Nancy Friedman, chief wordworker, Wordworking
Sooner or later in almost any conversation about global brand names, someone will bring up the “well-known story” about the Chevrolet Nova, the compact car manufactured by General Motors between 1962 and 1979 and again from 1985 through 1988. The Nova “failed” in Latin America, the story has it, because its name means “no go” in Spanish.
That tale has been taught to generations of business students and recounted in hundreds of marketing seminars. It was repeated without challenge last October in the New Yorker, when, in an article about name development, reporter John Colapinto told readers: “The industry abounds in tales of cross-linguistic gaffes, like … the Chevy Nova—in Spanish, the ‘no go’.”
In June of this year, one of my blog readers saw fit to remind me of this history lesson. In a comment, he wrote that the Nova “did better when it was renamed.”
And the story has been immortalized in a Cheezburger cartoon that uses the satiric “Y U NO” meme:
There’s just one problem with the story: It’s untrue. Every single part of it.
Snopes.com, tireless investigator of urban legends, has done the research and definitively debunked the “no go” story. Nevertheless, not everyone has heard the news. So, as a public service, here’s my summary:
- In Spanish, “nova” and “no va” are pronounced differently and have different meanings. The latter has a stress on the second syllable and means “doesn’t go”; the former has a stress on the first syllable and means (as it does in English) “a big, bright star” or “Latin for ‘new’.” A native Spanish-speaker would be no more likely to confuse “nova” and “no va” than an English-speaker would be to confuse “notable” and “no table” or “carpet” and “car pet.”
- If a fluent speaker of Spanish wanted to complain that his car wasn’t running, he wouldn’t say “no va.” He’d say “no funciona” or “no camina”: “it isn’t functioning” or “it isn’t running.”
- Even before the Chevy Nova, “Nova” was a familiar brand south of the border: it was the name of a gasoline brand sold by Pemex, the state-owned petroleum company. People throughout the Spanish-speaking world had heard of Brazilian bossa nova, too.
- The Chevy Nova was never renamed for the Latin American market.
- Far from being a failure, the Chevy Nova sold well in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. It exceeded sales projections in Venezuela.
- According to Snopes, GM “was aware of the [‘no go’] translation and opted to retain the model name ‘Nova’ in Spanish-speaking markets anyway, because they (correctly) felt the matter to be unimportant’.”
If the “no go” story has been so thoroughly discredited, why is it still popular?
Gerald Erichsen, who writes about Spanish-language topics for About.com, has a theory. “Like many urban legends,” he writes, “the story has the appeal of showing how the high and mighty can be humiliated by stupid mistakes.” Snopes observes that the tale “makes its point so well – just like the apocryphal one about George Washington and the cherry tree – that nobody wants to ruin it with a bunch of facts.”
And there’s some logic to the legend. Linguistic screening is an important element of global branding: you don’t want to risk an international incident over an unintended vulgarity or an inappropriate connotation. By all means, vet your brand name for language conflicts as thoroughly as you do for legal ones. But let’s give credit where credit is due: big companies like General Motors have squadrons of localization experts, consultants, and lawyers whose job is to watch out for language blunders. They did the appropriate research. GM may be a big, easy target, but in the case of the Nova, all systems were definitely go.