This post is part of the Ten Golden Rules of Global Content Strategy series.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you work for a company that has a presence in many countries. And let’s say that your job is to create exciting, impactful marketing campaigns that generate interest, spur emotion, and overall drive sales. Sounds straightforward, right? Well, maybe.

One thing that I’ve come to realize in my localization travels is that emotion is not necessarily something that translates. This is not to say that there are no emotions that cut cross-cultural lines. Of course there are. Some would argue that love is a universal emotion. Heck, I actually believe that my dog loves me. She truly, truly loves me. But I digress.

Whether you agree that there is a basic set of emotions that all humans (and canines?) share, I think we’d all agree that the expression of emotion varies widely from culture to culture. Values vary widely. Even things such as facial expressions of emotion vary. In September of 2011, the Science Daily reported on a study done by the American Psychological Association on the perception of facial expressions to indicate emotion. The study found that there are, in fact, differences between cultures on how facial expressions are perceived. This study specifically found that “East Asians and Western Caucasians differ in terms of the features they think constitute an angry face or a happy face.” Here is an illustration from the article that, while a little grainy, provides examples:

So, what does this have to do with the 10 Golden Rules of translation? A lot. If something as seemingly innate as a facial expression varies from culture to culture, then the words we use to express emotion certainly vary even more. And a good marketing campaign is all about emotion, isn’t it? Think about the really good campaigns you’ve either created or experienced. When you think of them, I bet they still evoke the emotion, even if the product is long gone.

This presents a bit of a dilemma. How do you take a great, emotion-packed campaign from your native language and translate it into all of the other cultures that you need to target. While you might be able to translate the words, themselves, those words could be completely 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. Everyone in the U.S. knows this campaign. And when I think about it, I smile. It is simple. It is straightforward. And it is pretty much meaningless in many other cultures. It also happens to be grammatically incorrect, but that’s besides the point.

I bet you can think of dozens of examples of other campaigns that simply would not translate. Another one of my favorites is “Ready, Set, Go!” which was a popular campaign from a technology company years ago, but fell flat when the campaign ran globally.

The best way to create a global marketing campaign that strikes at the particular emotion you want, in every culture you target, is to recreate the campaign, both the words and the images, for every single culture. This process is known as transcreation. Here is how Wikipedia defines transcreation:

Transcreation is a term used chiefly by advertising and marketing professionals to refer to the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context. A successfully transcreated message evokes the same emotions and carries the same implications in the target language as it does in the source language. Increasingly, transcreation is used in global marketing and advertising campaigns as advertisers seek to transcend the boundaries of culture and language.

There are some great examples of transcreation on the web. Coca-cola ( has dozens and dozens of transcreated sites. There are so many countries and sites that I don’t want to spend time counting. Here are a few of them:

United States




United Kingdom









Coca-Cola is rather impressive in the amount of transcreation they do. Not only do they change the words, they change the visuals, and they change the layout – all to match the particular culture of the country. For example, the Japanese site has a very boxy layout. As does the Taiwanese site. These cultures are accustomed to seeing advertisements in a box format. Russia uses couples more than, say the UK. Every site is customized.

This is great, isn’t it? They target every culture, every country. Wow!

Before you jump on the transcreation bandwagon, beware. The amount of organization, time, coordination, and most of all money to create and update this type of extensive global presence is nothing short of enormous. Just think about it. In all likelihood, you need different teams of creative folks in different countries. As products come and go, everyone needs to plan and execute in lock-step. Otherwise, the site looks disjointed and unprofessional. The sheer number of visuals and tag lines is overwhelming. And you can only imagine the cost.

So, what should a “normal” sized business (one that does not generate $35 billion each year in revenue) do? Here are a few pointers:

  1. Try to make your campaigns universal. This is a tall order, given that we just agreed that there really is no such thing as a completely universal emotion. And removing emotion from marketing materials defeats the purpose. But, you can still try.
  2. Before you embark on any transcreation, be sure you have your 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 of the images of the product (for example) are stored centrally and easily found for all constituents.
  3. Make sure you have your workflows and processes nailed down. Remember, you and perhaps 10 other people will be creating content for the same product at the same time. Make sure you reuse where you can and – at minimum – know what each other is doing. You’d be amazed at the confusion I’ve seen (or maybe you wouldn’t).
  4. Pick the most important pieces to transcreate. I know, sounds obvious. But, always worth saying.
  5. You might end up transcreating the top-level webpage and maybe one link down. And after that, you might direct people back to your home language site (for example, English). Make sure that the English pages are understandable to all of your readers, including those people who have English as a second language. Use simple words and phrases. Keep your sentences short. You can download my eBook for more information on making your content global-ready.
  6. Make sure that all of your content, regardless of language, is searchable in every language that you translate into. If I’m viewing a French 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 French. Or German. Or Swahili.
  7. Try your best to keep track of the development efforts of the other groups and countries. Make sure things don’t get out of hand.

What you should not do, really under any circumstance, is take your new, witty, hip branding and assume that you can just translate it into Farsi, or Arabic, or Mandarin, or any other language for that matter. You might end up creating one of those disasters that people like me blog about.


Val Swisher
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