Friday, June 11, 2010

Push This Chevy Over the Levee

What’s in a name? For General Motors, apparently too much negative baggage. Or at least, so it implied in a memo Chevrolet executives sent out to the brand’s employees in Detroit this week, requesting that they stop calling their cars “Chevy’s”.

It’s “Chevrolet” or, depending on how you read the grammatically-challenged internal memo, “Chevrolet going forward”. Not that my grammar is stellar, but for a bunch of over-degreed head honchos parroting Madison avenue gobbledygook from their newly-hired PR firm, you’d think somebody in division headquarters would know how to properly incorporate trendy corporate-speak when composing correspondence.

Indeed, lame logic oozed from the memo. Attempting to explain why they wanted only one name for their brand (instead of two), authors of the memo pointed to Coke and Apple as examples of one-name products. Except, of course, “Coke” is shorthand for “Coca-Cola” and Apple is known by the names of its products, most of which begin with the letter “i”.

At any rate, the memo caused more than just a few raised eyebrows; one stunned Chevrolet employee sent a copy of the letter to the New York Times, and before long, the whole car world was buzzing about GM’s temerity to ignore one of the most widely-recognized names in the world.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, GM officials cobbled together a response that was even weaker than their first message. Appearing to be caught off-guard by the maelstrom of indignation from the public about the name change, executives sought to reassure the world that the memo had been written poorly (which, of course, we’d already determined) and that GM was basking in the glow of so much heartfelt sentiment towards one of their storied brands.

Yeah, right. Like maybe this whole episode wasn’t some publicity stunt cooked up by their new PR firm? With advertising costing as much as it does, why not take advantage of the free publicity we can cook up on the Internet by dropping a sloppy bombshell like, oh, getting rid of the endearment “Chevy”? Think that’d work?

Yup – it sure did. Auto wonks got all worked up over nothing, and Chevrolet got a ton of indirect brand exposure for both “Chevy” and “Chevrolet,” not to mention volumes of free market research to gauge how relevant its brands remain in the psyche of North Americans. Then they get to say the customer has spoken, and aww, shucks, folks: you’re embarrassing us with all of your praise of Chevy. OK, we take it back!

Chevy's Already Taken This Customer For a Ride

Not that they heard any words of praise from me. When I read the story online, at first I thought it was just another idiotic exercise in corporate-think, but I lost my affinity for Chevrolet or Chevy years ago, so it just seemed like another dumb move for GM.

You see - speaking of dumb moves - back in 1998, I bought a brand-new Chevrolet Malibu after reading glowing reviews about how it gave imports a run for their money. At the time, it was the smallest car I’d ever owned, but the interior was spacious and comfortable for a car that size, and it had a lot of luxury features for the price.

Within six months, however, it had developed an unstoppable oil leak, sometimes the car wouldn’t start, and mechanics at the dealership determined the driver’s door had been improperly manufactured and installed. It didn’t fit into the doorframe, and the window wouldn’t close properly. I can’t remember how many times I kept taking it back to the dealership, and how may loaner cars I had while they tried to fix the problems. Finally, my exasperated salesman told me my best course of action involved filing a Lemon Law claim against Chevrolet.

Which I did. At the time, Lemon Law claims were handled through local Better Business Bureau offices, so I forwarded all of my paperwork to their Fort Worth office for them to review, and scheduled an appointment. My hearing was quite simple, with a moderator who used to be in the car business serving as judge & jury, and a Chevrolet representative on a conference call from Detroit.

When the moderator told me he used to be an executive for a local dealership, I figured I had my work cut out for me, since he’d probably be prejudiced towards General Motors. But I plodded through all of my evidence, we went on a test drive, and I had letters from friends and my boss all testifying to the problems I’d been having with that new Chevy Malibu. The moderator took it all with a poker face, not giving me any hint as to how he might rule.

Our friendly Chevy guy, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more obnoxious. He yelled at me over the phone’s speaker, he challenged the work receipts from the dealership (even though the mechanics had written them, not me), and he scoffed at the testimonial letters I’d brought.

Then he asked me what I expected Chevrolet could do with a car that allegedly had so many problems. They couldn’t re-sell it in the condition I claimed it was in. They’d lose all their profit on that car.

Like that was any concern of mine! Bewildered, I remember glancing over at the moderator, who kinda rolled his eyes, his discrete impartiality beginning to wane.

Unfortunately, I had read an article about car dealerships sending cars with troubled histories to Mexico and Central America, where they could get away with hiding the cars’ problems they were legally required to tell their United States customers. So I mentioned that article to the guy from General Motors.

“So, you’re some kind of racist then, huh?” he pounced, convinced I’d betrayed the weak link in my chain, by which he could hang me out to dry. You’ll have to remember that this guy from Chevrolet had long ago run out of logical defenses, and had been poking around for faults in my character for some time during this hearing.

“Those Mexicans are good enough for cars like this, but not Americans, huh? Are you saying you’re better than Mexicans? What kind of an attitude is that?”

I was stunned. How did we go from discussing the multiple faults of a six-month-old Chevy to me being a racist? I turned to the moderator, and I remember shrugging my shoulders, my hands outstretched, completely clueless as to how I could respond to such a personal attack.

Fortunately, the moderator had heard all he needed to hear. He chided the Chevrolet representative for trying to make a personal attack against my character, and he decided the case in my favor, telling the Chevy guy to cough up a check for me covering the bill of sale less depreciation.

I had won… but I felt awful. Not that I’d proven my case, but that the guy from Chevrolet had been so ugly to me. How dare he try to save Chevrolet some money by maligning me! And I didn’t even say that Mexicans deserved to have mechanically-inferior cars; I had merely pointed out that it was American dealerships that were sending these cars south of the border. Oddly enough, the guy from Chevy didn't deny that.

I vowed then and there that I’d never buy another brand-new Chevy for the rest of my life.

Or Chevrolet, for that matter.

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