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Why transcreation is important – of wax tadpoles and other pitfalls

in Market Research

transcreationBefore going on a holiday abroad, most of us will find out about the country we’re going to, its culture and history. We don’t tend to travel to the other side of the world expecting everyone to speak our language and share our cultural references. When it comes to marketing however, that’s exactly what some brands choose to do – with varying success. Transcreation is the idea of knowing your international audiences and addressing them more successfully, with a message in their own language.

Ignorance with regard to a country’s cultural conventions is unlikely to be rewarded with customer loyalty. If an excellent, well-thought-out English campaign becomes a success in the UK, this does not mean its translation will necessarily fare well on the Spanish or Japanese market. The most obvious translation might be irrelevant or downright confusing, and in the worst case offensive. Instead of captivating a global audience with a creative campaign, it can leave a nation baffled rather than compelled to buy.

Even many well-known international brands have had to learn this the hard way. One of them is Gillette, whose “The best a man can get”- jingle was awkwardly translated into German and subsequently meant “For the best in a man”. Leaving the fact aside that facial hair tends to be on the outside, it left viewers wondering whether a man’s beard truly is his one and only most remarkable attribute. Also lacking in rhythm, the jingle met with ridicule.

Coca Cola has demonstrated better awareness of local character. It started appearing on the Chinese market in the 1920s. Written in Chinese characters however, the syllables evoked strange meanings such as “bite the wax tadpole” and “mare stuffed with wax”. So when it was officially launched, the spelling was adapted to form the syllables Koukou-Kolay, meaning “a pleasure in the mouth” – which certainly bears more appealing connotations.


Coca-Cola is not alone in having had to transcreate its name. A fairly famous other example is the Mitsubishi Pajero. In Argentina, the car’s name implies the elegance and sleekness of the pampas cat. In Spain and other parts of Latin America, however, the term “Pajero” has a meaning far to rude to even mention in this blog (it translates as a 6 letter word beginning with w). For these countries, it was re-branded as Mitsubishi Montero (meaning Mountain Warrior).

Transcreation recognises the necessity to focus on the concept and feel of the original creative, rather than its exact wording. In practical terms, this means that your message will be able to compete with those of other brands in the target language and establish a connection with the local audience.

Transcreation helps retain global consistency across a brand, as the creative spark of the initial advertising project is kept alive instead of being lost in translation. Even in marketing, the advice all parents give to their children seems to hold true: That a little respect and politeness get you further. Showing this respect for other cultures in your advertising campaign is likely to increase your brand’s popularity.

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