Thursday, June 21, 2012

Brands and transmedia


I was interviewed by Stefania from Italian magazine Subvertising last week. It was an interesting interview, that really made me think through my stance on brands and transmedia – the how, the why, and the why nots.

One point I feel the need to elaborate a little bit on is how I think brands and companies easily can benefit from applying transmedia storytelling methods for their products as well as for their brands and companies. Stefanie asked me if I saw a likeness between transmedia on the one hand and brand engagement on the other hand. My answer was:
Certainly. That’s why I believe that brands can have so much use of transmedia storytelling methods; there is no need to go all out and throw iPad apps paired with graphic novels at people in order to market a cookie brand, but the cookie brand could make enormous use of the way transmedia projects are developed – building the story world the brand wants to exist in, planning narrative superstructures that fit the image of the brand and its products, developing entry points for the audience, things to collaborate on and share as well as a reason to do so and the tools to do so, and to share their creations with their friends… all in all, transmedia storytelling has a lot to offer brands.

To clarify the brief answer above, here are five points I believe matter for brands and companies when thinking about applying transmedia storytelling methods to their marketing and image building:

1. Building and strengthening foundations

One core trait of transmedia storytelling is the art of creating more. The art of either finding out a lot of background stuff that is not readily apparent, or creating new background stuff if needs be. A good example is the case of Avatar, where the team from Starlightrunner spent a lot of time interviewing all the creators, from James Cameron onwards, about life on Pandora, linguistics, flora and fauna etc. With this as a tome, a bible to refer to, creating new additional material becomes easier.

Looking at a brand, the same principles apply, whether you’re a 100 year old Fortune 500 company or a startup fresh out of Y Combinator. By researching the background of the company, the key people from its’ history and the key current people there, milestones in the history, accidents and events and successes, dreams and hopes and thrills and bellyaches, the foundation (or ”story world” as it would be called in a transmedia setting) becomes that much stronger and can therefore support an increasingly greater number of stories, campaigns and intiatives.

The likeness of the story tunnel is a good one, told by Jeff Gomez; if your story is a tunnel leading from point A to point B, the walls of the tunnel are the story world. Whereever there are inconsistencies or something missing from the story world, cracks appear in the walls, spoiling the experience of your story. The solution is to build your story world, your foundations, solid enough not to let anything unwanted to shine through.

2. Finding new entry points and new routes of communication

When that foundation, that story world, is in place, there will be a deep well to turn to. This is a well filled with possibilities; dip your creative bucket in, haul it up and examine all the possible story lines, entry points and interactive elements you’ve just unearthed. Choose the ones that will fit your purposes the best this time and pour the remaining ones back into the well; they’ll be there the next time you need new inspirational material.

Examples are difficult to tell, as there will be at least as many different possibilities / story worlds, as there are companies. But, for instance, imagine a 70 year old brand, unearthing in the process of working on the foundation, that the grandson of the company’s co-founder has a charity running in Latin America. This would one way of engaging customers in a way that connects logically with the brand and achieves a lot of goodwill. Or perhaps there is an amateur theatre company working out of the brand’s original headquarters, where a co-operation would be natural, or just about anything else you can think of. New entry points for the audience and the customers, new routes of communication to the audience, to the customers (and routes that do not feel like ”advertising”, but as natural parts of the company / brand).

3. Get closer to the audience / consumers

Now, this is what I would like to do as a brand; identify my target audience and become a natural part of their everyday life. Granted, this is easier said than done.

On our transmedia panel at Cross Video Days last week, one of the topics we talked about was the subject of approaching and building an audience. Starting from scratch is always an uphill struggle, unless you have some form of inroad; great, well known creative talent, big marketing budget etc. Another way is to approach an already existing community; a Facebook group, a discussion forum, a club or an organization of some kind, that correlates with your project and your content. Finding these can be hard, and approaching them can be even harder; just dropping a link or do a ”hey! Look at what we’ve done!” smacks of shameless self promotion and is likely to achieve derision rather than appreciation.

But, having developed the project and the content according to transmedia storytelling principles, you have a greater chance of finding inroads into the community that will feel logical and compelling. This is helped by the fact that researching such communities and becoming a natural part of them should be one of the top priorities of your project during the development phase.

4. Creating spokespersons within the company

At times, I have had a hard time explaining exactly what my company does. I guess the same goes for a lot of other people, more so for the ones working in bigger companies. Many also struggle to find any reason to communicate about the company they work for themselves.

By utilizing transmedia storytelling methods in the context of a company, or a brand for that matter in cases when these two are not synonomous, anyone working in that company or with that brand will have a number of avenues to go down when it comes to acting as advocates for the company they’re representing.

A good slogan or a good tagline is good, yes. But often it doesn’t tell very much about the company or the brand. What passes for ”About” pages on the web sites of many companies also make for pretty unimpressive reading. The gems that are unearthed when applying transmedia storytelling methods on the other hand, are stories. Stories that reflect the desired image of the company, stories that are coherent and sync with each other – stories that any employee can relate onwards, thereby strengthening the power and image of the company or brand. Furthermore, such stories will help employees arrive at the same view point when it comes to looking at the company. The question of ”Who do I work for and what do we do?” becomes easier to answer if you can relate to the number of stories that form the mythology of the company or the brand.

5. Planning for the long haul

Many ad campaigns or brand awareness-raising campaigns have a beginning, a middle and an end. Some have a second campaign planned to build on the first one. Some might be connected to some other form of IP (movies, TV series, book etc) and thereby gain a form of longevity. Many, however, have not and are not.

When applying transmedia storytelling methods in the context of a company or a brand, this should be one of the great advantages. By researching thoroughly, creating more, laying the foundation, build the mythology and document it in a tome or bible, not only is it possible to achieve the things mentioned in the points above, it is also possible to create longer-lasting campaigns that follow each other in a logical way, each offering new unique insights and inroads to the brand. By creating a story arch that spans over several instances – with an added flexibility to adapt according to feedback and input from the audience – it is possible to discard the one-offs and create meaningful, long running stories that support the desired image of the brand (one case could be made for the way the Avengers brand has been handled, see Jeff Gomez’ case study here).

This post became way longer than I had anticipated, sorry for that. If there are any comments anyone would like to add, please feel free to do so. 

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