In 1910, if you heard the word “Chevrolet,” you would have most likely recalled the French racecar driver who was quite famous at the time. The car brand by that name didn’t exist. Fifty years ago, if you saw the word “Nike,” you would have thought of one thing and one thing only—the Greek goddess of victory. Less than 20 years ago, “Google,” “Youtube” and “Facebook” would have made no sense to you whatsoever. Now, of course, all these brands are household names and essentially own the word that originally meant something else, or nothing at all. Yet each is an example of how a brand name can start in one place and end up with a far different set of perceptions.
In 1911, Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss-born racecar driver of French descent, started the Chevrolet Motor Company in Detroit with several partners, including Will Durant, the recently ousted head of a brand name that always meant what it means, General Motors. Mr. Chevrolet was also an automotive engineer and sought to build high-performance automobiles inspired by the racecars of the day. (Louis’ brother, Gaston, would go on to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1920.) But tensions soon developed between Louis and Durant over the direction of the company. Durant wanted to build less expensive cars with mass appeal, while Chevrolet was set on his high-performance vision. In 1915, Durant bought the company and the brand from Chevrolet, and soon after used the profits from the company to purchase a controlling interest in GM, bringing the Chevrolet brand with him.
So the Chevrolet brand name that emerged onto the fledging automotive scene as a limited-production, foreign racecar driver’s sports car, evolved rapidly into a more mass-market automobile product, and eventually laid claim to being “America’s” car brand, with the long-running slogan, “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” Equally well-known now by its nickname, “Chevy,” the brand has retained none of its original connotation of a European famous for his exploits on the racetrack, and instead is as American and ubiquitous as, well, you know.
The Nike brand started with a different name–Blue Ribbon Sports–in 1964, switching to the Nike name and swoosh logo in 1971. By 1980, Nike had realized a 50 percent share in the U.S. athletic shoe market, but didn’t launch the infamous “Just do it” slogan until 1988. In 1970, only classics majors knew who Nike was. Today, of course, everyone knows Nike, though not for its namesake, but as the dominant global brand.
Could the same brand power have been generated around the ordinary-sounding “Blue Ribbon Sports” if founder Phil Knight had stayed with it? It’s doubtful. Could a “Chevy” by another name build the same loyalty and success over 100 years? Maybe.
But both of these brands borrowed a word with an existing meaning and ultimately came to own the term, with Louis Chevrolet long forgotten and Nike (the goddess) quickly left behind as the shoe brand built momentum. Many companies and organizations spend countless time and money agonizing over the names they use to start new brands. And the right name is critically important to a good start and future longevity.
But, ultimately, the meaning of a brand will come from the brand recognition and the unique meaning that a brand builds over time more than the actual term itself. Not too many consumers walking into a Honda dealership care about how Honda got its name. How many customers know (or care) that John Deere was a blacksmith born in Vermont in 1807?
Long-lived brands have a good chance of leaving their original meaning for the history books and, with a little luck, becoming the leading definition of a term. Using highly generic terms like “general” and “motors” will make this a harder task, as will attempting to own words that are already in common usage, such as “Blue Ribbon.” (Not to mention that trademarking them will likely be extremely difficult.) But if a company chooses a word that has some meaning to the audience, a good brand can often come to own the term, where the first meaning a person thinks of for, say, “Starbucks,” “subway” or “target” is premium coffee, fresh sandwiches or cheap chic retail, instead of a character in a novel, public transportation, or a bull’s-eye.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal.