Coined by MIT professor Henry Jenkins in his 2006 book Convergence Culture, the term “transmedia storytelling” involves an evolving narrative told across multiple media platforms, playing to each channel’s strength, and each one contributing to create a story world larger than the sum of its parts.
The concept has long been embraced by the entertainment world, in which a story – man grows up to avenge parent’s murder, for instance – takes on a life of its own as it is elaborated and extended via film, videogames, animations and comic books. Recently, brands have started to experiment with developing their own story worlds and narratives across various media touchpoints.
General Mills Canada, for example, with AOR Cossette, recently created a viral soap opera campaign for its Old El Paso brand featuring a dramatic Spanish family. The online vignettes star Roberto, who is also featured in the TV commercials, carrying story consistency across multiple channels. Consumers can insert themselves into the plots, and pass the results on to friends.
For Frito-Lay North America’s Smartfood brand, Toronto-based Juniper Park developed In a Woman’s World, a series of animated webisodes that follow four friends’ funny moments and rituals involving food, relationships and exercise that women can relate to. The site also includes games, cartoons and avatars women can create to cross over from one world to the other.
The approach is contrary to the traditional campaign model, which is based on one concept or a distinct USP that’s simply expressed across multiple platforms. That practice was all well and good when the bulk of advertising targeted a TV-fixated generation, but not so much anymore, says Faris Yakob, formerly EVP/chief technology strategist at McCann Erickson in New York, given that we’ve transitioned into a media-rich world, where attention is scarce and a new “idea consumer” is coming to the fore.
“Previously, the audience was like a Victorian child – seen and not heard,” says Yakob. “That’s simply no longer the case. Now, whether you’re making traditional advertising, or doing social media, people have a role in the cultural discourse, and I think you should probably respect that if you want them to be involved in what you do.”
In a thesis he wrote in 2006 for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, Yakob borrowed from Jenkins’ concept of transmedia narratives to propose a different way of thinking about media planning to engage this new consumer: transmedia planning. It’s a model for the development of an evolving, non-linear brand narrative, in which different channels and platforms are used to express stand-alone elements to create a larger brand world.
“We need to realize, increasingly, the audience is a participant. That changes how we have to do what we do, not just in terms of building narratives, but everything we do,” says Yakob.
It’s not a new concept. As consumers have been changing their media habits, brands have steadily been changing their thinking over the past decade to find more engaging approaches. Developed in 2001, DDB’s (now-defunct) Downtown Partners worked to bring the “Bud Light Institute” to life by unconventionally using various media touchpoints to create a narrative that built the sense of a physical presence without an actual building.
OOH executions depicted the opening of the “Institute,” which was portrayed as a grandiose structure dedicated to promoting fun for guys. The agency placed mock employment ads seeking a CEO in Toronto dailies, directing applicants to the campaign website where they could acquire applications and register with the Institute database; an audition for the job was actually held at a golf course in Toronto. A music CD was available for purchase, featuring songs about guys having good times, while TV ads hawked fictional “Institute” products like a perpetually steaming cup of coffee that gave the impression that a guy was at his desk at work when he was, in fact, playing hooky.
“It was kind of an early version of transmedia,” says Andrew Simon, SVP/CD at DDB Canada. “I think to the point of playing to the strength of the medium, that’s where it really resonates.”
Though transmedia planning and storytelling is still in its infancy in terms of adoption by big consumer brands, entertainment marketing is leading the way with some recent resounding successes from which conventional brands can glean ideas. “Why So Serious,” the alternate reality game (ARG) launched in 2008 to promote the film The Dark Knight, was a 360-degree, interactive viral experience centred on the web, which extended to a variety of platforms, both online and offline. It sought to bring Gotham City to life by allowing participants to become real citizens of the city.
Touchpoints including real-world events, collaborative narrative, print, video, mobile, user-generated content, live-streaming audio, scavenger hunts and online games enabled players to craft their own experiences. Players could aid in the rise of the story’s arch-villain, the Joker, by becoming his henchmen, or campaign for Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s district attorney, or even take the law into their own hands by becoming copycat Batman vigilantes, each role bringing a different aspect of the overall universe to life.
“You’re deeply immersed in this experience,” says Simon. “And because of it you have a deeper connection to the brand, and everything adds on to each other, so it keeps getting bigger and bigger, your connection deeper and deeper, and you become more invested in the whole experience.”
Coca-Cola is one big player that’s made no secret of its attempts to more deeply connect with consumers via its “Happiness Factory” platform, a narrative of sorts that ascribes high-level meaning to its product experiences. It’s based on the fantastical world that exists inside a vending machine in which the factory workers live, serving as the main characters in a series of stories that extends the world across multiple channels.
Touchpoints have included commercials, a music track featuring artists from across various genres, interactive video games and real-world installations; each allows Coke to add something different and extend positivity and happiness as the product proposition.
“The best big ideas are the ones that let you do anything, at least, mostly anything,” says Yakob. “Coca-Cola’s positivity position, at a certain point it ladders up to the highest-order value proposition it can get to and it says, ‘yeah, we believe that being positive is good. Cool.’ And then they can do anything they want, as long as it has a positive aspect to it. Not like the idea of endlessly bleating the same USP.”
These efforts illustrate two key components to the idea of transmedia planning.
“One, don’t say the same thing all the time, because it’s quite boring,” says Yakob. “Having a single thought endlessly reiterated is a function of a scarce media environment where you have to condense what you say down to 30 seconds.
“Secondly, the transmedia planning model removes the idea of a big idea at the centre, removes the thought of this individual consumer at the centre, and instead thinks about how the network effect works.
“So, one element of transmedia planning is ‘propagation planning,’ which my friend Ivan [Pollard, group partner, London-based Naked Communications] and I came up with. The principle behind propagation planning is that since everybody is, in some form, a medium, consumers who are participatory are aware of their ability to create, co-create, modulate and propagate content.”
So, where media planning of the past and present has been about the first impression, transmedia planning thinks past that to the secondary and tertiary impressions and what needs to be done in order to generate them.
Yakob cites a Canadian example, Molson Dry’s “Association of Party Pros,” which the brand calls a social reality game, developed by Cossette in Montreal. Launched in 2009, the Quebec effort recruited members to the association, which was supported by an ad campaign and a web platform.
The game took place at the destinations where partiers naturally flock to: bars, concerts, parties, Facebook, nightlife webzines and the campaign website, Produparty.com. Players would create a profile, choose a party name and position and upload videos and photos of their best party moves.
The goal was to accumulate points based on their performance at parties to be featured on the APP website and on Facebook, gain special privileges at events, win exclusive party gear at the Molson boutique and ultimately attain the title of “Party Legend” and represent Quebec at the Tenerife Carnival in the Canary Islands.
The effort leveraged its viral components and attracted thousands of players, held 25 parties with more than 3,000 pros in attendance at each, accumulated close to 10,000 fans on Facebook and crowned 20 winners.
“You have the intersection of narrative from online to events, you have roles for people and you have reasons for them to propagate content about their events,” says Yakob. “You have collaboration, you have cross-platform narrative.”
The trick for conventional consumer brands lacking their own innate narrative is to figure out how to create one, something that requires a lot of investment. One option is to partner with third-party content creators and implement connection strategies to build a brand association, says Rob Young, SVP, planning services, PHD Canada.
“Brands can try to set themselves up along the story trail,” says Young. “If a brand says ‘I’m a story unto myself,’ you’re setting yourself up for a fall, because I don’t think consumers find them to be a particularly compelling story.”
Toronto-based content-creation company Marblemedia is actively helping brands insert themselves into pre-existing narratives. In September, Marble is set to launch an animated sitcom on Teletoon called The Dating Guy, about the romantic, working and everyday struggles of four friends, centred on the main character, Mark, who happens to work in advertising.
In transmedia fashion, different elements of the show’s universe are being extended out to other platforms. For example, characters in the show refer to Dr. Love, an advice columnist who never actually appears on the show. Viewers can go to his site to access daily podcasts from the doctor. Also featured in the show, a fictional online magazine called Super Hotness is likewise blown out into the real world with its own website.
Other elements in the show include video content, photo galleries and music playlists viewers can interact with online. To complete the loop, viewers can leave their own dating stories on Mark’s voicemail, which then can serve as springboards for future storylines.
Brands can be integrated into the show itself – either shown in the background and/or written into the dialogue – or its web properties, and can even “hire” the cartoon characters to appear in branded, customized webisodes.
“Mark is always creating ads, and oftentimes we’ll hear his frustration, we’ll see a clip of it, he might have it on his iPod in the show,” says Mark Bishop, partner/producer at Marblemedia. “It presents us with the neat opportunity to integrate real brands into these ads; we’re talking to real brands about creating ads for them within The Dating Guy world that would be seeded into our storylines.”
Though most can easily take the connection strategy route and insert themselves into third-party-created storylines, the jury is still out on whether brands, especially big ones, can successfully create their own compelling narratives. Yakob thinks it can be done, if brands beef up the experience.
“Anywhere advertising understands that its role perhaps isn’t to talk about USPs but to create high-level meaning around product experiences, then I think you have something that leans towards transmedia.”
Given the amount of integration and time investment that goes into efforts like Molson’s “Association of Party Pros” or Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Factory,” the question for agencies has to be how they should be structured in order to best engage in the space, especially given the requisite synergy between creative and media.
The resounding answer, Young, Simon and Yakob agree, is to have no structure, break down silos within agency walls, working seamlessly internally with all agency departments and partners sitting at the same table.
For its part, last year Marblemedia created a role of director of brand integration in order to breach a disconnect between broadcasters, producers and advertisers.
For media agencies, in particular, Young says that they need to be more creative in their thinking and more dutiful in their research.
“As media become more fragmented, as new platforms emerge as they have been doing with great regularity, the complexity of the planning process moves up a notch,” says Young. “It affects the media agency because it complicates their lives. They have to uncover the right platforms for the story and that takes some time.
“It takes a really thorough understanding of the consumer. You can’t just rely on a PMB run to get this kind of information. You have to understand individual consumers, how they live and what platforms they use to follow these stories with.”
Young also says that it requires agencies to develop a new metric that takes into account the total audience interest in the story.
“The metric has to cross platforms and it has to take time into consideration and the number of platforms,” he says. “That’s the sort of numeric that you have to think about when you’re thinking about this kind of approach.”
To engage in the transmedia space, says Young, it’s essential that brands have a strong brand key, a formal declaration of the brand DNA, so they can maintain their stories and associations over extended periods of time despite agency personnel turnaround.
“It’s the brand memory,” says Young. “The brand has to be strong enough so that when it’s handed to the next planner, its essence continues to be clear and continues to drive that process.”