Don McClean speaks out on the Chevy-Chevrolet DebateFor years now and despite all its woes, General Motors has been one of the more aggressive adopters of social marketing tactics among the big old American corporations. It has a social media team that pushes its products and fields complaints, using platforms from Twitter and Facebook down to Gowalla. Social’s been a big at GM for a while, with departed vice chairman Bob Lutz’ Fastlane blog being among the first of such corporate sites to gain traction. But in the new, post-bankruptcy GM social’s going to be an even more important part how the automaker relates to its customers, if we’re to believe this quote from Scott Lawson, director of customer and relationship services:

“In the old GM, we said you need to call us or you need to write us a letter. That’s not treating them how they want to be treated. In the new GM, we’re going to be where our customers want us to be.”

Too bad that doesn’t extend to what customers want to call your most famous products.

GM’s decision to strip the ever so popular nickname “Chevy” from its communications in favor of the proper “Chevrolet” is one of the most boneheaded corporate moves not committed by BP I’ve seen in a while. In breaking the news today, The New York Times does a great job of teasing out all the ways in which this is idiotic–not that the matter needs too much teasing. The Times got a memo from Alan Batey, VP for Chevrolet sales and service and Jim Campbell, VP of marketing:

“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 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.”

Duly noted in the times piece is that Coke is short for Coca-Cola and that Apple products like the iPod or iPad routinely stand in for the corporate brand. That said, it’s not necessary to delve into why this is a dumb move. It is worth looking at what this says about the chasm between the use of social media as a marketing practice and the creation of a culture that is built on truly listening to consumers.

Right now, it seems every company has a social media team that spends all their time Tweeting and Facebooking and blogging. But far too many of those companies are still making top-down decisions that don’t take into consumer preference. They see social media channels in much the same way they see traditional ones: as one-way delivery mechanism for corporate messaging. They miss the fact that these platforms are readymade listening posts where they can learn from consumers.

The fact that we’re still having this conversation is astounding. Perplexing. All the more so in Chevy’s case, which is so exaggerated and quixotic in trying to undo a deep-seated consumer habit for no reason other than some antiquated scrap of marketing research. It’s sure to stand as the New Coke for social media.

How this sort of decision-making unfurled is unclear. The Times piece links it to Chevy’s– that’s right, CHEVY’S — recent change out of its ad agency. Its new shop, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, is one of the more enlightened around and it’s difficult to believe its folks recommended this course of action. If they did, it suggests that ad agencies are still struggling with that the whole listening thing and are perhaps relying too much on old-line branding philosophies that are overly concerned with fallacious notions like brand consistency.

It also suggests some organizational shortcomings at GM — which I know is a shocking suggestion. GM’s corporate ethos should either get in line with its marketing approach, or it should do away with all the big talk about humanizing the company. What, for example, must Chris Barger, GM’s head of social media be thinking right now? And what does a social media team exist for if it can’t put the breaks on culture-blind, deaf and dumb moves like these? Let’s turn to Twitter, where so far he’s had a couple comments on the matter.

Asked “Chevrolet or Chevy?” his reply was simple.

“Chevrolet. :-)”

Then a bit later:

“@ThoroughbredFRD @annalisabluhm You have my permission to keep calling it #Chevy. ;-)”

I’m sure a little whiskey and rye sounds good right about now.

Matt Creamer is executive editor of Breaking Media. You can follow him on Twitter at @matt_creamer.