International Business: Chevy Nova tale, other global marketing myths debunked

Published: Friday, July 22 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Barte Hess details his 1963 Chevy Nova SS during the Keep On Rollin' Charity Car Show at Brighton Ski Resort on July 26, 2008. Did you hear the one about the Chevy Nova that flopped in Latin America because "no va" means "it doesn't go" in Spanish? Sorry, it's not true. This and other stories are myths, but here are some funny international blunders that actually did occur.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives

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SALT LAKE CITY — Many of you may have heard the amusing tale of how Chevy allegedly tried to sell the ‘Nova’ car to Spanish speakers in Latin America, but the brand flopped because, in Spanish, “no va” means “it doesn’t go.” From textbooks to industry articles, the Nova anecdote is probably the most often cited illustration of the perils of global marketing.

However, fortunately for Chevy, the story is just a story and never actually happened.

Indeed, as far as anyone (including myth debunker Snopes.com) can tell, this Nova blunder never occurred. No record exists of a campaign to sell Novas in any Latin American country and, even if the alleged campaign had existed, it probably would not have flopped due to its moniker. “Nova,” a single word, actually means the same thing in Spanish as it does in English and is a reference to stars, not an object’s ability to move. In fact, for years, the Mexican government-owned petroleum company Pemex sold gasoline under the brand name Nova, and the name did not cause any problems for them.

The Chevy Nova is not the only urban legend spread throughout international marketing circles. Like the childhood game of telephone, which illustrates the errors created when tales are passed down the line, many international marketers and journalists have inadvertently shared similarly debunked anecdotes. When I first heard the Chevy Nova story and others like it, I also repeated them several times before others corrected me. Fortunately, true stories can illustrate the same global branding lessons.

Instead of using the Nova example, the same branding lesson could be taught with the story of the Tiz razor brand that meant “passing wind” in the Qatar market. Several credible success stories also make the point that preparation helps companies avoid big headaches in global branding. For example, as referenced in a previous column, Proctor & Gamble choose to name a detergent Dreft after another proposed name, “Dreck,” was found to mean dirt, garbage, body waste or a four-letter expletive in German and Yiddish. Similarly, Rolls Royce elected to change the name of a new car from Silver Mist to Silver Seraph when it prudently discovered prior to launch that “mist” sounded like German slang for manure.

Some translation professionals have suggested it may not matter that these anecdotes are false, because the lessons they illustrate are what matter most. Localization is more difficult than many suppose, and preparation is crucial to international product success. Perhaps communicating these lessons is more important than debunking the myths.

However, with so many real examples of global marketing blunders committed or avoided, why should anyone risk his or her credibility by knowingly spreading false rumors?

For example, we can stop snickering at former president John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” as his German audience did not understand that to mean — as long rumored — “I am a jelly doughnut.” More valid and current linguistic gaffes come to us courtesy of U.S. President Barack Obama or secretary of state Hillary Clinton as they tried to appeal to audiences in other languages.

Some of the most popular global marketing myths are partially based on fact, but the stories have been distorted, often in an attempt to extract a bigger laugh at the expense of a large, well-known corporation. In a recent column, I retold a story from Kate Edwards about how Microsoft once had to recall copies of Windows 95 from India because of a map blunder. This blunder really happened, but Edwards informed me that U.K.-based newspapers added a little slant in their reporting of the incident and even fabricated a quote from Edwards saying, “It cost millions.” Without embellishment, this and other Microsoft examples would have still been great on their own. No one needed to twist the facts to make a valid point.

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