Beyond Translation: Inclusive Marketing through Transcreation

April 30, 2024

Recently, I had the honor of presenting at Greenbook’s 2024 IIEX North America conference as a Future List Honoree. My talk focused on a critical aspect of marketing that is often overlooked: the difference between translation and transcreation, and how leveraging the latter can help avoid bias – and missteps – in your marketing.

I am a white woman, so I might not be who you’d expect to hear from on this topic. But I am from an isolated, monocultural town in Appalachia and I’ve spent a large portion of my education and career working to understand diverse cultures – first as an academic researcher focusing on political representation of marginalized groups and more recently as a market researcher partnering with the U.S. government, Fannie Mae, and others – aiming to create greater equity in their respective spaces.

What is Transcreation?

Transcreation is the strategic approach of adapting words, imagery, and tone to tailor the core message of your marketing in a way that resonates with your intended audience. This process extends beyond mere translation by weaving in cultural nuances, which fosters a more authentic connection. Essentially, transcreation amplifies the authenticity of your messaging, ensuring it resonates meaningfully with the audiences you intend to reach.

We’ve all seen what happens when message adaptation doesn’t quite hit the mark. Remember the ad starring Kendall Jenner that was pulled due to backlash? That’s a classic example of a failure to translate the idea “This drink is something we can all agree on” into a concept that resonated with the target audience, namely young, racially diverse progressives. But successful transcreation isn’t as daunting as it sounds.

The Role of Testing in Getting Transcreation Right

Working with in-group advertising or creative experts to adapt your marketing is an important first step in transcreation, but it’s not the end-all solution. Even when marketing to audiences we identify with, there’s a chance we might miss the mark. I’ve seen meticulously transcreated marketing, despite being created by in-group creatives and strategists, dissected and critiqued by study participants.

It’s surprising how often participants imagine the creator of a piece of marketing as an older white man tucked away in a New York City office building. This assumption can lead to skepticism and disconnect, requiring even marketing created by experts from the intended audience to undergo significant adjustments.

Moreover, people are complex. Even a team made up of diverse, well-intentioned marketers can have significant blindspots. That’s where testing comes into play. Tools like focus groups (online or in-person), in-depth interviews, online bulletin boards, ethnographies, online surveys, and quick A/B testing allow us to sidestep assumptions and biases – ensuring our marketing messages land accurately. Testing is an essential tool in our toolkit for creating truly inclusive and impactful marketing.

The Power of Transcreated Marketing

One successful example of transcreated marketing is the 2020 Census communications campaign. We began with the core message and tailored the language, imagery, and tone to resonate with each specific audience. For instance, in our outreach to the American Indian / Alaska Native communities, we shifted “Shape your future” to “Shape our future.” This modification was based on extensive research that showed a communal call to action resonated more powerfully with this audience.

Efforts like this – which involved careful research, thoughtful adaptation of messaging, and a deep understanding of cultural nuances – resulted in unprecedented levels of self-response to the 2020 Census across audiences. These results underscore the potential of transcreated marketing to speak to and motivate your audience.

Transcreation on a Budget

While executing transcreation at scale is ideal, it’s still possible to make a significant impact with limited resources. Start by identifying your most important audience and conduct some form of research with them. Even a quick online test of an ad can provide valuable insights and prevent potential issues.

Short on budget or time? You can get closer to transcreation with a few simple questions:

  1. What assumptions am I making about the intended audience?
  2. What biases might I have about the intended audience?
  3. Who might I be excluding that I want to reach?
  4. What worldview am I bringing to this work? What about the worldview of my team?
  5. If I do conduct research, am I truly open to hearing what research participants tell us?

By helping you avoid unintentional exclusion and biases through rigorous testing, transcreation ensures your marketing efforts are not only effective but also genuinely connect with the audiences you intend to reach.

At PSB Insights, we are committed to helping businesses navigate the complexities of transcreation in their marketing strategies. Let’s connect and start shaping a future where your marketing speaks directly to your audience.

For more information, please contact [email protected].

Written by Shawnna Mullenax, PhD
Shawnna is a Vice President with expertise in underrepresented audiences and social science methodologies. Her peer-reviewed research has been published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Legislative Studies Quarterly, and Duke University Press, and she has an article forthcoming at Journal of Politics.


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