Tuesday, May 20, 2008

People Who Love Telling the Chevy Nova Story About How "Nova" Actually Means "No Go" in Spanish

If I have to hear this cautionary marketing tale one more time, I may just start slitting throats. I don't know what gets me more - a) that the story is a bogus urban legend (more on that in a bit), b) that the entire rationale for diversity in business seems to rest on the strength of this one anecdote...

Or c) that every nincompoop, tie wearing, pit stained professional who clears his throat and says "Let me tell you a little story about the Chevy Nova" seems to be under the impression that no one has heard this story before. I think "C" wins. Over the dozens of times I have heard the Chevy Nova story, the speakers have all had this beatific attitude like they were about to relate the parable of the good Samaritan to virgin ears. Nobody, and I mean nobody who tells an audience the Chevy Nova story ever considers that we've heard it 18 times. There's just something about the Chevy Nova story that makes a man think he can dazzle an audience. I am here to tell you that it is not so.

Of course, it's not just the Chevy Nova story that suffers from this weird problem. Other factoids and bullet points from the history books also tend to lather people up into this lecture mode. Have you ever had someone tell you, with solemn authority and a clear expectation that your worldview was about to be shattered, that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? That Jesus was Jewish? That Hitler came to power legally? Oh, the worst is Schrodinger's cat. What is it about Schrodinger's cat that makes everyone think they can blow your mind?

But I digress. Let's fight one battle at a time. Here, just for the record - and not to imply that you don't already know it - is the short version of the Chevy Nova story. General Motors wanted to sell the popular Chevy Nova in their two largest Latin American markets: Mexico and Venezuela. However, because they didn't embrace diversity, it never occurred to anyone at GM that "Nova" in Spanish means "No Go". The car was a complete failure in those markets as a result. The lesson? Diversity. Hire some brown people.

Now, I can't remember the first time I ever heard the Chevy Nova story. I know that every textbook I had from high school onward was legally bound to include it somewhere. And every teacher found some excuse to invoke it. But things didn't reach a critical mass until I started going to business school in 2004. Business school, as it turns out, is not about preparing you to succeed in the professional world. It is actually an elaborate Chevy-Nova-story delivery system, complete with its own staff, campus, endowments and government sponsorship. UNLV had one mission - and it was to tell me the hell out of that story.

It got to the point where I would start judging the professors on their skill at telling the story, like some ancient Greek Homeric recital where we all know the story, we just want to see the craft of the storyteller. Would there be some flourish of the arms? Would there be some invented detail about how the CEO cast his eyes sadly around the room, and realized he didn't see a single brown face?

I am not the only one fed up with the Chevy Nova story. A quick search on google will reveal dozens of web sites all sounding the same alarm: the story is completely bogus. GM knew full well that "no va" meant "no go" when they launched the car in Latin America. But they launched it anyway, with the correct reasoning:

1. The word "Nova" did exist in Spanish (e.g. Bossa Nova) with the intended meaning intact. There was even a brand of gasoline in Mexico called Nova.
2. No reasonable Mexican would confuse "Nova" with "No va." just as no American would confuse "carpet" with "a pet that belongs in your car".
3. "No va", in Spanish, is incoherent as a statement that a car is broken. A person would say "no marcha" or "no funciona" instead.

Did the Nova bomb in Mexico? No, it sold well. In Venezuela it exceeded sales expectations. The thing about the Chevy Nova story is that requires stupidity on all sides - the executives at GM had to be rock-stupid, and the entire population of Mexico/Venezuela also had to be exquisitely dumb - for the story to make sense. But then, to buy the Nova story as some sort of compelling rationale for corporate diversity, you'd have to be pretty dumb yourself.

You see, the argument for corporate diversity is that without it, you end up in "Nova" type situations. You end up making some terrible blunder. You don't appreciate cultural differences, you don't truly understand your customer, so you end up botching your marketing or your customer relationship management. A secondary argument is that without diversity, you don't get the full advantage of all perspectives in your internal operations.

Now, the viking in me wants to pick up a broadsword, some sort of Claymore or Zweihander, and just start hacking my way, screaming and foaming, through the dense bullshit in those arguments. But to keep this completely on point, I'll just point out the errors in the Chevy Nova morality tale as they relate to the diversity case.

Let's say the Nova story was not urban legend. Let's say it was more or less true. Can we conclude from it that GM suffered from a diversity deficit? Putting it another way, does the Nova debacle justify jettisoning a race-blind hiring policy and instituting a race-conscious hiring policy? Because that's what diversity ultimately comes down to. Do we consider race as a factor in hiring, or do we regard that as unconscionable? The Nova story says: "As uncomfortable as you might be with it, you have to consider race in hiring - because the alternative is business failure."

But no, it isn't true. The argument, much like the Nova story itself, is a pungent crock. If I hired a Hispanic person who spoke no Spanish, I'd be no closer to avoiding the Nova disaster. If I hired a white guy who spoke fluent Spanish, I could avoid the Nova disaster. The ethnicity of the employee is irrelevant. If GM wants to launch a car in a new market, they need native language speakers and marketers who are knowledgeable about the target market. Even though experts in Venezuelan marketing would indeed be disproportionately Hispanic, they would not have to be Hispanic. And so to make "being Hispanic" a plus in the hiring decision, you are discriminating unfairly.

And this, mind you, is in the very limited case of an exporter looking to introduce an American product to a foreign market. How the Nova story is supposed to be universal is completely beyond me. If I run a hardware store in Omaha and need to hire a stocking clerk, how does the cautionary Chevy Nova tale inform my hiring decision?

These are the thoughts that go through my head when some lecturer launches into the exciting story of the Chevy Nova, and the ironclad case it makes for embracing workforce diversity. This is what I go through when I see an affirmative action debater masterfully recite the tale as if she's playing the ace of trumps.

And now, to calm down, I will play some Grand Theft Auto IV. Take me away from all this, GTA. Make the hurt stop.


Anonymous said...

Is that your Nova On top? I got a 68 Nova myself and live in South Texas which means I have to hear that No Va joke all the time! Some people even the repeat it twice. The Chevy Nova is one of the best Chevys ever made and my is still running after 40 some years!

Rowsdower said...

No sir. It's a stock photo.

Anonymous said...

What does nova mean in relation to the chevy? I know impala is that gazelle a fast animal and caprice is a change or something like that, trans am is that race firebird etc..but what is meant by chevys nova?

Anonymous said...

I would like the author of this article to prove that the claim the Nova didn't sell well in Mexico/other Spanish markets to prove it. What are your references? All I see here are teh exact same claims I've seen on other websites that all appear to take information from each other without having any valid point of reference. Where have you found any proof of Nova sales in Venezuela? PROVE IT!

Rowsdower said...

First of all, I don't see why I've got the burden of proof in this case. Whoever wants to tell me the cautionary Chevy Nova tale has the burden to show that sales were poor. Otherwise the story is just an urban legend.

But I'm a nice guy, I'll help you out. My source was Snopes, which I linked to in the blog. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you'll see the sources. The one you're interested in is the letter from a General Motors Director named Francis Hammond, who wrote a letter in 1993 saying among other things that the Nova exceeded sales expectations in Venezuela. This letter was made public on the old Usenet. It was easy to look up, it's here:

As far as proof goes, that's probably as good as it's going to get, since Chevrolet isn't going let you read their books. But again, where's YOUR proof that the sales were poor?

The Comedian said...

I like the idea of the Nova story being "The Aristocats" for business school.

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Unknown said...

Why did Chevy change the car name to Caribe if it was doing so well as a Nova? I have hear this story since the 1970s when the name was actually changed. Long before any type of internet.