It was 2007. Scottish television writer Bryan Elsley was enjoying the success of his latest show, its pilot reaching more than 1.5 million viewers around the world. Viewership grew with each passing episode, and critics raved about the show’s redeeming sweetness and undeniable charm. Renewed for seven consecutive seasons, Skins quickly became a sensation.
Bolstered by his success, Elsley decided to adapt the UK-based show for US audiences, following the same storyline and recreating the same plot. The US version aired on MTV in January 2011, and thanks to its established fan base and a massive marketing budget—the largest in the network’s history—it garnered 3.26 million viewers in its debut. But viewership went downhill, fast. By episode five, viewership dipped below one million. The show was canceled after just one season.
So what happened?
Time’s James Poniewozik warned that “Skins’ biggest challenge will be finding its American voice.” This is where the remake failed. While adaption is always a complex feat, it seems Elsley made the same mistake that many marketers do: He assumed that his story could be translated to work in a different market, with only a few tweaks here and there. But all too often, storytellers and marketers alike find that a simple translation isn’t enough.
Rather than translating from one piece of content into another, transcreation is the process of recreating content in a way that maintains the message’s original intent, style, tone, and context, ensuring that nothing is—ahem—lost in translation. This is essential for successful content marketing in a global environment, as it allows marketers to adapt to the nuances of the target culture—the things that naturally add to the story and make it authentic.
We know the most impactful narratives are those that tell the stories of their audience. When it comes to remakes, any changes made to the original—even little ones—need to evoke the same emotion.
Image attribution: Julián Gentilezza
The opening scene of the Skins pilot episode provides a perfect picture: We see our main character, Tony, waking up in bed underneath an unusual and shockingly vulgar duvet that depicts a starkly naked man and woman, complete with all the details of genitalia. We immediately get the sense our leading man is a rebel, bold, confident, and smug. It’s clear he’s not afraid to offend, and our interest is instantly piqued.
In MTV’s version, they chose to replace the original duvet with another decorated with (wait for it) spiders—not only removing a fairly significant shock factor, but conveying none of the aspects of Tony’s personality viewers immediately gathered from the original. It was a small but significant change, and fans furiously protested the choice on their blogs and online message boards.
In the case of TV adaptations, you have to assume that a lot of the new audience will have watched, and most likely enjoyed, the original. So any obvious change needs to be made for a reason—and more importantly, needs to preserve the original intent. Under the transcreation microscope, viewers felt this change was a failure.
Similarly, the dialogue and language choices in the US show provided a stark contrast to those of the original. The language of the British show was delightfully crass, thanks to the regionally specific slang of the Skins youth. It inherently felt real. It was genuine storytelling.
The adaptation, of course, replaced all the “bollocks” and “tossers” and “wankers” that colored the original with more nondescript “American-sounding” swears. Elsley knew profanity was an essential ingredient in this raw, gritty show, but the new dialogue lacked the same impact and didn’t further the story in any way.
Transcreation calls for dialogue that speaks to the demographic and social influences just as much as the original did. But here, it seems, MTV’s version failed to speak the same language—pun intended. (Though I’ll admit, it is difficult to find another word with as much punch as “wankers.”)
Today, many marketers are coming to realize the power of proper transcreation and how it can bridge the culture gap. Brands like Coca-Cola have readily embraced the philosophy, transcreating not only the words and phrasing of their messaging but also the graphics and site layout. They’ve consciously created different home pages for each of their country-specific websites, with each customized to use its own unique voice to deliver the same companywide message.
Since home pages are the first thing consumers see when visiting the site, it’s important for them to be both impactful and culturally appropriate. Each individual design should highlight the elements of the brand that will resonate the most with the particular audience.
At its core, transcreation brings an authentic relatability to brands and to storytelling as a whole. No matter what your audience is consuming—whether it’s a beverage or a TV show—they need to feel it was made for them, by people like them.
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Featured image attribution: Bryan Apen