Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part series examining the emergence of a new discourse about transmedia branding, inspired in part by the discussion of transmedia storytelling in Convergence Culture. Obviously, I am following these developments with great personal interest. I wrote this summary of the debates for the newsletter of our Convergence Culture Consortium. The (Burger) King Is Content
Yacob's post has generated a range of other responses across the blogosphere. Here's some of the advantages which Jason Oke of the Toronto based Leo Burnett agency sees in the transmedia model:
I think it addresses those two weaknesses of media-neutral planning: ignoring that different media are better at different things, and that people are social beings. And by putting a brand community in the middle, it also forces us to think about whether we are in fact making brands and communications which are interesting enough for a community to form, and for people to want to talk about our communications.... [We] have talked about the power of complexity in
communication - that people generally find complex, nuanced, layered things more interesting than simple straightforward things. But when we talk about this stuff, we still usually talk about people processing it individually - so each one person is rewarded for spending more time or if they see it again. But what if we looked at it through the lens of a brand community? Each different layer or detail could appeal to a different group of people, who could compare stories, and thus continually be getting new perspectives on the same thing....
"The idea of brand communities solves one issue that we sometimes run into when attempting to create complex and layered communications - the pushback that we shouldn't put details that everyone (or at least most people) won't or can't get. This is often combined with research findings that indeed, "most people didn't get this reference you were trying to make." This kind of thinking dumbs down communication into the lowest common denominator. But with the brand community model, that ceases to apply - as long as someone, somewhere will get
it, then lots of details and references can work. Whoever notices it will likely tell others about it, because the fact that they figured something out reinforces their ego, status and self-image, and because the tools to widely spread that knowledge are now readily available. So instead of talking down to everybody, we can talk up to everybody, by giving many different groups
something that makes them feel intelligent for getting a subtle reference. And we give them a reason to have multiple conversations about the brand.
Oke's version moves us even further away from the idea that transmedia centers only on narrative and instead focuses on this notion of layering. Oke discusses for example a particular Burger King spot which circulates on YouTube:
On the surface, it's a jingle about the new Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch chicken sandwich. But you might also notice that the guy singing the song is Darius Rucker from 90's band (and pop culture trivia item) Hootie & the Blowfish. Or that the jingle itself is based on the old hobo ballad and Burl Ives classic "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Or that it was directed by iconic photographer David LaChapelle with all kinds of sexual imagery, both hetero and homo. Or that model and TV host Brooke Burke makes a cameo at the end (she's often used in BK ads). But you probably wouldn't notice all of those things, and in fact I'd be surprised if the same people who know who David LaChapelle is are also into turn-of-the century hobo ballads (I'm guessing those circles don't tend to overlap much). But more to the point, not getting some or all of the references doesn't detract from the main brand message (there's a new
chicken sandwich), because each bit also stands on its own. By having lots of detail, though, it gives fans of the brand something to notice and talk about and deconstruct. So you might have missed some of the details but someone else can point them out, and this gives you a deeper appreciation of it, and completes your picture of the whole a bit more.
Oke seems to be describing something close to what game designer Neal Young describes in Convergence Culture as "additive comprehension." Young uses the example of the "origami unicorn" featured in the director's cut version of Bladerunner, a detail which led many to speculate that Deckard, the protagonist, may be a replicant. At the Futures of Entertainment conference, Alex Chisholm provided another example of additive comprehension drawn from one of the Heroes comics tie-ins, where the information that Hiro's grandfather survive Hiroshima adds new significance to both his name and to his response to the challenge of saving the world from what appears to be a threat of nuclear destruction.
Additive comprehension is a key aspect of transmedia entertainment/branding since it allows some viewers to have a richer experience (depending on what they know or which other media they have consumed) without in any way diminishing the experience of someone who only encounters the story on a single media platform. In this case, the same advertisement may support multiple interpretations depending on what kind of knowledge consumers bring to the encounter. If one can convey to the readers that there are secrets there to be uncovered, you can potentially motivate more conversation and engagement as online discussion forums rally to mutually decode the layered content.
Is Transmedia Branding Redundant?
Not everyone has embraced this idea of transmedia branding, though. In a post called "Transmedia Planning My Arse," Giles Rhys Jones argues that transmedia branding simply represents an expansion of the existing 360 branding model: there is still a need for redundancy in the messaging if the branding efforts are to be successful. Citing the Art of the Heist example, Jones suggests, that each element "surely required multiple channel exposure for full impact, rather than each channel living in its own right." I would argue that redundancy is an essential aspect of the transmedia experience. If every element were truly
autonomous, one would have no way to recognize the distinctive contributions of each medium to the media mix strategy. Indeed, much must remain the same across media for people to feel the strong sense of connection between the different installments and for communities to feel like the parts will add up to a meaningful whole if they work together to map the larger fictional universe. What we still need to explore -- whether we are talking about entertainment content or brands -- is the ballance between redundancy and originality, between familiarity and difference.
Will transmedia branding make a lasting contribution to contemporary marketing theory? It's too early to say. As an author, I am delighted to see some of my ideas are generating such discussion. As someone interested in marketing my own intellectual property, these discussions are themselves a kind of transmedia branding: after all, the more people talk about my book, the more people are likely to buy it. I don't have to control the conversation to
benefit from their interest in my product. The key is to produce something that both pulls people together and gives them something to do. In that regard, the book may have had greater impact on the discussions of branding because I didn't fill in all of the links between branding and transmedia entertainment, leaving the blogosphere something to puzzle through together.