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Real-life Examples of Transcreation Fails and What We Can Learn from Them

Transcreation, a mix of “translation” and “creation,” involves adapting content from one language to another while preserving its intent, style, tone, and context. This approach is essential in marketing, advertising, and creative fields where a direct translation might not capture the nuances required to engage a target audience effectively. 

Importance of Transcreation:

Cultural Relevance

Transcreation ensures that content aligns with local customs, traditions, and sensitivities. For instance, a humorous advertisement in one culture might be offensive in another. Adapting the message to fit cultural nuances avoids these pitfalls and ensures the content is appropriate and respectful.

Emotional Connection

Transcreation captures the emotional essence of the original message, making it resonate with the target audience. This emotional connection is crucial in marketing, where the aim is to evoke specific feelings and responses.

Brand Consistency

Global brands rely on transcreation to maintain a consistent voice and message across different markets. This process helps preserve the core brand identity while adapting it to various cultural contexts, ensuring a coherent global brand presence.

Enhanced Engagement

Content that feels native and familiar is more likely to engage the audience. By tailoring the message to local contexts, transcreation projects can significantly increase audience engagement and interaction.

Examples of Good Transcreation:

Successful transcreation examples include Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign, where the brand adapted the names on bottles to common names in each market, creating a personalised and culturally relevant connection. Another example is Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan, which has been transcreated to fit different cultural contexts while maintaining its motivational essence.

However, there are many pitfalls in transcreation:

Complexity and Cost: Transcreation is a complex and expensive process requiring a deep understanding of both the source and target cultures. It often involves specialised professionals, such as cultural consultants and creative writers, making it costlier and more time-consuming than standard translation.

Risk of Losing Original Intent: In the quest to adapt content culturally, there’s a risk of deviating too far from the original message. Balancing cultural adaptation with preserving the core message can be challenging, potentially leading to a diluted or altered intent.

Subjectivity: Transcreation is subjective, heavily reliant on the translator’s interpretation of the original content and its adaptation for the new audience. This subjectivity can lead to inconsistencies and varying interpretations of the best adaptation.

Cultural Missteps: Even with thorough research, cultural nuances in transcreation can be overlooked, leading to potential missteps. For example, Pepsi’s “Come Alive with Pepsi Generation” slogan was transcreated in Chinese as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead,” causing a cultural blunder.

Scalability Issues: Rapid expansion into multiple markets poses a scalability challenge for transcreation projects. Ensuring quality and consistency across numerous languages and cultures can be difficult, often requiring extensive resources and coordination.

Lost in Translation

Poor transcriptions in marketing and advertising campaigns can cause significant misunderstandings and public relations issues, as numerous examples demonstrate.

Dove’s Body Positivity Campaign Faltered in China. The company gained acclaim in America for its body inclusivity campaign, showcasing women of various shapes, sizes, and ethnicities to emphasise that beauty is diverse and not limited to “model-type” standards. However, this “real women” campaign failed in China. The Chinese market did not embrace the concept of imperfect models promoting beauty products.

Similarly, Dolce & Gabbana, a globally renowned fashion house, also faced severe backlash in China after releasing a series of social media videos in November 2018. The campaign, which depicted a Chinese woman struggling to eat Italian dishes with chopsticks, was criticised for being racist and perpetuating stereotypes. Despite the brand’s intentions, the ads were deemed offensive and failed to resonate with the Chinese audience.

Here are some other examples of transcreation failures.

Car giant Toyota faced a transcreation problem with the name of its MR2 sports car in French-speaking markets. The pronunciation of “MR2” in French sounds very similar to “merde,” a vulgar word for “excrement” or “shit.”

Here are more examples:

KFC in China:

Original Slogan: “Finger-lickin’ good.”

End result: “Eat your fingers off.”

This mistranslation occurred when KFC first expanded into China, causing confusion and amusement among consumers.

Pepsi in China:

Original Slogan: “Pepsi brings you back to life.”

End result: “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

This mistranslation was particularly problematic in a culture with deep reverence for ancestors.

Coors in Spain:

Original Slogan: “Turn it loose.”

End result: “Suffer from diarrhea.”

This mistranslation turned a carefree slogan into an unpleasant and unintended message.

Orange Mobile in Northern Ireland:

Original Slogan: “The future’s bright, the future’s Orange.”

End result: The slogan itself wasn’t mistranslated, but it inadvertently sparked controversy in Northern Ireland where the color orange is associated with Protestant and unionist communities, thus alienating Catholic and nationalist customers.

Parker Pen in Mexico:

Original Message: “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.”

End result: “It won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you.”

This error occurred due to the incorrect translation of the word “embarrass” to the Spanish word “embarazar,” which means “to impregnate.”

Ford in Belgium:

Original Message: “Every car has a high-quality body.”

End result: “Every car has a high-quality corpse.”

This translation error significantly changed the message, making it both confusing and alarming.

Electrolux in the United States:

Original Message: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

End result: The translation wasn’t incorrect, but the intended positive connotation in Sweden (“sucks” as in vacuuming well) didn’t translate well to the American market where “sucks” has a negative connotation.

The automotive industry has also frequently fallen foul of this phenomenon, experiencing embarrassing marketing flops when the model names have different meanings in certain markets. Consider the Toyota “MR2”, which sounds like “merde” in French, or the Mitsubishi “Pajero”, which is a swear word in Spain. As the “Montero”, the model eventually sold in much better numbers.

Successfully Navigating Pitfalls

To avoid similar pitfalls and ensure successful transcreation projects, brands should employ local experts who are not only proficient in the language but also deeply familiar with cultural contexts. This ensures that translations are not only linguistically accurate but also culturally relevant.

Secondly, brands should invest in professional transcreation services rather than relying on direct translations. Transcreation professionals are skilled in adapting content creatively while preserving the original message’s essence. This approach is particularly important for marketing materials where tone, emotion, and brand voice are critical.

Collaboration is another key factor. Brands should work closely with their transcreation teams, providing comprehensive briefs that include the brand’s values, tone of voice, and specific objectives for each piece of content. Regular feedback loops and open communication channels can help ensure the final product aligns with the brand’s vision and resonates with the target audience.

Moreover, testing and reviewing transcreated content before full-scale implementation can help identify potential issues. Pilot campaigns or focus groups can provide valuable insights into how the message is received and interpreted by the target audience. This step allows brands to make necessary adjustments before a wider rollout.

Consistency in brand messaging across different languages and markets is also crucial. Brands should develop and maintain a style guide that includes tone, terminology, and brand voice guidelines. This ensures that all transcreated content remains consistent with the brand’s overall image and messaging strategy.

Finally, brands should embrace feedback and be willing to adapt. Consumer feedback is invaluable for continuous improvement. By actively seeking and responding to feedback, brands can refine their transcreation processes and avoid repeating mistakes.

Avoiding poor transcreation demands a blend of cultural insight, professional expertise, collaborative processes, and a commitment to consistency and adaptation. By prioritising these elements, brands can ensure their messages are effectively and appropriately conveyed across diverse markets, thus avoiding the embarrassment of negative publicity.

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