WTF Was Chevrolet Thinking?: Embrace Brand Nicknames, Don’t Reject Them


Last week an internal memo leaked to the press that indicated Chevrolet might be banning the use of the popular nickname “Chevy”. The public reaction was swift and sharp. To paraphrase, most of the media’s response was, “WTF? What are you thinking, Chevrolet? Have you lost your friggin’ minds?”

Only a few days later, Chevrolet decided that Chevy wasn’t so bad after all. In what was some of fastest backpedaling I’ve seen in a long time, Chevrolet suddenly saw the light and professed its love for the Chevy nickname.

We imagine that some up-and-coming brand manager at GM was trying to make their mark with a revolutionary change to the brand. He probably quoted some focus group research that supported the theory that Chevy downgrades the Chevrolet brand. That Chevy is low-end, and GM needed to ban its use to better elevate a flagging brand. (Um, isn’t that what the Cadillac brand is for?)

Regardless of what some focus groups or brand strategy research might suggest, the historical competitive trends prove that adopting brand nicknames is a guaranteed win-win. From time immemorial, nicknames for famous brands have been embraced and exploited. (Coke, Bud, Mickey D’s, heck, even Napoleon embraced his nickname “Roly Poly” — okay, I’m just making that one up!)

The point is large brands should love and embrace brand nicknames, not hate and recoil from them. Nicknames are often terms of endearment, and the same is true for brands. Customers start using nicknames for brands that they love and trust. It’s a great way of softening an otherwise megalithic and unfriendly corporate product brand. Most brands capitalize on their customer-given nicknames to help build customer loyalty through a friendlier moniker. What’s more, when customers feel they’ve had a role in creating a name or nickname, they feel more connected to the brand and brand name.

As I mentioned, many famous brands have adopted their company and product nicknames, both officially and unofficially. These include Disney (The Walt Disney Company), Coke (Coca-Cola), Pepsi (Pepsi-Cola), Mini (MINI Cooper), FedEx (Federal Express), Mickey D’s (McDonald’s sweet tea), Bud (Budweiser), Stoli (Stolichnaya), and Nick (Nickelodeon).

In fact, Nickelodeon embraced their nickname so much so that they created several brand name extensions around “Nick”.

Another category of nickname is the initialism. In these cases, the nicknames are less likely to be terms of endearment, and more likely to have been created for ease of use and pronunciation. It’s much easier to say HP than it is Hewlett-Packard. Much quicker to say HBO than it is to say Home Box Office. The list goes one to include initialisms like AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph), DQ (Dairy Queen), BP (British Petroleum), IHOP (International House of Pancakes), AOL (American Online), P&G (Procter and Gamble), VW (Volkswagen), and KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken).

And, while Burger King hasn’t officially used BK as their company nickname, they have used it extensively in their product names.

Finally, there are a few brands that have resisted the adoption of their brand nicknames. Despite decades of the VW Beetle being called “bug” or “buggy,” VW has resisted using it in an official capacity. The same is true for Bloomies (Bloomingdales), Caddy (Cadillac), Nordies (Nordstroms). In these three examples, the luxury brands have avoided a familiar nickname that would most likely devalue their premium brand image. On the other end of the scale, Target has only recently begun to embrace their tongue-in-cheek upscale nickname “tar-zhay.” A few television commercials have made use of the fancy moniker, but to my knowledge, Target has yet to fully embrace it in print. Finally, American Express has most likely avoided fully adopting AmEx because this is also the official nickname for the American Stock Exchange.

I’m pretty sure that Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, and Cadillac won’t be embracing their customer-given nicknames anytime soon. It certainly isn’t essential that a company adopt its brand nickname. However, it is important that companies don’t go around making declarations to avoid, ban, or destroy a nickname that endears them to their customers.


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