My trademark antennas automatically rise when I hear about a brand owner announcing plans to trade in one brand for another, as GM recently and surprisingly did with the Chevy nickname (brand and trademark), in favor of the longer and more formal Chevrolet brand name (and trademark). Hat tip to Nils Montan of IPAlly, for spotting GM’s Chevy veering toward the levee.

These sorts of announcements can be hazardous because, in my experience, many brand owners fail to appreciate that trademark rights are immediately abandoned when use is stopped with no intention to resume use. Moreover, many marketers fail to appreciate that token use won’t save trademark rights from becoming abandoned.

Putting aside the somewhat complicated issue of "lingering goodwill," once abandonment has occurred, the mark enters the public domain, free for anyone else to adopt, use, and own. For more on trademark abandonment, you might want to check out my prior post entitled Dialing in on Trademark Abandonment.

Having said all that, GM, trademark types, and others can rest easy, with the Chevy "pink slip" debacle, since GM had not even come close to ceasing use of the Chevy trademark when it announced the plan for a brand name overhaul. In addition, it appears that the planned brand name overhaul has now been recalled. Fortunately for GM, an expressed intention to stop using a brand only triggers abandonment once all bona fide use has ceased. GM is so deeply invested in use of the Chevy brand and trademark, it is hard to imagine how long it might take to cease all use, even if it really tried.

So, why the announcement? What’s the point? Why even toy with voluntarily discarding such valuable intellectual property rights? Was it a test to see if anyone cared? If not, why favor three syllables over two anyway?

In a world where there is a clear trend toward truncation and informality (Coca-Cola and Coke, Gatorade and G, Bubblicious and B, Stride and SFederal Express and Fedex, Radio Shack and The Shack, Pizza Hut and The Hut, Vanderbilt and Vandy, Villanova and Nova), one must wonder whether "the good ‘ole boys were drinkin whiskey and rye," when they issued this ill-conceived memo to "Chevy" employees:

Chevrolet Team,

We wanted to write you a quick note requesting your support of our Chevrolet Brand. When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding. Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer. This is a big opportunity for us
moving forward.

As you know, we are investing substantially to improve the consistency of our retail facilities through the EBE process. Aside from the facilities aspect of our branding, there are many other ways in which we can demonstrate this consistency. One way to achieve this is with the use of Chevrolet vs. Chevy. We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward.

We have a proud heritage behind us and a fantastic future ahead of us … speaking to the success of this brand in one consistent manner will ensure Chevrolet becomes even more prominent and recognizable than it already is.

Thank you for your support of this effort!

Alan and Jim

P.S. We put a plastic “Chevy” can down the hall that will accept a quarter every time someone uses “Chevy” rather than Chevrolet! We’ll use the money for a team building activity.

Putting aside the hailstorm of criticism that already has pummeled the memo, to me, brand consistency means GM always spells the Chevrolet brand name the same way, not alternating, for example with this mispelling: Chevrolay. In addition, it means, GM always spells the Chevy brand name the same way, not alternating, for example with these mispellings: Shevy or Chevee. It doesn’t mean a choice is required between Chevrolet and Chevy, they are not mutually exclusive brand names, both can live together, in fact, they can and do complement one another, in my humble opinion, as a multiple Chevy owner and trademark type.

So, while GM’s CHEVY trademark registrations covering goods in Int’l Classes 16, 25, and 28, and the CHEVY TRUCKS registrations covering goods in Int’l Classes 1420, 21, 25, appear undamaged by the memo debacle, what about GM’s intent-to-use trademark application for the CHEVY mark covering goods in Int’l Classes 7, 8, and 9, wherein an extension of time to file a Statement of Use was filed on June 7, 2010, just a few days before the Chevy memo published? Let’s just say that if there was no bona fide intent to use the CHEVY mark on the goods listed in the extension request on June 7, this application and any resulting registration, is vulnerable to attack, even if use on other goods has not ceased.

Briefly back to the reason for the memo, perhaps GM was really concerned about Chevy Chase Bank truncating to Chevy, and diluting GM’s Chevy rights, or perhaps, conflicting with GM plans to open a Chevy bank, since Chase, the other possible truncation of Chevy Chase Bank, is already taken. Who knows?

More seriously, do you buy GM’s international explanation for the memo?