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How Fiction Becomes Truth

by Denny Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 11:43:06 AM EST

I wanted to share something I came across a few days ago when I had to make a research paper on Marketing Failures (for my Marketing class). It is a really amazing example. For this purpose, I'll have to take you a little back into time. I don't think it is very popular especially among Europeans but you may have heard of it. It is about Chevy Nova expanding internationally and more precisely to Spanish speaking countries...and the great mistake General Motors did...


First, a few facts about the Nova: Chevy Nova (or also known as Nova II) was introduced by General Motors in 1962. It had five generations which differed mainly in body style. Nova was very successful brand especially because of its lower cost than Chevrolet Corvair which also was a compact car but was quite costly. GM ceased the production of Nova in 1988 when it was succeeded by Chevrolet Citation.

But what actually happened so that Chevy Nova is listed in the book of Matt Haig "Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time"? In the beginning of the 80s Nova hit the Mexican and Venezuelan markets. Due to an inefficient research made by the marketing team of GM, this expansion happened to be a debacle and lead to almost zero sales on those markets. The explanation was that "No Va" in Spanish language means "doesn't go" and the name of the car Nova (especially when said quickly) can easily be heard as "no va". The buyers weren't very willing to buy a car whose name implies that it wouldn't go. And that is how the mistake happened.  As a result, the story goes, Chevy Nova was renamed into Caribe and then sales immediately took off.

Of course, this sounds very improbable. For a company like General Motors, it is absolutely impossible to miss such an important part as the meaning of the name when studying the environment of those countries. That is why, nowadays it is almost certain that such a failure never occurred and the story is tagged as an "urban legend". Basically, supporters of GM and Chevy Nova say that the word "nova" in Spanish means the same as in English- new, or can be related to the state of a star. Furthermore, they say, sales in Venecuela actually exceeded the expected rates. Another thing is that Caribe was not produced by GM but was a brand of Volkswagen. And this is a fact.

Personally, I don't believe that the mistake ever occurred. The assumption that GM didn't check at least how the name will be accepted in those markets is too shallow for me. But nowadays, this example is in most of the Marketing textbooks and is taught at school as a classical example of marketing failure. So, if the students don't make the necessary research to see that it is not actually true, Chevy Nova on Spanish markets is positioned as a failure in their minds. I was really amazed how sometimes rumors can become truth just because it is convenient.

Have you heard of this "failure"? If yes, what is your position? If not--aren't you just amazed of this case? I hardly believed something may be so misrepresented.

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Have heard this story, my favourite one is about the car that was called "gay stallion" in Japanese. (I think)
by PeWi on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 12:49:32 PM EST
Oh, yeah, I came across this one too...:) It is sometimes too funny to believe it is true.
by Denny on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 12:51:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As an spanish speaker.. II can say that nova indeed sounds as no va.. but you really must make a joke about it. I doubt noone would not buy it for the name.It does nto sound bad to me.. you ahve to STRESS the joke. So, unless it becomes some kind of national joke because of TV influence (or a smart-dirt campaign of the competition) it would have no problem.. in Spain at least.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 01:33:11 PM EST
Thank you so much, kcurie!

I am in the process of learning Spanish right now (I enjoy it so much!!!) and was really curious whether the two words really sound the same way.

Actually, that was another claim by Chevy supporters- that General Motors knew how the name may be translated (or accepted) but regarded it too unimportant to affect sales. So, they did their job well!:)

by Denny on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 01:41:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In Portugal the old Opel Ascona, from the eighties, was called Opel 1604. That was de to the fact that the last four letters (cona) are the rudest word you can use for vagina. So, GM did their home work.

For a long time, presumably for the same reason, Rexona (deodorant) was marketed as Rexina. Now they don't seem to care, anymore, and in fact there wasnt and spring of bad taste jokes and rhymes around the product.

Just anedoctes, not really trying to be helpful...

by Torres on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 07:55:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you!

It is just amazing how many examples a person can come across nowadays... But I think, people are already used to not paying attention to the names of the different products.

It is the same with names of people. I have a professor (foreigner) whose name means "root" in Bulgarian but I am so used to the name that I don't really connect the name with its meaning in my language.

by Denny on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 10:14:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I heard that story many years ago, and must admit that I never questioned it.

On reflection, it does have the hallmarks of an urban myth. On the other hand however, GM has an absolutely atrociouis reputation for not listening to the people on the ground - especially about non-NA markets.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 01:36:03 PM EST
Yes, I also guessed at the beginning that GM overlooked the fact about the name...

But after doing that research, I found that GM actually knew about the name and how it may be accepted by Spanish speakers but eventually found it unimportant. And kcurie just affirmed that the way the name sounds wouldn't make a person not buy the car.

Basically, I believe there is something true in the whole story but most of it is made up.

by Denny on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 01:58:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I had heard it, and I had assumed that it was true.  This is, after all, GM we're talking about -- quite possibly the most incompetent of the major car makers.

An old bandmate of mine from high school owned a mid-1970s Nova.  Horrifying car to be a passenger in.  It used to cost him a fortune to fill up the tank, and that was back when gas sold for $1.30/gallon.  The dashboard was metal, and there were no shoulder-straps on the seatbelts.  He loved to fly down dirt roads -- there were, and are, only three paved roads in my parents' neighborhood -- and slide around corners at about 40 mph.  I was always sure that damned car would be the death of me.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 06:57:17 PM EST
Thank you for your comment, Drew J Jones:)

Honestly, I didn't know that GM have such a bad reputation... But now I see.

And maybe the reason why it didn't sell well on those markets wasn't actually the name but the car itself :)

by Denny on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 02:05:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To be honest, the story about Chevy Nova may not be true. But even if it was, I would accept it. Look at the way GM is ran today! It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they shouldn't be emphasizing full-size SUVs when the price of gas is about to hit $3.00 / gallon, which is unheard of in the States. So what do they do as their recovery plan? Introduce a bunch of brand-spankin' new SUVs! Do you think they don't do their homework? Or maybe they do it, but they don't want to make difficult decisions? Or maybe there are pricks like Rick Waggoner, who existed all throughout the time, and who just go by their "gut instincts" instead of logic and research. This could have been the case for Nova as well.

Mikhail from SF
by Tsarrio (dj_tsar@yahoo.com) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 07:12:03 PM EST
Maybe they didn't do their homework or they did but found the fact about the name unimportant.

But the mere fact that GM did not prove this whole story to be misrepresented, talks to me that there was something of a truth. I couldn't find any evidence of Nova's sales on those markets. But maybe it was too long ago and they think people have forgotten about the case.

by Denny on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 02:15:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You're right.  Chevy just advertised its Suburban SUV on television here, while gas is $2.87/gallon and the markets are going insane everytime Iran so much as sneezes.  GM just doesn't learn.  Ford immediately went after the hybrid market with its little Escape-Hybrid model.  I couldn't pick up a newspaper without see an ad for it.  The only problem is that I've yet to actually see one on the road, but I've seen ads for their new Mustang model ("Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh boy!  It's ugly, inefficient, and it costs twice the price of my car?  How can I resist?").

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 07:29:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Isn't Mitsubishi Pajero called something else in Spanish-speaking countries?

You have a normal feeling for a moment, then it passes. --More--
by tzt (tzt) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 08:18:43 AM EST
I didn't actually come across this one but since you mentioned it... Yes,it is.:)
by Denny on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 10:02:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What is true? What is fiction? Here we are 2,500 years after Heraclitus, and no one has yet to answer this question satisfactorily.
by Upstate NY on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 01:34:39 PM EST
that's the funniest post i've read in a while, lol!

it would be the same in italian too.

italy loves this kind of stuff:

the bus company in siena is called 'traiin'

i always giggle when i think of the confusion this must cause countless tourists!

down the road from me there is a tractor parts factory, proudly called 'meeat'

etc.

for the scatos, there is plenty of cheap glee over the a.n.a.s national road works, and enel electricity monolith!

nb, the italian pronounciation of 'e' is like 'ay'

ah yes the transition period towards a one-world language has many a hilarious bump in the road....

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 05:33:19 PM EST
Thank you, melo!

You just cheered up my day!:)

by Denny on Thu Apr 13th, 2006 at 02:12:37 AM EST
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