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Hush my mouth – not ‘Chevy’ but ‘Chevrolet’. Repeat after me, ‘Chev-ro-let’

I was tickled to discover General Motors has issued a decree that, heretoafter, the brand formerly known as “Chevy” (as in “levée”) will be called “Chevrolet” and nothing else.

GM decree: No more Chevy at the levée

A po-faced memo, sent to all to all employees working at the megamarque’s Detroit HQ, says: “We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with family friends, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward.” Then, without a trace of irony, it goes on to observe: “When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding…”

Er, no. Consistency, certainly; but Coke is “Coke” and the “Apple” in “Apple Mac”  is silent.

The memo is signed by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim  Campbell, Chevrolet’s vice president for marketing, but I strongly suspect the influence of  GM’s wunderkind marketing supremo Joel Ewanick, freshly hired from Nissan. Ewanick, it will be recalled, spectacularly fired Publicis Worldwide from the $600m ad account the minute it had won it and installed his old chums from Hyundai days, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, in its place.

Branding by decree never works when what you are up against is the property of popular culture. And Chevy (whoops, a quarter into that Detroit cuss bucket by the water-cooler) – GM’s biggest brand, accounting for 70% of its sales – is very much public property. Need I go further than quote the New York Times here? …”What about rolling back the popular culture references to Chevy? Elton John, Bob Seger, Mötley Crüe and the Beastie Boys have all sung about Chevy, and hip hop artists rap about ‘Chevy Ridin’ High’ or ‘Ridin’ in my Chevy.”” Not merely Don McLean, then.

Just to underline the wrongheadedness of it all, I have a personal anecdote to relate on this very subject. Shortly after he was installed as president of InBev UK and Ireland, Richard Evans tried to address the plummeting brand equity and sales of his company’s flagship product, Stella Artois, by deleting from the record all references to its popular sobriquet “Wife Beater”.

Kowalski: Not Stella

It was, I suppose, a bit mischievous of Marketing Week to run a cover story illustrating the sad decline of this once proud brand with a still taken from A Streetcar Named Desire, featuring Stanley Kowalski (aka Marlon Brando), clad  in “Wife Beater” tee-shirt and wielding a (photo-comped) bottle of the offensively-misnamed brew in his hand. Evans, inevitably perhaps, had a sense of humour loss and threatened to sue over defamation of the brand. A casual search of Google revealed over 1 million references linking Stella Artois to “Wife Beater”, some going back to the Sixties. We heard no more from the other side’s lawyers.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that his run-in with Marketing Week had anything to do with Evans’ precipitate departure from InBev less than two years into the job. Merely that high-handedness and successful branding are not good bedfellows.

UPDATE: Furious back-tracking by senior GM executives, who now realise what a PR blunder they have made. The memo was “poorly worded”, they admit; “We love Chevy. In no way are we discouraging customers or fans from using the name”; But “Chevrolet” will have to stay, otherwise foreigners (?!) won’t understand the brand. Globalisation, just like Marathon and Snickers, eh? Not.  More on the controversy here.

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