Transwhat? That’s what most humans—and nearly all spellcheck programs—ask when they encounter the word, transcreation. In this post, an excerpt from the book Global Content Strategy: A Primer by Val Swisher, we explore the concept of transcreation and why adapting translated content for effectiveness is a necessary part of a successful global content strategy.
Transcreation: Adapting Translated Content For Effectiveness
These days, every employee produces content. In addition to the usual suspects–marketing communication writers, technical writers, course developers–software engineers write user guides, technical support engineers write frequently asked questions, and (shall we dare?) VPs of marketing write blog posts. Some of those folks work at your corporate headquarters. Others may work far away at your regional or branch offices. Those people may include sales reps, country-specific marketing communication folks, other engineers, and technical support reps. All those remote people are creating content that makes its way out to your customers and beyond.
“Oh no,” you may say. “They can’t do that. Everything must be sanctioned by headquarters. Legal insists on vetting all customer-facing content.”
Don’t fool yourself. I’ve seen sales groups in the Asia-Pacific region create their own slide presentations. European marketing people create their own datasheets and case studies, even separate technical forums, in other languages, for local markets.
Everyone, everywhere, is creating content. Now. As you read this.
The Good News
If it’s news to you that people throughout your company are creating content, it’s good news. Who understands the needs of a local market better than the people who live there and speak the language, literally and figuratively?
Imagine that you work for a company that has a presence in many countries. Your job is to create marketing campaigns that generate interest, spur emotion, and drive sales. Sounds straightforward, right? Well, maybe. My travels have taught me that emotion does not necessarily translate. Emotions themselves–love, for example–may be universal. Heck, I believe that my dog loves me. She truly loves me. But I digress.
Whether or not you agree that all humans (and canines?) share a basic set of emotions, I think we’d all agree that the expression of emotion varies widely from culture to culture. Values vary. Facial expressions of emotion vary. In September 2011, the American Psychological Association published a study on the perception of facial expressions to indicate emotion. Dr. Rachael Jack found that people from different cultures may perceive facial expressions differently. In her study, Perception of Facial Expressions Differs Across Cultures, she noted that “East Asians and Western Caucasians differ in terms of the features they think constitute an angry face or a happy face.”
What Do Facial Expressions Have To Do With Creating Effective Content For Global Use?
A lot! If something as seemingly innate as a facial expression varies from culture to culture, then the words we use to express emotion may vary even more. After all, we have far more words at our disposal than facial expressions. And a good marketing campaign is all about emotion, isn’t it? Think about the best campaigns you’ve created or experienced. I bet they still evoke emotion, even if the product is long gone.
This reality presents a dilemma. How do you communicate a great, emotion-packed campaign across all the cultures that you need to target? While you might be able to translate the words, the campaign as a whole could be meaningless to someone a world away.
For example, I love the “Got Milk” campaign, which was created by the advertising agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners for the California Milk Processor Board back in 1993. Milk mustaches on celebrities. It was, and continues to be, a popular campaign. When I think about it, I smile. It’s simple. It’s straightforward. And it’s meaningless in many cultures. One intent of the ad is to make people smile when they think about milk. But because the meaning and emotion don’t translate, the ad fails in some cultures.
Consider the Kentucky Fried Chicken tagline “Finger-Lickin’ Good!” which got translated into Chinese as “Eat Your Fingers Off!”
For dozens of campaigns gone wrong, read The Little Book of Transcreation, by Louise Humphrey, James Bradley, Amy Somers, and Guy Gilpin. It will make you laugh (or cry if you were one of the poor souls involved in the case studies).
To create a global marketing campaign that evokes the desired response in every culture you target, you need to recreate the campaign–the words and the images–or every culture. This process is known as transcreation. Content that is transcreated is created for a particular culture, using the vernacular of that culture, often in a certain locale. Transcreation is more of a content development process than a translation process. Sure, transcreated content retains the brand logo and mark, the corporate colors, and so on. What it doesn’t necessarily keep is the message or expression of sentiment.
There are some great examples of transcreation on the web. Coca-Cola (www.coca-cola.com) has dozens of transcreated sites. Here are a few.
Coca-Cola is impressive in the amount of content they transcreate. They change not only the words but also the visuals and the layout – all to match the predominant culture of the target country. For example, the Japanese and Taiwanese sites have boxy layouts. These cultures are accustomed to seeing advertisements in a box format. Every site is customized.
This is great, isn’t it? They target every culture, every country. Wow!
The Bad News
There is bad news. (You knew it was coming, yes?) The bad news is that people all over the world are creating rogue content and sending it to your customers! Yikes! And you–the central point for all global content–may have no idea. You don’t know who is writing what, for whom, when, and for what purpose. You don’t know if the messaging is on target. You don’t know if the trademarks have been used appropriately. (Insert legal-team tantrum here.) You might know that “those people” are creating content “over there.” But get beyond the loose idea, and the picture gets fuzzy.
In all seriousness, it is a problem when nonsanctioned employees across the world go off and create their own content with no input, guidance, or knowledge from headquarters. It becomes a content management problem and, ultimately, a global content strategy problem. How can you plan your global content strategy if you don’t know about the content itself?
What Is The Solution?
The solution isn’t to mandate that all content come from headquarters. That idea won’t work. You are not going to get customized content to each region, specifically targeted to a local culture, properly localized, translated, or transcreated in time to meet every region’s needs. You can strategize and plan all you like, but it won’t work. No one knows a region as well as the people who live there.
The solution is to reach out to all your locations and involve them in the plan. As you plan your global strategy, take into account the various regions. Include them in your campaigns. Ask them if they plan to create their own content. Get to know your teams around the world. Invite them to share their plans with you. Share your plans with them. Ask how you can support them as you plan the global strategy for a product release, a website upgrade, or a sales campaign. Convince them that they can benefit from your efforts. Once everyone agrees with the plan, you can give them the freedom to use their knowledge of local customs to create targeted, culturally-appropriate material.
Then, make sure that the people creating the content know how to write. An engineer, for example, may lack the skills to write great marketing or sales copy, regardless of his or her native language. If you don’t have native writers located in-country, consider hiring a partner to do the transcreation instead. That way, you get the best writing, created in the language that you need.
Not So Fast!
Before you start adapting translated content for effectiveness, beware. The amount of organization, time, coordination, and, most of all, money required to create and update this type of extensive global presence is enormous. In all likelihood, you will need a separate creative team in each country. As products and campaigns are phased in and out, each team needs to plan and execute in lockstep. Otherwise, the sites look disjointed and unprofessional. The proliferation of visuals and taglines can be overwhelming. And you can only imagine the cost.
So what should a business – let’s say, one that generates less than several billion each year in revenue – do? Here are a few pointers:
- Make your campaigns as universal as possible. This may be difficult to do, given that we just agreed that there is no universal way to evoke emotion. And removing emotion from marketing materials defeats the purpose. But you can still try.
- Before you embark on any transcreation, have an infrastructure in place. By this, I mean a content management system, complete with tags and metadata, so that when you do come out with a new product, all the product images, for example, are stored centrally and can be easily found by all system users.
- Document your workflows and processes. Multiple people will be creating content for the same product at the same time. Reuse where you can. At a minimum, help each content creator know what the others are doing. You’d be amazed at the confusion I’ve seen (or maybe you wouldn’t).
- Prioritize the pieces to be transcreated. I know, sounds obvious. But it’s always worth saying. You might end up transcreating a top-level web page and maybe one level down (the pages that are one click away from the top level). And after that, you might direct people back to your home-language site (for example, English). In that case, make sure that the English pages are understandable to all your readers, including those who have English as a second language. Use simple words and phrases. Keep your sentences short.
- Make sure that all of your content is searchable in the target language. If I’m viewing a Japanese page and want to search for something that happens to be on an English-only page, I still need to be able to search for it in Japanese. Or German. Or Swahili. Recently, I was shopping at a multinational company using their French website. I was interested in returning an item. I could not find any information in French on how to return the item. I tried searching every French term for return that I could think of. Instead, I had to search in English and be directed to the English returns page. Imagine how frustrating this would be for a customer who does not speak English. Tagging your English pages for multilingual search can be a huge task. Start with the most important terms. For example, I think it’s important to be able to return a product and I might not know the word for return in English. Add terms as quickly as you can after that.
What you should not do is take your new, witty, hip branding and assume that you can translate it into Farsi, Arabic, Mandarin, or any other language without evaluating it–the language, the images, the layout, the medium, and everything about it–for cultural appropriateness. You might end up creating one of those disasters that people like me write about.
Transcreation is a content development process in which content is created–and customized–for a particular culture, in a particular language, or for a particular region. Transcreated content is not translated from a source; it is a source. It does not necessarily exist in any other language.
Remember these two main points when adapting translated content:
- Done well, transcreated content evokes the desired emotional response in cases where the original expression of emotion might not translate.
- Employees all over the world are already transcreating content. They just haven’t told you.
While overusing transcreation can create expensive headaches, using it for the right content at the right time can yield excellent results.