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.

  • Nice details in this recounting of the Nova myth. The fact that GM knew Nova sounded like “no go” yet decided to run with it — and that the name wasn’t a problem after all — makes one wonder: when is a foreign language problem really a problem? For those interested, I delve into this very issue in Red Flags and Red Herrings, an article for Language at Work. http://www.languageatwork.eu/readarticle.php?article_id=36

    • Nancy Friedman

      Thanks for the link to that post, Anthony!

  • I think it’s appealing because it illustrates the failings not just of the high and mighty, but of GM specifically. It was during that time that GM became mired in its own bureaucracy and started to lose ground to the Japanese, particularly in the small-car market. Thus the Chevy Nova myth is just one more example of how clueless GM was about what customers wanted.

    • Nancy Friedman

      Interesting and accurate insight, Jonathon. But why the myth has persisted long after public opinion about GM shifted?

      • I’m not sure, but I think it’s because it still illustrates how (people think) GM used to be, and it still works as a cautionary tale about corporate foibles. But I’m just guessing here—I think you’d need a real folklorist to explain the appeal.

      • Nancy Friedman

        Aarggh — I meant to write “But why has the myth persisted…” of course!

  • As a holder of not one but two degrees in international business with an emphasis on cross-cultural marketing, I’ve heard this story infinity times. Had no idea it wasn’t true. Though as a teaching tool I suppose it served its purpose of beating home the message “Don’t assume anything!”

  • Mark L

    “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.”

    Well, GM may have. But at least one Japanese carmaker doesn’t (can’t remember which one). In South America, a Pajero is a breed of big cat, apparently; so no problem marketing a car of that name there. But in Spain it means something very, very different – so people are driving around Europe in a car called “Wanker” (which is the British English fr it).

    • Nancy Friedman

      That Japanese carmaker is Mitsubishi, and the US was the only market in which the model was called the Pajero. (It hasn’t been sold here since 2006.) The model is called the Montero (“mountaineer”) in Spain, India, and the Americas (except Brazil). It’s called the Shogun in the UK.

      So the “wanker” story is a bit of an urban legend, too!

      • Pamela Watson-Bateman

        It was called the Pajero in Australia – my husband drove one. In the UK the 4 door model was called the Shogun, but the 2 door was called the Pajero.

  • WatATing

    I remembered this example in a marketing class I took but there was also another one. When Solo soft drink manufacturers decided to expand their market to Latin America the team missed the cultural connotation of the name of the product “Little Boy” with its interpretation as “little penis”. Consequently they had to re-brand.

  • Angela Nova

    In 1988, I was enrolled in an advertising course at the University of Texas in Austin and our entire class was taught that the Chevy Nova car was the biggest marketing disaster in history. To now learn that this story is not true is funny, especially since I recently adopted “Nova” as my new stage name because of that story about the little car that didn’t go anywhere in Latin America. I talk about it in this video at 1:57 :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqwgmHFPi-o&feature=share&list=PLtRBWjJdVuAQ127X0TZ3isqnvXYoPFST_&index=2

  • Also Wondering

    Thank you. I have been rallying against this rumor for years and am going to repost something I posted recently.

    Actually No va means no go but nova means new such as Que es nova? meaning What’s new? Anyone who would mistake those two would also be likely to go to a carpet store to buy a pet for their car. It just doesn’t make sense. Mexico has a leading gas station named “NOVA” that does very well. Why would people go to a place that wouldn’t make their car go? When I was in Monterrey there were numerous Novas still operating. A check of sales records going back to 1962 shows that Novas sold just fine in Mexico and in fact exceeded projections in many Spanish speaking countries such as Venezuela. So I guess the question is What makes you think the Chevy Nova was not a hit in Mexico?

  • Damon Frost

    Urban legend. In spanish Nova = New star. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nova

  • Tatiana Rosati

    In Argentina the Chevy Nova is not called Nova, it’s called Chevy 500.