear loved some things about his 1990 Chevy (ha!) Corvette ZR-1, but notes that the oil stains it left on the floor of his garage are still there, even though he sold the car over 10 years ago. He owns shares of Apple and Ford, which are also Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick and a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (33) | Recommend This Article (37)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 2:57 PM, RagnarRedbeard wrote:

    I'm just amazed at the stupidity of those two VPs. Citing Coke as an example is the height of stupidity, given that Coke is the nickname for Coca-Cola just as Chevy is the one for Chevrolet. The smart move would have been to emulate Coke and emphasize Chevy.

    No wonder they needed a bailout. No wonder they'll need a 2nd one in a couple of years.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 3:14 PM, Wijilly wrote:

    Maybe they should be more concerned with killing the nickname "government motors"

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 3:20 PM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    I don't think they'll get a second bailout. The smart move would have been to be relentlessly focused on creating a memorable marketing campaign for Chevy -- something it desperately needs.

    Thanks for reading.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 3:55 PM, OLDSGUY1978 wrote:

    Chevy, one of the most iconic and beloved car names in the U.S.A. and two stumble bums have nothing better to do than try to derail possibly the last remaining "positive" we have regarding GM. Thirty or forty years ago GM was King of the Road but people like these took their eyes off the perverbial road and drove GM into a ditch. Toyota seemingly didn't stand a chance but they spent their time refining their product & their brand instead of tripping over themselves about a nickname. It's time to show these people the door and hopefully they'll get positions at Toyota.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 4:01 PM, Shakota wrote:

    What a knuckle-headed move on GM's part. Oh wait, should we address the company as "General Motors" or is that "Government Motors" nowadays? Let us think back to the "Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie & Chevrolet" era when the company had a truck branded as the "Chevy C-series" and a compact car branded as the "Chevy II" of all things. Whoever bragged about having, seeing, or wanting a "Chevrolet Camero" ... or was it the "Chevy Camero" that was the object of desire. Here is one better. Google the term "Chevy" and the first site is described as "The official Chevy site" of all things. The word "Chevy" even appears on the comany's official page. The VPs should get a clue and encourage the use of "Chevy" as branding. It always has been and always will be synonomous with Chevrolet.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 4:09 PM, jkiso wrote:

    Other than (small f) foolishness, I can think of two possible reasons for issuing such a memo, though both seem misguided to me.

    One possibility is that GM agrees with John's point that "Chevy" is inextricably linked with the low quality cars they've released in the past. They are trying to distance themselves from this image but they can't bring themselves to admit why it's necessary. Hence the lame (but "forward-looking") explanation.

    Another possibility is that this is a PR campaign intended to "fail". They will make a big deal about rebranding only to later claim that it is impossible and "the people have spoken" (ala New Coke). It's a bit of the "all press is good press" but it will end on a positive note as they restore the "Chevy" name that we apparently cannot do without (the name, not the old cars).

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 4:15 PM, Jrm307 wrote:

    So, if I go in to a "Chevrolet" dealership and ask the salesperson that I want to buy a "Chevy", will they throw me out on my ear for using that word?

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 4:40 PM, BlameBush wrote:

    Obama Motors Reports......

    It was George Bush's idea!

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 5:28 PM, koenbe wrote:

    How stupid! Here in Europe we knew Chevrolet as big US cars. Them fools destroyed the brand by sticking the "Chevy" brand on stupid Daewoo's. Ever seen a 10 foot Chevrolet? It's a Matiz. See GM, or how to ruin a brand!

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 5:50 PM, Maui808Gal wrote:

    I agree with Jkiso...I think this is an intentional attempt to grab some PR (smart if it's free) and get the 'new' CHEVY image and name out there. Yes, I said CHEVY...only people older than my grandparents say Chevorlet.

    Not a bad plan I suppose...just a lame plan...LAME! LAME! LAME!

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 5:55 PM, JSTVNnGA wrote:

    This is a great example of why all you guys and girls who are thinking about majoring in marketing should give it a BIG rethink. I takes only one big, stupid marketing mistake like this one to kill a promising corporate career.

    These two VP's will forever after be known within GM as the two Dumbo's who tried to kill, "Chevy".

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 5:57 PM, akbuyme wrote:

    The problem isn't in the USA. The problem is outside the US and Canada. Chevy is an American nickname for the brand. In foreign markets they are Chevrolet.

    So every time the managers in non North America markets keep getting communiques regarding Chevy they have to follow up on "What is Chevy?"

    It probably will not impact marketing in North America or even publications. But for in house communications, they need to keep it simple.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 5:58 PM, bluepepper wrote:

    I won't be so brash as to claim I know what's going on in these guys' heads, but I will say this reminds me of the attitudes of a lot of business students I encountered in college and graduate school. They seemed to think the key to success in business was to trick or confuse people and that with enough effective branding and marketing (the only things comparable to "networking" in the misguided business student brain) you could establish a strong, profitable company.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 6:15 PM, Maui808Gal wrote:

    "So every time the managers in non North America markets keep getting communiques regarding Chevy they have to follow up on "What is Chevy?"

    You'd think after the first or second time they ask "What is a Chevy?" they'd figure it doesn't get more simple than that.

    The two VPs in question may have blundered. However, this will only reinforce the "Chevy" brand = (good) marketing. We are all talking about it, afterall.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 6:19 PM, Maui808Gal wrote:

    Effective branding and marketing only goes so far if you don't have the product to back it up. It's not the 'key' to success, but it is an important element.

    I'm not saying this is the direction I would have gone...only that Chevy is on the tip of many tongues today...

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 7:29 PM, mountain8 wrote:

    If GM can waste these VP's salaries on this kinda crud, I'm sure not going to trust them to be in business in a few years. I'm not buying a "Chevrolet" or any GM product with this kind of stupidity.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 8:51 PM, thunderbob wrote:

    Does any one realize Chevrolet is a

    French word?

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 9:01 PM, TimelessOne wrote:

    Willingness to sacrifice effective business to the expensive rituals of the business profession. The buy-off didn't get much quality increase in the leadership.

    Been driving a Chevrolet the past few years. Not so underwhelmed as 3 decades ago but don't intend to be driving another, no matter what they brand it...

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2010, at 10:56 PM, BobMichigan wrote:

    What a bunch of pinheads.

    The memo was for the marketing department only, talking about how they communicate to the outside world. Noone was suggesting that this was intended even for the general emplyee population.

    You guys get your panties in a twist about the stupidest things.

    And it's not a French word, it is the NAME of an American who started a car company.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 12:17 AM, xuincherguixe wrote:

    From the wikipedia

    Louis-Joseph Chevrolet (December 25, 1878, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland – June 6, 1941, Detroit, Michigan), of French descent...

    So yeah. It's French.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 7:09 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    BobMichigan: That is not how it has been reported. The original memo talks about "reviewing dealer advertising", among other things. Sounds like an official positioning edict. Question is, did it come all the way down from Ewanick or was this something conceived by the super-geniuses I named above?

    If the former, GM's in trouble.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 10:27 AM, Boooby wrote:

    GM is in trouble no matter what they have done recently because ..... GM has not upgraded its designs. Improved quality is good but, BETTER DESIGNS ARE NEEDED.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 11:21 AM, TMFKeyne wrote:

    While I approve of ridiculing boneheaded marketing moves, it drives me up a wall to hear otherwise thoughtful writers talking about "wast[ing] time on semantics." Semantics is the study of meaning, which should be of interest to more than just linguists. :)

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 11:25 AM, Cryptblade wrote:

    Absolutely agree with this. That GM would waste time focusing on this is asinine. Focus on shedding excess weight - including UAW and idiot managers.

    Focus on quality and profitability, not market share.

    Focus on fully paying back the bailout.

    After all of that is said and done, THEN, focus on the reigning in the marketing.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 12:09 PM, Milligram46 wrote:

    General Motors has backed off of this decision.,chevy-chevrolet-...

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 12:40 PM, foolhardy7 wrote:

    One often sees the out-of-context quote from Shakespeare's "King Henry VI", "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." A more fitting saying for modern business might be, "First thing we do, let's kill the marketing department." From hence emerges such nonsense as the Chevy memo.

    It is truly remarkable. The American car industry lost a significant percentage of its white collar professional customers to Toyota (Lexus), BMW, and Mercedes, back in the 80s because of a poor product. They are not coming back, despite noble efforts by companies like Ford to design better products the past ten years.

    So now, GM's Marketing gurus apparently want to poison their remaining loyal customers, the younger kids, the factory workers, the small business owners, and the pick-up truck fans who debate Ford vs. Chevy, with a marketing pitch that essentially says, "We don't want your kind anymore. We want to sound rich, sophisiticated, and luxury minded." Chevy is out. Chevrolet is in.

    "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

    William Shakespeare, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Act 3 scene 2

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 12:46 PM, 1slowfrc wrote:

    Thunderbob you beat me to it.

    I have been following GM and cannot even think of a company with worse CEO's. How Batey and Campbell are still in office beats me...and sadly I drive a CHEVY every day and all it does is squeak and rattle, but hell she is a CHEVY!!!

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 3:44 PM, copperbeeches wrote:

    Dear John R.

    GM doesn't even have a public stock offering yet and you are wasting my time with this on my daily update?

    Sure this was a pin-head move. In a company now run by a government panel and their Texas cowboy Chairman its hard to say where the idea came from. And its clear from the postings that most commentors would never consider buying a chevy, chevrolet -- whatever -- anyway. So as a Michigan resident who currently owns a beautiful 6 year old Chevrolet (with no gaps, rattles, etc -- because I MAINTAIN the car), why am I even reading this drivel? Except, its on my daily MF update...

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2010, at 6:05 PM, Milligram46 wrote:

    Someone needs to update this story, because it isn't true (see note above with link and video).

  • Report this Comment On June 13, 2010, at 12:33 AM, yosemitebean wrote:

    I own a 1972 Chevy El Camino. I would never buy a Chevrolet if I could avoid it. Chevrolet sounds so lame. A Chevy on the other hand means muscle car, not wimpy car like Chevrolet. The governments NEW wimpy cars should be a big seller. Every government employee will get a new wimp vehicle since nobody else will want to buy them.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2010, at 6:47 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    copperbeeches, we follow GM because it's going to be public soon and a lot of Fools are interested in how it's doing.

    Milligram46, it's not that it "isn't true", it's that GM PR tried to spin it. See my Friday update for thoughts on that.

    Thanks for reading.

    John Rosevear

    ps for copperbeeches: I drive a Cadillac. It's an excellent car. I'm not biased against GM, I'm biased against GM acting stupid.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2010, at 11:07 AM, RaulChapin wrote:

    akbuyme wrote:

    "The problem isn't in the USA. The problem is outside the US and Canada. Chevy is an American nickname for the brand. In foreign markets they are Chevrolet. "

    Well perhaps you give too little credit to foreigners... it is not rocket science to figure out that Chevy and Chevrolet are the same thing. There is even that song "Drove my Chevy to the levee.." which some of us foreigners would sing along even BEFORE we spoke english.

    Many people outside of America can see GM as a possible "great American come back story", dumping the "Chevy" is akin to dumping GM's past, and as far as many are concerned the distant past is one of the few good things of GM.


    I personally find all of GM's recent campaing annoying. It seems to be based on:

    "You (the clients) perceive others as better, but you are mistaken, we are the best"

    Well, I would prefer something more along the lines of:

    "We would like a second chance, we'll make sure not to dissapoint you"

    But then again if the top brass at GM was anything but incredibly arrogant, the company might not have gone belly up in the first place!!

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 10:22 AM, richoidmd wrote:

    Idiots, also get a new design team. Every year same old American design under ugly sheet metal. Give those guys a subscription so they can get their head out of their asses.

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