In my career as a market researcher, I have tested many concepts and taglines transcreated (The process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context) for multicultural audiences. Most of the time, the respondents’ reactions are lukewarm and they bluntedly point out that it’s something translated from English and doesn’t really flow. Admittedly, transcreating a creative concept is a lot more challenging than creating an original concept. It needs to convey the same message as the original concept while at the same time is unique, creative, culturally relevant and authentic in its own way.
When I saw Korean drama Scarlet Heart Ryeo recently, I thought it was an excellent sample of transcreation and there are some lessons that could be drawn for agencies that practice the art of transcreating creative concepts for multicultural consumers.
Scarlet Heart Ryeo drew my attention because it is the remake of a popular Chinese drama Scarlet Heart (a first for Korean drama). It was recently aired in Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and can be viewed by the rest of world on the video streaming website DramaFever. Having watched the original Scarlet Heart series, I was impressed by the creative adaptation of the Korean version that remained true to the spirit of the original story yet reflected Korean authenticity.
Both the original and transcreated versions reflect a creative interpretation of history. The storyline is based on a young 21st century woman being transported back in time where she meets princes of the ruling family. The heroine’s strong character, spirit of freedom and kindness wins her friendship from all of the princes. She eventually falls in love with the 8th prince and later the 4th prince and finds herself entangled in a power struggle for the throne.
Four key elements, which demonstrate this, are described below:
The Korean version is set in Goryeo Dynasty and incorporates many cultural elements and customs of the time. Scenes depicting the sword dance and ceremony to chase evil spirits from the palace, bathhouses and the rain ritual after a long drought are examples of authentic cultural elements.
Creative adaptation of the story
The story is also adapted to be closer to Korean history. The power struggle comes from the ruling family’s relationship with powerful clans that the king relies on — instead of a struggle within the palace as in the original version. Another example is how the relationship between the brothers and their roles are depicted.
Creative adaptation of main characters
There are also considerable adaptations made to the main characters. Heroine Hae Soo, unlike Zhang Xiao who is well versed in Chinese history, has difficulty remembering historical facts. She also is portrayed as illiterate since she has not studied the Chinese characters which are used by aristocrats at the time. However, her expertise in makeup application enables her to cover Wang Soo’s (the 4th prince) facial scar – this ultimately changes his fate. Wang Soo is also portrayed much more charismatic compared to the cold and calculating 4th prince ,Yin Zhen, in the Chinese version. Further adaptations are observed by the use of more fight scenes for Wang Soo. This variation is utilized because the story is set during the medieval period where fighting skills was one of the critical qualities of a capable prince and leader.
Korean drama style
The original Chinese period drama is serious and melancholy due to its theme of a royal power struggle and tragic ending. The Korean version, while still serious in tone, has more light-hearted moments –exemplifying a key characteristic of Korean story telling.
So what does a Korean drama have to do with marketing to multicultural consumers in the U.S.? Advertising agencies are often given the assignment of adapting a General Market concept for various multicultural consumer targets – Hispanic, Asian, and African American. Agencies have taking various approaches, from simply translating the copy, to casting multicultural actors while keeping the English to creatively adapting the concept for their target revamping everything including copy, casting, and production in the process.
Under the pressure of maximizing efficiency and profit, it’s tempting to have one creative concept and branding platform and then translating it into different languages with minimal adaptation. But as we can see from the Scarlet Heart Ryeo example above, while one can have an integrated approach, there is room for transcreation to tailor your canpaign story for specific targets. And a transcreation that is orginal and well thought out can have a cross cultural appleal. It was a hit in China (acculmulated more than 1.7 billion views on Chinese streaming site Youku) and the second most popular drama on DramaFever in North and South America.
In case you’re interested, the show is available on DramaFever and Viki with English subtitles. Be warned, you may catch the infectious drama fever.
Special thanks to Edward Chang of APartnership and Jay Kim of AAAZA for their feedback and input.