Last week, I commented on Kare Anderson’s post in the Harvard Business Review about Crafting an Attention-Grabbing Message. In her post, Kare makes many valid points about how to create messages that are truly memorable. Kare lists three different techniques that you can use to craft that attention grabber:

  • Use familiar slogans in a fresh new way
  • Startle with specifics
  • Add a dash of dry humor

As I read her post (full disclosure – I consider Kare a friend and a mentor. She is certainly one of the smartest people I know), I kept thinking about culture, localization, and translation. How do you create a message that grabs attention in every culture an d language (or at least every culture and language that you need)?

Even our own corporate website here at Content Rules uses the banner, “Got Content?” This slogan, a clear take-off on the much-parodied and wildly successful “Got Milk?” campaign  is well-known to almost everyone in America. The original advertisement debuted in 1993 and we are still seeing it today. (Heck, it has its own entry in Wikipedia!)

Outside of the U.S., though, I’m not so sure that “Got <anything>?” plays out so well. Sure, a phrase that poses the question, “Do you have any milk?” is easily translatable – probably into any language we can think of. The passive verb “got” likely translates just as well. But if you have not grown up in the U.S. seeing the Got Milk? campaign for almost 20 years, it is unlikely that any play on words, especially an unknown advertising campaign, using that catchy phrase will make any sense.

Not understanding the message in your language is actually a very mild problem. How about the situation when your company or product name translates extremely poorly? Take the famous example of the Chinese translation of Coca-Cola’s name. The first translation of Coca-Cola essentially said “Bite the wax tadpole []” or “Female horse stuffed with wax”, depending on the dialect. Pepsi didn’t do much better with its attention-grabbing, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” slogan. In Taiwan, it became “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”

There are dozens and dozens of additional examples, but you get the picture.

Similarly, using humor of any kind (dry included) borders on potentially treacherous territory in the localization world. What is absolutely hilarious to people in the U.S. can be (and often is) downright offensive to people in other cultures – even in the U.S.

Crafting an culturally-aware, translatable, attention-grabbing message is a formidable challenge.

So What’s a Marketeer to Do?

Well, I wish I had an easy answer for you, but there is no easy answer. To keep your message attention-grabbing in multiple languages, you will likely have to recreate the message in each language. You may need to change the message all together – which can be very costly if you are creating campaigns, web pages, collateral, and more around the message. Creating a separate campaign per culture/language is an expensive undertaking.

Yet it can be done. I came across an extremely interesting university research paper while searching for examples for this post. It is called, “Between English Humour and National Stereotypes – Translating Stephen Clarke’s Novel Merde Happens into Italian” and was written by Sabrina Fusari from the University of Trento and Ilaria Montagni from the University of Bologna at Forlì. In this paper, the authors use a scientific methodology to analyze the problems associated with translating the humor of the book into Italian.

They divide translation of humor into three distinct areas:

  1. Idiomaticity and register
  2. Culture-bound terms
  3. Diatopic/ diastratic varieties

So you don’t go running for your dictionaries like I did, let me give you the definitions of each of these areas.

Idiomaticity is the noun form of idiomatic. According to, idiomatic means:

  • Peculiar to or characteristic of a particular language or dialect.
  • Containing or using many idioms.
  • Having a distinct style or character, especially in the arts: idiomatic writing; an idiomatic composer.

Culture-bound terms is a pretty self-explanatory category. These are terms that are relevant in a particular country. For example, there is no equivalent Italian term for the English word “brunch.”

Diatopic/diastrasic  includes all references to accent, pronunciation, and slang. For example, American slang uses terms of address such as “dude”, “guy” and “bro.”

The gist of this paper is that the authors essentially rewrote the book Merde Happens to make it culturally relevant to Italian readers. This was a huge undertaking and an academic exercise. I don’t think it is a realistic solution to the business world.

The Bottom Line

I have no great solution for this dilemma. It is quite possible to recreate the attention-grabbing message to use familiar phrases in a fresh way for each culture and language. And it is quite possible to recreate the message using humor that is specific to each culture and language.

However, creating an attention-grabbing message that is culturally-aware and translatable is almost impossible to do. Once you “tone down” the word plays, puns, humor, and emotion of a message, the message loses the ability to really grab attention.

I’d love to hear your ideas and experience. Have you been able to craft a culturally-aware, translatable, attention-grabbing message? Do tell!

Val Swisher
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