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E.g., 04/02/2020

Marcom Transcreation: Branding, Strategy and Communication for Asian Market Entry

By: Leon Lee (Lehrmach)

20 September 2007

Developing a seamless marketing communication strategy for Asia is often viewed by western corporations as a monumental task given the region's social, linguistic, political, ethnic, and religious affinities.

Developing a seamless marketing communication strategy for Asia is often viewed by western corporations as a monumental task given the region's social, linguistic, political, ethnic, and religious affinities. The rapid merging of international markets in securing new clientele and revenue generation, driven by trade globalization and rising product/service sophistication of overseas clientele necessitates that western companies entering the Asian arena possess an appreciation of customized marcom for specific audiences. The key is to find a balance between preserving one's global branding assets and refining one's marcom content for the given audience.

Below I will explore a number of marcom principles that can provide a strategic starting point for weighing international marcom decisions. Although nothing can replace the knowledge gained from being "born in the culture" or secured from a lifetime of professional experiences, the branding / communication / strategy outlined can assist one's marcom initiatives in navigating various socio-political gated entry or channel chokepoints for targeted Asian markets.

Corporate Name

A corporation's foremost brand asset is its name, or, specifically, its name transcribed among different languages. For Asian countries that recognize English alphabets as an official norm (ex. India , Singapore , Vietnam ), no transcription is necessary. However, using an English corporate name may still require its local phonetic transcription so as not to confuse the target audience. Such was the case for the US Internet company Yahoo, which standardized its company name pronunciation to equivalents in Japanese ("Yafuu") and Chinese ("Ya Hu"). 

Figure 1

For countries without an official English alphabetic norm, corporate names must be transcribed into the local language for both local audience rendition and legal name registration. For example, the luxury accessories firm Louis Vuitton phonetically transcribes its name into Japanese "Rui Viton", Korean "Rui Pit'ong", and Chinese "Luyi Weideng" (Figure 1). Of the three variants, the Chinese transcription can be the most challenging since Chinese characters possess both phonetic and semantic characteristics, which impart subtle nuances that make the name both "sound and look good". In this case, "Luyi Weideng" literally means "Road Amiable Impressive Scale", a nuance conducive for a luxury firm.

Figure 2

However, be forewarned that random Chinese character selection to fit phonetic equivalents can yield bizarre results. Take for example the infamous 1930s Coca-Cola debacle in which the company's name was initially transcribed into the Chinese characters "Kou Ken Dou La" (mouth gnaw tadpole wax) before adopting the more suitable "Ke Kou Ke Leh" (Suits Taste Suits Happiness, or colloquially Joyful and Refreshing Taste) (Figure 2). A more recent example of successful brand transcription is that of US computer corporation Dell whose auspicious Chinese equivalent is "Dai Er" (honor thus). If random character generation were used, then phonetic results could end in bizarre character combinations such as "Imbecile Two", Sack Ears", and "Lazy Child". Thus it is crucial that in-country marcom focus groups be consulted for proper name adoption.

Figure 3

This principle also holds true when Asian companies enter western markets; in some cases they will select westernized corporate names completely different from their original Chinese names (Figure 3). For example, the Chinese PC company Lian-Xiang (Connected Mindset) bypassed all equivalents and selected a quasi-Italian name, Lenovo. Other Asian firms following this approach include Chinese appliance firm Haier (German nuance) and Taiwanese computer company Acer (American nuance). From a brand positioning angle, the rationale for such naming tactics was the public perception of product sophistication based on socio-linguistic affiliation. Or, in simpler terms, if a company name sounds "Italian", then it must have "Italian-made" products.

Figure 4

Another naming option is to simultaneously adopt phonetic and semantic equivalents based on country prerequisites. For example, Canadian telecom firm Nortel used this two-prong technique of phonetic "Nooteru" for Japan and semantic "Bei Dian Wang" (North Electric Web, reference to Nortel's concatenated name of Northern Telecom) for the China – Taiwan – Hong Kong markets (Figure 4). Nevertheless, some heritage brand names need not localize their names due to their immense product/service reputations (such as the American IT giant IBM and the German automotive firm BMW). However, be forewarned that potential cultural misinterpretation may preclude company or product names from being universally adopted in guest countries as is the case of Japanese second-hand boutique "Puppu Deikku," which was unfortunately rendered in American vernacular as "Poop Dick" (Figure 6).

Logo & Logotype

Corporate and brand icons serve as de facto "road signs" for consumers by distinguishing themselves from competitors. Its reputation can be instantly ascertained by its mere display, earned from consistent product/service quality, lifestyle enhancements, or social prestige of affiliation. A brand icon can be divided into three categories: 1) Logo, 2) Logotype, 3) Amalgamated.

Logos are abstract geometric symbols to which brand names are linked via reinforced marcom (ex. print, web, trade shows) and public reputation (be it good or bad). Examples include the three-diamond icon of Mitsubishi, the "swoosh" of Nike and Pepsi's tricolor circle (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Sample of global brand icons logos, logotypes, and amalgamated Icons. These icons must not be localized in any fashion in order to promote consistent worldwide brand recognition.

Logotypes are stylized words or characters, They are generally designed for domestic customers, but as corporations expand their international presence, logotypes are often propagated to worldwide markets. Examples include the French cosmetic firm Lancôme (with diacritic mark), German firearms maker Heckler & Koch's "HK", and Japanese electronics firm Sony. Unfortunately, cultural misinterpretation may preclude certain logotypes from being universally accepted, such as the example of Japanese soft drink maker Calpis (a name with phonetics received negatively among some western audiences). Likewise when American information technology firm Niku entered the Japanese market, some patrons pondered why an alleged "meat packing" company was offering enterprise technology solutions, since its name literally meant "meat" in Japanese (Figure 6).

Amalgamated icons combine characteristics of both logo and logotypes. Stylized wording, a corporate color palette, and geometric shape serve to distinguish brand identification. Examples include Korean electronics company Samsung, German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Swedish home products retailer Ikea, and Chinese beverage firm Tsingtao .

Figure 6

With this in mind, one characteristic shared by all three approaches is that no icon localization should be employed. As global brand identifiers, consistent visual rendition is crucial to harness a global citizenry theme around designated products and services. If brand icons are altered to suit divergent communication channels, the overall global brand experience is fragmented. Or more pointedly, strategies of "Universal Positioning" (global leadership in one market bestows competitive advantage in other regions) and "Cultural Consumption Process" (leveraging customer call-to-action desires to match lifestyle and social prestige of brand affiliation in other regions) would be undermined. By projecting a consistent brand icon, a transnational "halo" effect can be attained.

Brand Tagline

Brand taglines are words or short phrases tailored to consciously and subconsciously impress brand recognition upon potential clients. Their adoption makes customers more amenable to future call-to-action marcom purchases. Tagline creation is closely linked to socio-linguistics since it is a cultural interplay between allusion, metaphor, simile, proverbs, history, and mere statements of fact. Taglines have been around for many decades, but late-1990s E-commerce emergence dramatically expanded their strategic usage. Nowadays, virtually no transnational corporation operates its brand without an associated tagline.

Figure 7: Mass Marketing from multiple channels has inundated consumers, detracted customer attention, and rendered the purchasing experience to commoditization. Hence, Relationship Marketing and Brand Management disciplines have emerged.

Taglines are even more important to marcom given the paradigm shift from "shotgun effect" mass marketing to friendlier targeted relationship marketing doctrines. Given that the average consumer is bombarded with so many media impressions daily, such information overload can undermine brand distinction and customer loyalty. To offset this predicament, relationship marketing combines a brand's tangible (ex. price, quality, performance) with intangible qualities (ex. emotional affinity, prestige of ownership, part of global citizenry).

Figure 8: A cardinal relationship marketing doctrine is to establish emotional rapport with clientele, hence extensive tagline usage to capture the immediate essence of the corporate-customer relationship. Brand taglines now permeate all business endeavors from Nokia's Connecting People , to KVB's Wir fahren für sie (We are driving for you), to the Beijing Olympics tagline Tong Yi Ge Shijie, Tong Yi Ge Mengxiang (One World, One Dream).

A finely tuned tagline can instantly capture customer appeal and loyalty, while a poorly crafted tagline fades away as "marcom background noise" and does not register in customer recall.

With the creation of a global brand tagline, the task is to ascertain whether targeted Asian markets require transcreated tagline versions or if the original tagline can be distributed as-is given its foreign linguistic appeal. “Transcreation” fuses the original tagline's appeal and nuance into designated foreign language constructs. Given subtle cultural nuances inherent in all languages, extensive opex for marcom research and focus groups will need to be allocated to identify proper tagline equivalents. The "as-is" tactic of using the original tagline can significantly optimize corporate opex and accelerate the marcom rollout schedule since localization costs would be avoided. Of course, this approach is highly dependent upon local customer acceptance of foreign taglines.

Figure 9

For example, BMW's tagline "Sheer Driving Pleasure" was used as-is in China , Taiwan , Korea , and Singapore because of those regions' extensive exposure to the English language. For Japan , with its larger segment of sophisticated drivers and purchasing power, BMW transcreated the Japanese equivalent "Kakenukeru Yorokobi", which literally meant "Drive through the barrier with joy", but projected the episodic imagery of "To drive like the wind". Interestingly enough, for the Hong Kong market, its customers preferred the BMW German tagline "Freuden am Fahren" (fun to drive) since it offered more "original brand appeal". Associating foreign marcom to brand appeal is common practice even in the US market, such as Volkswagen's marcom slogan, "Fahrvergnügen" (driving pleasure), which was adopted into American lexicon (Figure 9).

Figure 10

With Louis Vuitton's tagline "Legends of Yesterday and Today", marketers opted to transcreate individual Asian equivalents (Figure 10). For Chinese audiences, they chose the poetic "ji xin chuan qi" (now past disseminate rarity). For the Japanese clientele, they created the colloquial "kako sohite gendai" (past and modern times). For Korean customers, they chose the literal "koakowa hyonjaeui chonsol" (past and present legends). Concerning literal marcom translations, there are situations when localized variants cannot capture the exact western marcom nuance. However, judicious review is in order since this method can also bring about unanticipated results, such as when Pepsi translated the slogan "Come alive with the Pepsi generation" into Chinese word-for-word and got the result "With Pepsi it will revive your ancestors".

Given cost and logistical requirements for transcreated taglines, corporations undertaking such initiatives must establish business metrics to gauge campaign performance through increased product sales, market share expansion, website traffic, etc. By integrating precise cost-benefit analysis into such initiatives, marcom campaigns can be fully justified.

Figure 11

Case in point: when American computer manufacturer Dell created its "Easy as Dell" tagline, it targeted Japan as its initial candidate for tagline transcreation given that country's robust market expansion. Although Dell-Japan already had its own in-country tagline "Atarashii Jou-shiki ga Umareru Tokoro" (Where New Standards Begin), its quasi-engineering stance clashed with the newly established English tagline and needed to be retired.

Dell formed multiple focus groups distributed among consumer – enterprise – government business segments, which generated about 60 tagline candidates. The list was further trimmed when each was compared to its original English format. For example, "Eezee asu Deru," the English tagline converted into Japanese phonetics, was too abstract for some Japanese to understand. "Deru Dai-suki" (I like Dell very much) placed too much emphasis on intimate personal feelings. "Kakkou-Ii Deru" (Cool and Stylish Dell) was amenable to consumers but was not appropriate to enterprise clients. "Fun-iki ga Atteru" (Ambience exists) was declined since it was too esoteric. The exercise did reveal Japanese preference for certain western foreign loan words, such as "Smart" and "Simple" which to them convey modern nuances of efficiency, fashion, and intelligence. Thus, integrating this lingual quality into the transcreation process created the Japanese tagline "Sinpuru wo Anata ni Deru" (Simple for you Dell) as the local equivalent to the American "Easy as Dell" tagline (Figure 11).

Marcom Relevance

Once a company's brand name is localized and its tagline is transcreated, attention shifts to the vehicle for customer "call-to-action", namely the advertisement promotional. Regardless of divergent media channels (print, TV, radio, web, wireless), the fundamental aspect of all promotion is its marcom relevance. Using relevance as a criterion ensures that persuasive content and brand usage depiction are aligned with targeted customer expectations.

For example, American insurance company AFLAC promoted itself in the US with the slogan "AFLAC, ask about it at work". Although conducive to the US segment, this slogan lacks call-to-action appeal for Asian audiences. When AFLAC's Japanese revenue began to outpace its US segment, the company elected to localize a completely different promotion. Leveraging social themes of family security and life savings, the company rolled out a rhythmic Japanese slogan, "Yoku kangae yoo, Okane wa daiji da yo" (Use your money well, for it is precious indeed). The strategy was a phenomenal success and AFLAC is now the largest foreign insurance company operating in Japan .

Nevertheless, tailoring marcom content for Asian markets can also generate customer backlash. Such was the case with Toyota's 2003 print marcom in China depicting a vehicle passing two saluting stone lion statues via the Chinese slogan "ni bu de bu zunjing" (you have no option but pay respect to it) (Figure 12). The Chinese public perceived the lion statues as symbols of cultural and government authority, implying that their domestic product quality was subservient to Japanese counterparts. Outcry was such that Toyota quickly issued an open apology to close the issue and preserve its China market share.

Figure 12

Sometimes, controversy originates from the marcom messenger. This scenario was encountered by Dell USA 's "Steven Jackson" TV marcom character (Figure 12), which had almost reached brand icon status among American suburban audiences in early-2000s. Witnessing the character's meteoric rise in brand association, Dell USA executives wanted to export American "Steven" commercials en masse to Japan to leverage the positive momentum, while at the same time reap corporate opex savings. Unfortunately, a series of up-front Japan focus groups revealed that Steven's "Know it all" and "In your face" American cultural demeanors were totally rejected by more conservative Japanese audiences. Recriminations included that Steven did not use honorific verbs when addressing senior societal members, he spoke to strangers without proper introduction or permission, and that he improperly appropriated store department equipment without being an employee. At least Dell was able to "dodge the bullet" by not rolling out "Steven" for Japan . Dell did attempt to recoup this loss by creating localized commercials with a Japanese "Hiro" character. However, the idea that senior members of society and professionals should show deference to younger techno-savvy people clashed with conservative cultural strata, hence this American type of commercial was never successful in Japan.

When politics are thrown into the fray, marcom becomes exceptionally delicate to manage. In 2004 when America 's United Airlines announced direct flights to Vietnam , the company was tapping into a lucrative market of American citizens traveling to that Southeast Asian nation. However, a large contingent of Vietnamese-Americans residing on America 's west coast is former refugees who fled Vietnam following the war.

Figure 13

If United Airlines had followed the "money trail" and customized its marcom language with "Flight to Saigon ", it would have harnessed great appeal among Vietnamese Americans, but the Vietnamese government would retaliate against the company. If the company followed the official norm and selected "Flight to Ho Chi Minh City ", it would placate the Vietnamese government but receive objection from American nationals (especially from Vietnamese-Americans). Their solution was ambiguity in not mentioning the destination city by name and instead promoting the streamlined slogan "Flight to Vietnam " (Figure 13).

Rounding out marcom content is numerology and the cultural perception that display of certain numbers can invoke fortunate or ominous events. This may teeter on superstition, but it's a facet that global marcom must integrate for seamless communication. For example, in major Las Vegas casino hotels, one would not find floor #13, room #13, or gambling table #13 due to negative socio-religious affiliation with that number.

Figure 14

For Asian markets, the same principle holds true, but a different set of numbers are embraced. Chinese-influenced cultures view the numbers 8, 9, and 10 as auspicious. The number 8 alludes to the Chinese word "Prosper", the number 9 to "Longevity", while the number 10 is the Buddhist religious numeral for spiritual perfection. Japan observes a slightly different set, where the number 8 in Kanji resembles Mt. Fuji and is thus a good omen for prosperity and social status. In addition, the Kanji shape for number the 8 also implies the Japanese concept of "Sue Hirogari" (one's opportunities spread out like a fan) (Figure 14). However, the Japanese view the number 9 negatively since its phonetic conjures up the word "Kurushi" (painful, bitter, difficult). The number 4 is viewed as a bad omen due to its phonetic resemblance to the word "Death"; its rejection is almost universally observed.

Figure 15

A numerology challenge was encountered by Italian automotive firm Alpha Romeo when it marketed its "164" sports sedan to the Hong Kong market. When the number 164 is pronounced in Chinese as "yi liu si", it closely resembles the Chinese phrase "yi dou si" (we all die), imparting negative implication that vehicle ownership will bring ominous consequences. After consulting with local specialists, Alpha Romeo changed the car designation to "168", rendered in Chinese as "yi liu pa," which closely resembles the phrase "yi dou fa" (we all prosper). Needless to say, the latter title greatly enhanced its marcom positioning.


Marcom Transcreation is the coordination of global branding, marcom communication, and business strategy for targeted country entry. Despite the complexities of East Asia , brand management principles leveraged for the American and European markets are also viable in this competitive region. The main caveat is to leverage in-country social, political, linguistic, and historical assets for one's marcom initiative. This is where professionals with true international vision can break free from ethnocentric tendencies and focus on common cultural ground for operational success.

Leon Lee is Senior Strategist for Lehrmach, a brand consultancy with concentrations in brand management, international marketing, corporate communications, and online globalization. Leon's 15-year corporate tenure includes Nortel, IBM, University of Texas at Austin, and Dell.