Thursday, May 6, 2010


American Airlines spent tons of money reupholstering seats in their entire fleet and then of course spent more publicising this fact. They ran ads in all leading newspapers and magazines with the headline “Fly in leather”, for now they knew they had an edge over their competitors. Excited by their terrific ad campaign they decided to take it across borders and share it with their potential Spanish speaking customers. Of course, this time they translated it in Spanish, so that it would have a wider appeal. However what they got was rather unexpected. A lot of Spanish speaking people complained about these advertisements. Much to the horror of the airline, when they looked at the Spanish advertisement & translated them back again in English they realized, their snappy headline “Fly in leather” had changed to “Fly Naked”!

Don’t Translate
Just because you have a great ad-campaign, does not guarantee success in all markets. Since business today is done in multiple markets, each different from the other in terms of culture, language, religion et al, it makes sense to be ‘culturally sensitive’ while doing business.

As a starter – don’t translate – if you want to avoid global mishaps and embarrassments. The Dairy Milk Association learnt it the hard way. After its hugely successful campaign “Got Milk” popularized the benefits of milk in US, the company decided to continue its victory march to Mexico with the same campaign. However it had to beat a hasty retreat after it realised that the Spanish translation actually read – “Are you lactating”. Wrong translations landed Parker Pens in trouble when the ads which were supposed to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” turned into “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”. Coors beer wanted to show you how you could let your hair down and have fun with Coors, when it made its tagline “Turn it loose”. The Spaniards were not pleased when they saw a beer that helped you “Get loose bowels”. The Chinese too got really suspicious of this drink which promised to “Bring your ancestors back from the dead”. The various Chinese characters had distorted the phrase “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation!”. Unfortunately, no one in China (which is already heavily populated) wanted to bring their ancestors back!

Today, every brand is on the lookout for broader markets – mostly international. Many times, it is the language barrier that can harm a campaign & even the overall brand. To reach new markets, mere “translations” never work. From the obvious, hilarious faux pas, to the serious marketing blunders, everything can be avoided if we look beyond translation.

We need to look beyond the language and into the cultural differences in languages. We need to “transcreate”. Quickly defined, it would mean “not just translating content, but ensuring it is culturally relevant as well”. Such a measure will take care of the cultural differences & language nuances.

One size fits all?
‘Think global, act local’ is an oft quoted statement. Transcreation helps you to localize your content. After all, it’s true that each country is different and within each country, different ethnicities give different regions unique flavours. Transcreation helps you and your brand become a part of the local culture. Just see how “Spider-Man” was localised to suit the Indian comic buffs. Peter Parker became Pavitr Prabhakar, Mary Jane, became Meera Jain, Aunt May was Auntie Maya and uncle Ben, became uncle Bhim. Your brand, your advertising campaign, should metamorphise in much the same way, if they want to win market share. You need to learn from the videogame developers who were the first to realise the benefits of adapting to local cultures. They had to vary the amount of violence and explicit language to comply with the cultural and legal requirements of different regions of the world.

One product will not work everywhere as Pepsodent discovered with its teeth whitening toothpaste, which didn’t fare well in South Asia where many cultures value chewing betel nuts which darkens teeth. In Japan, during the 12th century, blackening was associated with coming of age. Later on, in the 18th century, it was associated with nobility & the Samurai.

Just creating good ads & good products will not guarantee success. Today, one needs to ‘Transcreate’. A transcreator has the ability to connect with the audience and its feelings. It must have been the work of a transcreator who changed the dull, dowdy American campaign of Coca- Cola from “The Real Thing” to “Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola!” to make the product rock in India.

Adapt to survive!
Last month a massive survey was done in US by the market research firm CSA (Common Sense Advisory), which confirmed that reaching new markets through transcreation was the most demanded service, with the highest growth potential.

Be it healthcare, or mobile phones, cars or cameras, the benefits of each need to be communicated effectively, so that it is both culturally & linguistically appropriate. However famous your brand name, however successful, if it’s not adapted to suit the local culture, it has very high chances of failing.

No wonder big brands are employing firms to specifically examine their product names in multiple tongues. After all it’s very expensive to create a brand identity and you don’t want to be stuck with a brand name that won’t work in other cultures or languages.

Volkswagen realised ‘Jetta’ in Italian was pronounced as ‘letta’ which meant ‘misfortune’. The ‘Matador’ didn’t do well in Puerto Rico for it translated to ‘killer’. ‘Trafi cante’ an Italian brand of mineral water could not sell in Spain for the word meant ‘drug dealer’ there. Toyota realised that its MR2, which in France is pronounced as “merde”, meant ‘crappy’. Rolls Royce decided to change the name of its car, the ‘Silver Mist’ to the ‘Silver Shadow’ before launching it in Germany for ‘mist’, means ‘manure’. The Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer tried to sell its goods in the American market with the slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” – just imagine how much good a little better knowledge of English could have done to it!!!

‘Transcreation’ is the new buzz word for doing business, for it’s not just about making your advertising messages, or brand communications better understood, but it is also about producing the same ‘reactions’ from the audiences anywhere in the world.

Culture Concerns
To prevent your bottomlines from getting a ‘culture shock’, it is absolutely important for you to become culturally sensitive. The world is changing. There are now ‘global’ markets, and ‘global brands’, and sometimes even ‘global marketing campaigns’, but however much we are influenced by other cultures, American or European or whatever, we still retain our local identities. So, there never will be ‘global consumers’. For we may go to Mc- Donald’s, but we eat the Aloo Tikki burger there. This is the only land where you will find tandoori pizza, and it is here that I ask for ‘Thanda’ and get Coca-Cola. It is here that Ford had to be the ‘josh’ machine to appeal to the crowds.

Every country has its unique identity। So nothing can work ‘across’ all borders. To succeed, one needs to adapt. No wonder, the first step that marketers are taking, is checking how their campaigns, brand names, marketing communications will work in other cultures. They are investing in ‘transcreating’ – for that’s what translates to bigger profits.


  1. So ma'am,

    A global brand is all the more difficult to create.

    Maybe a simple solution could be to create a new brand name for a country where the name doesn't appeal.

    Or go for that N Series , A series or Z- Series preposition which may not be a bad idea at all.

  2. Nice Article...

    Knowing a persons like and dislike is one of the most important thing... It is all due to this reason that a company fails..

    They prepare ads wat they like and not wat the potential customers want...

    Thats the thing need to be improved for succcesss....


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