Chances are that if you're interested enough in marketing to read this post, you're probably familiar with Coca-Cola's Share a Coke with a Friend campaign. It debuted in Australia, jumped to the United States, and has since made its way around the world.
Its signature element? The ability to buy a Coke bottle with your name on the label.
If your name isn't on their pre-established list, you can order a custom-printed bottle online—which also required a deep knowledge of local culture and language, as the company had to brainstorm words that they didn't want to appear anywhere near their product.
In some countries, the name-based strategy wasn't ideal—so Coke tweaked it to appeal to local customers. In India, that meant labeling the bottles with relationships instead of individual names, and doing so in 11 local languages.
A Coca-Cola executive in India offered up a quote that highlights the importance of transcreation: "We did not want to copy paste the global campaign and decided to add an Indian flavour to it." They were inspired by the global campaign, but used creativity and freedom to make it even more appealing to Indian consumers.
Transcreation in 100 Words or Less
Transcreation is a process that combines translation with copywriting and knowledge of the target culture to achieve a text that’s uniquely adapted to its target audience while still conveying a company’s brand and voice. It's most often used for short, high-visibility texts, like movie titles, slogans, or advertising copy.
Transcreation can go beyond words to include other aspects of cultural adaptation, such as colors, imagery, and even typefaces.
The ultimate goal of transcreation is to have the target language text generate the same thought process and emotions in the consumer that the source language does.
Why Does Transcreation Matter?
Most lists of translation “fails” circulating online include examples of slogans or other advertising material that was translated without taking into account cultural context. Or maybe the marketing team didn't understand that a given pun might not work in the target language.
A few classics:
- Braniff Airlines translated their “Fly in leather” slogan into Spanish as “Vuela en cuero,” without understanding that en cuero means naked in some Spanish dialects.
- French telecom company Orange used the slogan “The future’s bright … the future’s Orange” in Northern Ireland, They failed to understand that the word “orange” is seen as synonymous with Protestant organizations in that country, which gave their message an unintended meaning.
- KFC made their début on the Chinese market memorable when they used a translation of “Finger-lickin’ good” that was closer to “You’ll eat your fingers off”
More recently, Embratur (the Brazilian national tourism board) launched a new campaign aimed at English speakers featuring the slogan "Brazil: Visit and Love Us."
Reaction online was immediate and not at all favorable. Some people complained that it had a sexual connotation, which is especially problematic for a country that doesn't want to be perceived as a destination for sexual tourism.
Others stated that it didn't flow naturally in English. Among other issues, English speakers don't use the pronoun "us" to refer to a country; "us" is reserved for the people who live in a country, and "it" refers to the totality of a country—its land, people, culture, language. Additionally, using "love" or "like" as a command sounds overly demanding in English.
The back translation provided as part of the press release was "Brasil. Visite e encante-se," which can be rendered in English as "Brazil. Visit us and be enchanted," or "be amazed." While Embratur hoped to convey to visitors that they'd fall in love with everything Brazil has to offer, the result fell flat—so much so that the Brazilian Luxury Travel Association asked that it be taken out of use, calling it "ambiguous and easily misunderstood," and expressing frustration that tax dollars were spent on an advertising campaign that doesn't take into account best practices in the travel industry.
What Skills Does a Transcreator Need?
A successful transcreator has a skill set that extends well beyond translation. (Though they need to be good at that, too!)
To start, a transcreator has to be able to understand the source text: who is it addressing and how? This means they need not only to understand the text on the page, but its tone and voice. They also have to be familiar enough with the source culture to drill down and figure out who the target audience is.
In addition to knowledge of the source language, transcreators need excellent copywriting skills in their target language. They also need to have a profound understanding of their target culture so that they understand how to connect with potential consumers, and how to sidestep potential conflicts between the source and target cultures.
They need to be able to tease out answers to complicated questions surrounding brand and voice, whether they’re reviewing reference material or participating in a discussion with the client.
A transcreation consultant will also be aware of whether the target culture is a high-context culture or a low-context culture, and will be able to adapt the text accordingly.
Lastly, a transcreator should feel empowered to make necessary changes—and be capable of explaining and defending them when needed. I recently attended a talk where the speaker showed how a high-visibility paragraph of French text was trimmed down to one short sentence in English. The meaning was the same, but the team behind the translation determined that the English consumer would value concision and directness over ornate language, and were able to convince the rest of the marketing team accordingly.
Transcreation vs. Translation
When translating a document, the process is often linear. Once the source document is complete, it’s provided to the translator, who renders it in the target language. The target-language document then undergoes editing and/or proofreading before being delivered to the client.
The transcreation process, on the other hand, is more iterative and less linear. When transcreating content, communication between the end client and the creative team is key.
Initially, a transcreator will want to see a creative brief as well as any applicable style guides or branding documents. If there’s no brief specific to the transcreated campaign, then they may need to ask some follow-up questions to better understand who the target audience is.
When transcreating, it’s important to bear in mind that the target audience for a product in market A may differ in demographic terms from the target audience in market B.
Once the target audience has been clearly defined, the transcreator takes the source language copy and begins crafting a target-language equivalent.
One of the most common ways that transcreation services differ from translation is that a transcreator will likely provide multiple options for the client to review and select from, often with comments or explanatory notes.
If the client is not highly proficient in the target language, the transcreator may also choose to include back translations of the target text to help them understand what's being conveyed.
What Are Some Examples of Successful Transcreation?
Beats by Dre: Two ways to convey durability
An article in AdAge magazine explained succinctly how Beats by Dre created a new slogan for French customers that reflects the meaning of the English, yet is completely independent from it:
The literal translation of its English slogan, “Made to take a beating,” would not make sense to French customers. The team came up with the slogan “Conçus pour résister à tous les tempos” (“Made to resist all tempos”), a play on the French phrase, “Conçus pour résister à tous les temps” (“Made to resist all weather conditions”).
Taco Bell: Fast food isn’t just hamburgers
One of my favorite examples of transcreation is a series of Taco Bell billboards I saw while living in Costa Rica. At the time, Taco Bell was using the slogan Think Outside the Bun in the United States to encourage customers to choose something other than hamburgers when they were craving fast food.
For Spanish speakers, this was translated as No solo de pan vive el hombre [English back translation: Man can’t live off of bread alone]. It's a clever usage of a commonly used Spanish saying that has its origins in the Bible.
Disney: From Moana to Vaiana
The Disney Company recently employed transcreation to avoid two potential issues within a single movie title. The movie Moana was released in much of Europe under the title Vaiana, and the main character’s name was changed, purportedly for two reasons. One is that the word Moana was already trademarked in Spain, making it harder for Disney to market both the movie and the associated merchandise. The other reason that the original name was problematic is that the name Moana is used by an adult film star from Italy—not an association that the Disney Company wants to make.
So Disney returned to the drawing board. Moana means “a large body of water” in two different Polynesian languages. They turned to a similar word to create a new name for the character. The new name, Vaiana, includes the Tahitian word Vai, for water.
Is Transcreation the Right Approach for Me?
When you're considering a foray into a new market, first take a close look at your existing marketing strategy, particularly high-visibility elements like slogans or ad copy.
If you use playful and creative language, make emotional appeals, or use slang or phrasings particular to a select group of people, then transcreation may be the ideal solution to ensure that those elements of your copy carry over into your target culture without generating missteps along the way.