You may have heard the story of the Chevy Nova. In naming circles, it’s legendary.
This is how the story is often told: from 1972-1978, the Chevrolet Nova sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries, because its name translates as “doesn’t go” in Spanish. Epic fail! If only General Motors (GM) had done their linguistic-screening due diligence on that name.
But, in truth and reality, the name never actually harmed sales in Latin America.
Nova or not no va, that is the question
The story of the Chevy Nova is a myth. For one thing, Spanish speakers know the difference between “no va” (doesn’t go) and “nova” (a star suddenly brightening). The Chevy Nova story became an industry joke, a meme, and a cautionary tale for the ages. Snopes does an excellent job debunking this story. Here’s the setup:
It’s the classic cautionary tale about the pitfalls of doing business in foreign countries that can be found in hundreds (if not thousands) of books about marketing: General Motors introduced their Chevrolet Nova model of automobile into a Spanish-speaking market, then scratched their heads in puzzlement when it sold poorly. GM executives were baffled until someone finally pointed out to them that “nova” translates as “doesn’t go” in Spanish. The embarrassed automobile giant changed the model name to the Caribe, and sales of the car took off.
Legend has it that this was an epic naming fail. It’s assumed that it must have been a colossal embarrassment for GM, and heads must have rolled. But we know, in fact, that’s completely untrue. Snopes continues with their debunking:
This anecdote is frequently used to illustrate the perils of failing to do adequate preparation and research before introducing a product into the international marketplace. It’s a wicked irony, then, that the people who use this example are engaging in the very thing they’re decrying, because a little preparation and research would have informed them that it isn’t true. (The sources that repeat this little tale can’t even agree on where the Nova supposedly sold poorly, variously listing locales such as Puerto Rico, Mexico, South America, or simply “Spanish-speaking countries.”) This is another one of those tales that makes its point so well — just like the fable about George Washington and the cherry tree — that nobody wants to ruin it with a bunch of facts. Nonetheless, we’re here to ruin it.
Indeed they are — beginning with the most obvious fact: Spanish speakers know the difference between “no va” (doesn’t go) and “nova” (a star suddenly brightening).
First of all, the phrase “no va” (literally “doesn’t go”) and the word “nova” are distinct entities with different pronunciations in Spanish: the former is two words and is pronounced with the accent on the second word; the latter is one word with the accent on the first syllable. Assuming that Spanish speakers would naturally see the word “nova” as equivalent to the phrase “no va” and think “Hey, this car doesn’t go!” is akin to assuming that English speakers would spurn a dinette set sold under the name Notable because nobody wants a dinette set that doesn’t include a table.
Snopes provides more fun facts regarding Spanish pronunciation and the Mexican government-owned oil monopoly Pemex successfully selling gasoline in Mexico for years under the name “Nova.” They also bring up the impossibility of anyone at GM or their partners in Latin America seeing this brand under development and not knowing what the name means and doesn’t mean in Spanish. Finally, even the supposed “renaming” of the Chevy Nova to “Caribe” is cancelled:
The one bit of supporting evidence offered to back up this legend is spurious as well. General Motors, we’re told, finally wised up and changed the model name of their automobile from Nova to Caribe, after which sales of the car “took off.” The problem with this claim is that the Caribe sold in Mexico was manufactured by Volkswagen, not by General Motors. (The Caribe was the model name used by VW in Mexico for the car more commonly known in the USA as the Volkswagen Golf.) The Nova’s model name was never changed for the Spanish-speaking market.
Lessons from the Chevy Nova myth
The Chevy Nova story became an industry joke, a meme, and a would-be cautionary tale for the ages. In regards to brand naming, the Chevy Nova saga provides a double cautionary tale. The first is: don’t believe every “truism” you are told about names. As the Snopes article concludes:
The Chevy Nova legend lives on in countless marketing textbooks, is repeated in numerous business seminars, and is a staple of newspaper and magazine columnists who need a pithy example of human folly. Perhaps someday this apocryphal tale will become what it should be: an illustration of how easily even “experts” can sometimes fall victim to the very same dangers they warn us about.
The second caution: though the Nova saga is a myth, unintended meanings of names in different languages can still arise. Both cautions can be — and are — true. That’s where linguistic connotation screening comes into the picture.
Linguistic screening for peace of mind
For some naming projects, it is necessary to conduct linguistic screening for the leading name or names. Linguistic screening analyzes names for semantic meaning, usage, connotation, spelling, and pronunciation in a variety of foreign languages and dialects.
It is especially important to do a thorough linguistic screening when invented names are under consideration; names that may look or sound like words in a different language with meanings that are counterproductive. You know, like “no va,” only worse.
Using our linguistic screening service, we can assure our clients that the name we create for them will be easy to say, easy on the ears, and will not contain any “gotchas” in any of the languages being screened.