Just ask Shorty—nicknames are rarely chosen by the ones who wear them, they’re assigned. And for major brands, those nicknames can wield immense power: they can permanently shift a brand name or image, and have the ability to solidify a connection with people’s daily lives—but only if the brand accepts that the nickname exists and has the guts to adopt it.

KFC, BevMo, FedEx, and Chevyall bear the mark of affection and cultural currency – a place to be treasured by a brand.  After all, no rational argument can drive sales like emotional affinity and likeability can.

But not every brand is inclined to accept their public-generated monikers so easily—after all, brands work hard to get anyone to remember their name in the first place! A couple weeks ago GM issued a curious memo to their employees and affiliates —one that they quickly revised—directing them to drop the familiar “Chevy” nickname in communications and instead use the more formal “Chevrolet” consistently. This precipitated an immediate and vehement uproar in forums and social networks. It took only a quick check against ongoing banner ads, TV spots, and even GM press releases referring to “Chevy,” to see that GM was well aware of their gaffe, and was tip-toeing back from the brink of catastrophe. In a smart move after fumbling what should have been a minor announcement about tightened international brand guidelines, GM took the opportunity to demonstrate that a dogged adherence to consistency in brand communications was eroding their ability to maintain authentic connections with consumers.

Of course, it’s not easy to strike the right balance, and snapping to a formal name consistently across communications is superficial if you’re not staying consistent with the cultural value and affection ascribed to your brand by consumers. Sure, it’s important for new brands to speak with a consistent voice, and to be disciplined about how they bring their brand to life through products, service delivery, design, and communication. But mature brands have an opportunity to entrench themselves more deeply with their fans. They can leverage an open dialogue with the public (social networks make this easier than ever) to gauge opinions and look for trends—nicknames not excluded—that can help build and maintain emotional connections.

And no, not every brand needs to build a deep relationship with its consumers —but brands must recognize that they serve as cultural short-hand for personal identity, beliefs, style, and other manifestations of “me.”  In our industrialized information-laden society, the brands we choose, use, and ignore are part of the tools we use to define who we are. So when you change a well-loved brand or identity in the wrong way (think new Coke), you’re asking customers to change a little part of their own identity as well.  Good luck with that!

The best way to win hearts and minds – and isn’t that what it’s all about? – is to embrace existing perceptions and make them work for you. Besides, my Dad drove a Chevy.

Advertisements