What is transcreation for marketing, advertising, and branding?

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Simply put, transcreation is translation of marketing communications for global brands. However, this definition is too simplistic and does not reflect the fact that it can be a complex process involving multiple stakeholders and a dozen subprocesses.


From the business perspective, transcreation is a strategy-driven content adaptation process that helps brands achieve their communication goals in international markets.

Because transcreation is most commonly outsourced, referring to it mainly as a service to reflect the client's perspective could be more appropriate.


What follows is an insight into what transcreation is based on my experience of leading, planning, directing, and executing transcreation projects for some of the world's biggest brands at a specialised transcreation agency, a cross-cultural marketing consultancy, and an advertising production company.


1. Transcreation as a service


Transcreation is a language service that bridges brand, marketing, communication, and translation strategies enabling brands to achieve their objectives when communicating in international markets without the need to change their intended messaging, strategy, and tactics.

From the perspective of the brand, transcreation can be seen as implementation of its global communication strategy that is not supposed to change to accommodate for cultural or market differences because the business follows the strategy of standardisation, or globalisation, which assumes that such differences are irrelevant.


In practice, these differences pose real problems to translation which is already challenging per se. Transcreation as an approach to translation that can deviate from the literal meaning while preserving the message is a way to address the issue. It would not exist if brands did not want to be global, which is why global brands need transcreation the most.


The alternative—as a strategy, service, and approach to content adaptation—would be localisation which implies adapting to the local market reality in order to achieve greater responsiveness.



2. Transcreation as a project


Every transcreation project has a brief that outlines the communication strategy and objectives, i.e. what transcreation must achieve and what it is not allowed to do for that purpose.


There is no playbook for a transcreation project, and everything that happens on the project is tailored to fit into the framework of the project brief.

Every transcreation project has multiple stakeholders who are all responsible for the transcreation success because they decide what the result should look like. In this article you can find out more about what the outcome of a transcreation can be.


A stakeholder in a transcreation project is anyone who is actively involved in the transcreation process and shapes its outcome. Stakeholders are typically the linguists (i.e. transcreators, translators, copywriters, editors, proofreaders) and any person who is given any decision-making power on the project—project owner, project and account managers, native or language speakers who are asked to choose, validate, or change the proposed solution.


Transcreation stakeholders can also include strategists or industry experts who are invited when the knowledge and expertise of the transcreation team (i.e. the linguists and the project or transcreation manager) is not enough to make the right choices for the brand.


Acting as brand communication strategists, transcreation stakeholders guide their choices by their knowledge and understanding of (a) the brand—its industry, target market, offering, positioning, identity, and communication style as well as those of the competition when required (which is always advisable to include), (b) its strategy and objectives, and (c) the communication context.


If the relevant information about the brand, its communication strategy and objectives, and the communication context is not shared with those who produce transcreation, their job becomes a guessing game.

In such cases, the transcreation team is often asked to deliver more options (sometimes with zero additional budget), and the client is more likely to be dissatisfied with the outcome. Nobody wins.



3. Transcreation as a process


In the process of transcreation, the linguists—and transcreation managers when they are involved—make choices regarding (read: impacting) the brand's communication strategy based on their understanding of the transcreation brief.


These choices are driven by their linguistic and communication competence, translation competence, cultural competence, critical thinking skills, and encyclopedic knowledge which assumes familiarity with anything that is relevant to the communication context and can be broadly defined as culture—e.g. how people in the target market make purchasing decisions when they want to buy a product similar to what the client is offering.


In order to implement the brand's strategy in a way that would be effective for achieving the desired result, transcreators typically evaluate (a) existing and possible brand messages and communication strategies against what would be generally considered appropriate for the communication context in both domestic / international and target markets and/or cultures, (b) translation strategies and word choices, and (c) linguistic structures and techniques.


To assess or produce a message suitable for the brand, transcreators think across all these dimensions simultaneously. If we were to map out this process, this is what it could look like.


Because every choice the linguists make has implications for the brand, transcreation deliverables commonly include several proposals supported by a rationale.

An experienced transcreation provider will also consider potential execution challenges and implications for the brand (e.g. with regards to its image and reputation or marketing performance) and propose ways to address them, backed up by an analysis of each option's pros and cons.



4. Transcreation as a managed process


Linguists who can provide transcreation that delivers on the client's expectations from the get-go are few, not easy to find, and usually have limited availability. With agency markup, their fees can be too high for the project sponsor to justify the investment into a service the benefits of which might not be exactly clear or measurable.


To meet the brands' need for transcreation on their terms, agencies rely on transcreation management that is an essential part of transcreation as a process and service.


Transcreation management is a way to close competence gaps and effectively deliver transcreation while realising cost, time, and process efficiencies.

Just like anywhere else, managers in transcreation are the ones who can make or break the outcome. They wear multiple hats and, as both project managers and brand strategists, drive the transcreation process. Their main responsibility is to ensure that the linguists deliver on the client's expectations.


All actions and decisions of a transcreation manager directly impact the transcreation process and outcome.

Transcreation management activities are often distributed amongst different managers and/or coordinators which makes the process more complex to manage. This is because the number and importance of decisions to make on the client's behalf and steps to take to ensure the desired results are achieved can be overwhelming, especially when multiple (and unfamiliar) languages and markets are involved, and the project team members have never worked together.




5. Transcreation as 'not translation'


Transcreation as a concept originated in the context of contemporary translation of Sanskrit classics such as Mahābhārata and Bhagavadgita, composed in verses and dating back over 2,000 years. This makes it hard to picture how it is supposed to solve cross-cultural marketing communication problems for international brands.


This is probably why there is a lot of confusion amongst transcreation practitioners and language services providers about what they mean by transcreation. It is creative translation to some, a better translation to others, and to others still it is not translation at all.


To someone who, like translators from Sanskrit who pioneered transcreation, believes that translation as they know it is insufficient to produce the desired result, transcreation can surely mean a better way to translate and a creative way to solve the translation problem.


As someone who has a first-hand experience of transcreation both as its pioneers meant it to be (because I myself happened to translate from Sanskrit) and as performed by those who call themselves transcreation specialists today, I would say that the difference between translation and transcreation should not exist in theory.


But because translation as commonly understood and practiced does not lead to consistently good results in every context, there is a need for a different term to describe an alternative approach that benefits the audience by allowing it to experience the original rather than understand what it meant to communicate.



6. Transcreation as an approach to translation


When it comes to translation as a subprocess within the broader transcreation process, the already thin boundaries between the two concepts get blurred. What is certain is that translation follows well-defined principles but transcreation does not.


You can think of transcreation as translating outside the box but within the limits of your translation job requirements, whereas translation would be closer to performing a task by following rules and instructions.


The fact that there is always a "source" and a "target" is perhaps the only thing translation and transcreation have in common that never changes.

But rather than referring to the source and target text or even language, these terms (in my experience) are more commonly used in transcreation to refer to the copy, messages, markets, and cultures.


In transcreation, what needs to be translated are not words or sentences (like most commonly in translation), but elements of copy such as tagline, email body, and CTA (or a name) that cannot be separated from their marketing communication function.


Transcreators can use any or none of the existing translation procedures, techniques or strategies, but they always use linguistic techniques and structures of the target language strategically to convey the brand message and shape the brand image.


Transcreation aims at creating a message that reads and sounds like what the brand would have said if it spoke the target language.

It is achieved by transferring not the meaning (like in translation) but the function of every element of the source copy and of every element of text within it. This is because the way a brand's message is meant to achieve specific communication objectives is often implicit and always embedded in the message itself.


And this is why transcreation is meant to retain as many of its less tangible elements as possible including style, tone, rhythm, length of individual elements, and more. These stylistic elements are the ones that shape the appeal of a message and the brand’s voice—the foundation for all language-related choices in brand communications that are meant to help the brand build customer trust.



7. Transcreation as an outcome of the transcreation process


It might not be common knowledge, but in my experience transcreation can be done without a source text, in the same language, and even with the intent to appeal to non-speakers of the language. Here you can find a few examples.


If translation is involved, the outcome of transcreation might look similar that of translation when seen outside the context. There are skilled translators who can not only transfer the meaning of the original but also retain the writing style of its author, and there is no way to know whether the way they arrived at that outcome is translation or transcreation unless they explain how they did it.


It is worth noting that in the context of brand communications transcreation is meant to go further and communicate the brand.


When it is not evident how the brand's voice is reflected in the target message, it is not a successful transcreation, and the voice is that of a translator mirroring her/his own stylistic preferences.

It is also worth mentioning that translation quality can be assessed and measured with a relative degree of objectivity but it is impossible to do so with the transcreation outcome.


In my view, it is only possible to estimate the effectiveness of transcreation based on the performance of a transcreated piece of advertising or marketing content, just like you would measure success of any communication produced in the native language without any translation involved.

If in your opinion transcreation is still translation, you can call it translation for brands. In my experience, it follows its own principles and requires different competences.


If you view transcreation as an alternative to translation, your communication challenge is the same as a translator from Sanskrit would want to address.


If you want to address a marketing communication problem and believe you need something more than (a good) translation, transcreation as a service might be what you are looking for.