Brands behaving badly: the case for messiness

By this time, all the world is objecting to the proposal from G.M. to dump "Chevy" and hew to "Chevrolet."  it’s such a manifestly bad idea, it might actually be calculated to provoke the great linguistic love fest soon to follow.

But we can take issue not just with the what of the decision but the why.  Richard Chang of the Times gives us the memo from inside G.M.  It comes from the desk of Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division’s vice president for marketing.

“When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple or instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding,” the memo said. “Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer.”

I beg to differ.  Brands did once labor to present the same face in every medium and all markets.  In the second half of the 20th century, the world of marketing and especially design was all about consistency.  This is what the corporation paid us for: to get their semiotic ducks in a row.

That was the 20th century.  Brands now want to be many things to many people.  They are called upon to adapt in real time.  Some overarching supervision is called for.  But we want the brand to give off a certain vitality, vivacity, charisma even.  And these things, as we know, come more surely from complexity than consistency. 

Naturally, this makes the marketer’s job more difficult.  In the old days, once the choice was made, due diligence was all about policing the departures that were sure to spring up in every corner of the corporation.  Now, it’s managing a bundle of sometimes discordant meanings, expressed with a variety of various visuals (and audibles). 

"Chevy" is a worthy part of this bundle.  Nay, it has deep roots in American culture.  This makes it a meaning most meaning managers would kill for.  


Chang, Richard.  2010.  Saving Chevrolet means sending "Chevy" to dump. June 10.  here.


Thanks to Daniel Rosenblatt.

7 thoughts on “Brands behaving badly: the case for messiness

  1. Indy

    Grant – the book I’m writing about Intercultural Communication has some thoughts planned about cross-cultural branding… I think you’ve hit on the logic for the solution to the conundrum I’m going to pose… which is brilliant. I’ll blog about this as soon as I get a chance…

  2. Andrew W

    It’s ironic that the memo cites Coke, isn’t it?…considering the company is Coca-Cola.

    It’s worth discussing sports brands in this context. For example, I grew up with the Redskins, ‘Skins, Hogs, Hawgs, and “Burgundy and Gold”–all referring to the Washington, D.C., professional football franchise. To hew only to “Redskins” would have left no way to capitalize on fans’ own terms of endearment and, in fact, would have left the franchise more legitimately open to civil rights protests given that “redskin” was more strongly at one point the American Indian n-word.

  3. Patrick Pearce

    Coke, as you mention, is shorthand for Coca-Cola, and does nothing to take away from the real thing. The company produces over 250 commercials a year and throws them into a global pot for local operating units to choose from, because they have learned that one Coke does not fit all, and that applying one voice across the globe is just monolithically heavy. The fact that GM is on a lean and mean brand rationalization diet doesn’t mean it should get uppity with its number one nameplate. No doubt Chevy will continue to live on in popular vernacular long after it is deleted from ad copy. If I see a commercial with a consumer saying “My Chevrolet”, I’m going to gag.

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  5. arvind

    i think you may be missing something here.

    in the past, consistency was about control. and control was needed because jobs were highly specialised and tightly bounded. if you were in marketing, you made the message. if you were someone else, you didn’t know how or even what message you made, so you “got it wrong”; and that was a no-no. and because the corporation assumed you’d get it wrong if you weren’t in marketing, they wouldn’t help you make it right.

    now, a lot more people can make messages. in a lot more ways. and that allows people to understand the brand better. and the corporation has evolved ever so slowly that its beginning to tell its people how to “be on brand” (that is, to embody what makes the brand the thing it is). why lose opportunities to express the brand, when there are so many people in the corporation willing to do so?

    so i think what’s happening is that the messy, discordant meanings that have always existed — but left to wither — are now beginning to be marshaled and syncopated. chains of meaning and insight are percolating through the corporation from all directions, the resonances strengthened and the noise removed. and this is being supported by smart people who are realising this, of course. the rest: well…

  6. Carlos Lopez

    I beg to differ with the beggar (Grant), and with Mr. Campbell. You’re both wrong about the why.

    The idea of cohesive branded experiences is valid and worthy; messiness simply dilutes the power of a brand. Mr. Campbell’s error is in assuming that “Coke” has any less power than “Coca-Cola,” or “Mac” is any less recognizable than “Apple.” The danger may come in creating this new shorthand artificially (“NatGeo,” for example), and not stemming from the love and respect of a brand’s users.

    Grant, I feel that your “many things to many people” idea is spot-on, but can be handled in proper persona development and message refinement. The overall essence/mission of a brand should never change, regardless of audience.

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