You could almost hear the slap of America’s collective facepalm when the New York Times detailed a GM memo that urged its employees and dealers to drop Chevy from their lexicon. The car company quickly backed away from the memo, but the damage was done. GM’s dirty little secret was out—its executives had slept through every single marketing class they had ever taken.
“GM is certainly not a model for branding expertise,” said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing. “They’ve invested so much in Chevy that it is clearly part of their branding. Trying to downplay it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Jim Campbell, a GM marketing executive who co-authored the memo, entreated recipients to “communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward.” Never mind that the automaker’s home page claimed “Over 1,000 people a day switch to Chevy.” And saying Chevrolet, he wrote, would make the marque more consistent and recognizable like Coke or Apple. Never mind that Coke cans are graced by the “Coca-Cola” script. “Chevy” was also to become a dirty word, with “Chevy” jars in the halls where employees could deposit change whenever they used the forbidden name.
Campbell and his co-author must have also overlooked the sizable role the Chevy brand has played in American culture. As the Times article pointed out, GM’s new brand strategy was now at odds with Don McLean, Bob Seger, and myriad die-hard Chevy fans across the country. Though the memo was only intended to influence employees and dealers, many outside the company were appalled by the idea.
Companies embark on such branding exercises from time to time to reinforce a brand’s identity. “This isn’t unusual in theory, it is just an odd move given the power of Chevy,” Calkins said.
Later that day, GM offered an awkward retraction, claiming the memo was “poorly worded.”
“Clearly they hadn’t thought things through very well,” Calkins said. “They avoided a bigger issue by backing off it quickly.”