How Transmedia Storytelling Begat Transmedia Planning... (Part One)

Cynthia and I are just back from Poland as of tonight. I hope to share some impressions of the trip as soon as I am able. In the meantime, the following post was written for the newsletter we send to C3 partners. When you write a book, you usually have no idea which ideas will get picked up or by which communities. That's part of the fun of sending your brain children out in the world. Today, I want to explore a case in point -- the ways that the idea of transmedia narrative in my new book, Convergence Culture, has started to evolve into a concept of transmedia planning as it has been taken up by bloggers interested in branding.

Convergence Culture itself deals with transmedia storytelling as an emerging

form of entertainment but never really addresses its application to branding. The chapter on transmedia storytelling immediately follows the book's discussion of American Idol, brand communities, affective economics, and product placement so the connection of ideas was there to be found but I did not myself put all of the pieces together.

The Further Adventures of Mr. Clean

Even before the book appeared in print, though, C3 researcher Grant McCracken published a series of blog posts exploring what my approach to transmedia might contribute to current thinking about brands:

In the old world of marketing, there wasn't much transmediation to speak of. Corporations made products, and informed the advertising agency, who in turn informed the consumer... The meanings went straight down a single shute. They did not run on several tracks.

McCracken focuses primarily on one aspect of the transmedia experience -- providing backstory. He questioned whether most brands have a sufficiently detailed backstory to generate the kind of consumer interest that give rise to fan communities around entertainment franchises:

For Mr. Clean there was no back story, no alternative endings, no competing interpretation. There was in fact no narrative to speak of. I think some consumers surmised that Mr. Clean was an uncorked genie, a creature out of Shahraza released from the lamp/bottle to put his magic at the disposal of the homemaker. In this case, the brand was actually removing meaning from the icon, not supplementing or multiplying this meaning.

Yet in a subsequent post, McCracken shows how easy it would be to flesh out the backstory of a seemingly empty icon:

It's not so hard to imagine Mr. Clean in more fully realized narrative terms: child of an orphanage in a French colony in North Africa (circa 1890), early childhood spend as a runner in a souk (market), taken in as a servant by a family of French nationals who holiday in Morocco and eventually he joins the household even when it is "at home" in France. In the late spring of 1907, "Gerard" is travelling back to Morocco to help to set up the summer home when (mon dieu!) he is kidnapped by pirates. Gerard sails for some years as a pirate and this allows him to built up a small store of wealth, and to return, eventually, to the souk where he buys a stock of carpets and a stall, marries his childhood sweetheart, and begins to raise a little batch of runners all his own. It is on one of his trips to replenish his supply of carpets that...

Would such a backstory enhance the brand experience? Perhaps. Especially if people find themselves wanting to find out more about this remarkable character and his many exotic adventures, if consumers seek more touch points with the brand, if they generate their own narratives about Gerard. Personally I am waiting to see the Mr. Clean/Jolly Green Giant slash genre emerge!

There have been good examples of tapping interest in characters to prolong our engagement. I am thinking of the Folger's Coffee campaign with Anthony Head, who went on to play Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here a story unfolded across a number of commercial installments -- following a fairly simple genre -- the romantic comedy. Could you imagine extending that outward into some kind of epistelary fiction? A series of love letters between the two in print or on the web, which come complete with coffee stains? Perhaps even some kind of game where the goal is help true love win out and good coffee taste find an appreciating consumer?

Yet, there is also a danger in too much specificity. We might start by pondering whether renaming Mr. Clean Gerard increases our engagement with the character or simply closes off a range of other possible associations. The most effective use of transmedia branding so far may be the BMW campaign, "The Hire," which unfolded first on the web (in the hands of some of the world's greatest filmmakers) and more recently in the comics (in the hands of some pretty damn gifted comics creators). Despite all of the screen time he enjoys, the central protagonist -- the driver -- receives very little characterization, allowing him to move fluidly across genres and across media platforms. He is more an observer figure than a protagonist: the goals of the guest stars set the terms for each new installment. One can encounter the episodes in any order, but there may be less motivation to try to find links across them.

Transmedia vs. Media Neutral

The relationship between transmedia entertainment and branding resurfaced recently in a much discussed post by Faris Yacob from the London-based Naked Communications group. Yacob embraces transmedia branding in contrast to what he sees as the media neutral approach that shapes much current thinking about branding:

The model that has held the industry's collective imagination for the last few years has been media neutral planning. In essence, this is the belief that we should develop a single organising thought that iterates itself across any touchpoint - this was a reaction against previous models of integration that were often simply the dilution of a televisual creative idea across other channels that it wasn't necessarily suited to...The important point is that there is one idea being expressed in different ways. This is believed to be more effective as there are multiple encodings of the same idea, which reinforces the impact on the consumer.

Now then, let's think about transmedia planning. In this model, there would be an evolving non-linear brand narrative. Different channels could be used to communicate different, self-contained elements of the brand narrative that build to create an larger brand world. Consumers then pull different parts of the story together themselves. The beauty of this is that it is designed to generate brand communities, in the same way that The Matrix generates knowledge communities, as consumers come together to share elements of the narrative. It

has a word of mouth driver built in.

While McCracken's use of my transmedia concept emphasized back story, Yacob's version stresses world building and the social activity of consumers. His primary example turns out to be the alternative reality game, The Art of the Heist. It's worth recalling that I do discuss The Beast and I Love Bees in the context of my discussion of transmedia storytelling. Indeed, at the heart of my concept of transmedia is the distinction between cultural attractors -- works that draw like minded individuals together to form a community -- and cultural activators -- works that give these communities something to do. In a subsequent interview, Yacob fleshes out even more his idea about the role of the consumer in the process of transmedia branding:

I think consumers can handle more than a single core idea. In fact, I think in an age where increasingly consumers control the media the consume, and we can no longer simply interrupt, entertain for 25 seconds and then sell them something, then we have to offer them more than a core idea well told.

It's not about individuals responding to the whole world - it's about whether a community will adopt it. And groups naturally spring up around stories that have rich worlds to explore, discuss and share.

The industry seems obsessed by engagement at the moment - building / offering brand engagement. But from a person, or communities, point of view - why should they engage with brands unless there is some value in the engagement?

Consciously or unconsciously, Yacob is linkig my notion of transmedia entertainment with arguments about complexity in contemporary popular narrative made by Steven Johnson in his book, Everything Bad is Good For You, or C3 researcher Jason Mittell in his work on contemporary television narative. I see the kinds of complexity that Johnson and Mittell discuss as closely linked to the emergence of knowledge communities (or as Pierre Levy might call it, collective intelligence): a group of people, pooling their knowledge, working together, can process much greater complexity (indeed, demands much greater complexity) than an individual watching television alone in their living room. Transmedia entertainment simply pushes that search for complexity to the next level, spreading the information across multiple media platforms and thus providing an incentive for what Mimi Ito calls "hypersociality." The more people get absorbed into putting together these scattered bits of information, the more invested they are in the brand/fan narrative.

In a film franchise, what fuels this interest may be a story -- or more precisely, a fictional world rich enough to support a range of possible stories. But, one can imagine other structures of information generating similar interest -- we can't really call what motivates the Survivor spoilers I discuss earlier in Convergence Culture a story per se. One can imagine, for example, a trivia contest of some kind creating sufficient interest that people seek out information from multiple choices and pool data with others in their core community.