Engaging with Transmedia Branding: An Interview with USC’s Burghardt Tenderich (Part One)

Over the past few years, I’ve been helping to develop an innovative course for the Strategic Communication Program in Annenberg dealing with contemporary trends in branding culture, with a strong emphasis on transmedia, spreadable media, and crowdsourcing. I’ve now taught this class twice with Burghardt Tenderich and he has in turn co-taught the class with Darren Brabham. Each time, we’ve brought in some of the top “thought leaders” in advertising and public relations to share their perspectives on the changing media landscape.

Tenderich, “B.T.,” as we call him, is an industry veteran who brings enormous insight into the teaching of the class, and he has also really dug deep into what it might mean to apply the insights from transmedia entertainment to think about how contemporary brand strategies seek to foster engagement with consumers across media platforms. B.T. recently wrote and published a new book, Transmedia Branding: Engage Your Audience, with Jerried Williams, who was one of the star students in the class the first time we taught it. This book, released in digital format from the Annenberg Press, offers a great option for those of you who teach strategic communications and an essential read for anyone who wants to understand contemporary branding practice. It’s chock-a-block with great examples of recent campaigns which adopted new approaches to reaching consumers, grabbing their interest, and building their loyalty. It is theoretically sophisticated, but also concrete, and applied, a rare combination of virtues.

In this three part interview, B.T. reflects about the changing nature of strategic communications, the value of transmedia branding, and the ethics of blurring between fiction and reality while making claims about real world products and services. Enjoy.

 

The term “transmedia” has been applied for most of its history to storytelling and entertainment media. What changes when we apply the term to talking about advertising?

If used in an advertising or public relations context, the term transmedia takes on a commercial meaning. The story is no longer at the center, but rather becomes more of a means to an end, where the end is – in most cases – primarily of commercial nature: to sell more of whatever you’re marketing.

But I don’t think that presents a problem as long as the brand storytelling is done authentically and the commercial nature is not disguised. This also doesn’t make the story any less important. For any campaign to catch on and be effective, the story needs to be relevant and well-told.

What are some of the factors that you see disrupting the field of strategic communications right now? In what ways are branding and public relations, for example, increasingly intertwined? What factors are reshaping how consumers relate to brands? And how are these changes, collectively, resulting in a new understanding of the communication environment? In short, if transmedia is the answer, what is the question?

The question is: how can you reach and engage with audiences in a communication environment that is saturated with media of all thinkable forms, and where people have the easy option to tune out of commercial messages? This is directly related to the two-pronged paradigm shift that journalism, advertising and strategic communication have been experiencing in the recent years: the rise of social media combined with the proliferation of cheap and easy-to-use multimedia production tools on the one hand, and the decline of mainstream editorial media on the other.

To start with the latter, while there has never been more editorial media in the history of journalism than we have now, collectively editorial media have lost influence, and they have yet to determine a new revenue model that will enable them to stay in business in the long run. Until recently, the barriers of entry were extremely high, as companies had to invest in expensive broadcast equipment or printing presses, distribution and personnel costs. In the past, due to these high barriers to market entry, once you were established, you had very little competition to face and were able to pretty much dictate pricing for advertising. And because people had so little choice for media consumption, your editorial content would certainly reach vast audiences.

Then came Google, Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook. Due to their superior online advertising model, they took away massive advertising revenue from mainstream media. At the same time, blogs and emerging news sites created a so-called long-tail of various niche media, giving people unlimited options for consuming and sharing content. These two trends together have disrupted the 20th Century business model for journalism, and with it the 20th Century approach to advertising and public relations.

Risen from theses ashes is what many now call the PESO model for PR, marketing and branding, which is based on the assumption of strategic equivalency between Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned media. ‘Paid’ is the new term for advertising, product placement, sponsoring, etc., while ‘Earned’ refers to a new and expanded notion of media relations, the traditional stronghold of public relations. But ‘Earned’ is not limited to pitching the New York Times or the Huffington Post. It includes being interviewed on Henry Jenkins’ blog (thank you for that!) or being mentioned in a post by any member of the LinkedIn community. So ‘Earned’ media itself has become much more granular and requires a better understanding of authors and audiences, and therefore requires more research than reading up on 10 established beat reporters, like back in the day.

‘Owned’ media refers to channels where the brand has editorial control. This includes news releases, corporate blogs and web sites, but also the emerging practice of brand journalism where corporations themselves produce journalistic content to reach audiences. ‘Shared’ describes media that can be paid, earned or owned, and practically speaking refers mainly to social media. For example, on networks like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, you can run ads or sponsored content (Paid), pitch media producers to be included in their stories (Earned), and publish your own content (Owned).

So, we’re operating in a completely changed media ecosystem, and it is noteworthy how many strategic communicators and advertisers have not yet evolved and still conduct their work in a 20th Century media framework; they still bombard people with mostly unwanted ‘messages’ across all channels in integrated marketing campaigns that become increasingly less effective. This is where new approaches, such as Transmedia Branding, come in.

What lessons has the advertising industry taken from the entertainment industry in terms of the ways brands might foster greater engagement with their audiences?

It’s all about storytelling. Just a few short years ago, strategic communication was all about ‘the message.’ How do I make people remember ‘the message’? How do I make the media repeat ‘the message’? But as the visionary book Cluetrain Manifesto told us even a few years before the rise of social media, “there is no market for your message,” and instead “markets are conversations.” The human brain is wired to retain information better if it’s packaged as a story, rather than a peremptory ‘message.’

This is intuitive when we think about how humans evolved culturally. We’ve created and shared stories for as long as we’ve been communicating with each other as human beings; storytelling is central to the human race. And if done well, and/or with emotional appeal, this leads to conversations as people share stories, and frequently change or add to them. This is where engagement begins.

The other lesson marketers have learned from entertainment is that compelling stories are more likely to foster intense and enduring engagement. That’s why in transmedia storytelling we see so many cases of entertaining and humorous storytelling. For example, if you think about Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, it’s a highly amusing storyline that draws people in by encouraging them to participate interactive games and bounty hunts, and many become motivated to create related parodies or memes.

 

You draw a potentially generative distinction in the book between brands connecting themselves to existing stories and storyworlds and brands constructing stories and worlds to serve their own particular needs. Can you discuss a few examples of what these two strategies mean in practice?

 

In the context of transmedia branding, some marketers choose to develop their brand’s own story elements, while others decide to join existing narratives.

In terms of the first option, every brand has a story, even if a marketing team has never thought about it. A good example of a brand with a rich story is Levi Strauss. The company’s co-founders were Jewish immigrants from Germany who arrived in San Francisco just in time for the Gold Rush. Unlike most people, Levi and Strauss made a fortune not by digging for gold, but by selling work trousers, denim Jeans, to the onslaught of prospectors.

Incidentally, both of what we think of as very American words – denim jeans – are actually derived from French words: the misspelling of ‘de Nimes’ as in ‘from the city of Nimes’ and ‘Gênes’, the French spelling of the Italian city of Genoa. The background is that Southern French cowboys of Carmargue, a region close to the cities of Nimes, wore work pants that were precursors to what we now know as denim jeans, which were shipped to the United States from the port of Genoa. So, the emerging storyline is that of European immigrants bringing trousers worn by French cowboys to the United States and selling them to the pioneers of the West.

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The company Levi Strauss never actually packaged this backstory in succinct ads, but did allude to this history in a campaign several years ago, which included one spot featuring an image of a little girl running around outside in jeans with the caption, ‘This country wasn’t built by men in suits.’ This ad captures the core concepts of the American experience, such as freedom, opportunity and wide-open land.

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Another example of a company building out its own storyline is the iconic ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ by Old Spice. The brand team realized and owned up to the fact that the Old Spice brand had become dated and stodgy. What’s so remarkable about this example is that they chose to tackle the stodgy image head-on, with taglines such as ‘If your grandfather hadn’t worn Old Spice, you wouldn’t be here,’ and by incorporating the original imagery—the old-fashioned nautical theme—into their transmedia campaign. This created the basis for the tongue-in-cheek persona of the ‘Old Spice Guy.’

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What’s interesting is that you don’t need to be a billion-dollar brand to build a story that people will care about. One of my favorite recent examples is MegaBots, a tiny pre-funding start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area which, as of this writing, is working on its first round investment, a $750,000 Kickstarter campaign.

For a total budget of $175 plus a friend with a camera, they created a story that has been viewed on YouTube over five million times, and picked up extensively on both social media and mainstream media. Here’s why: their story is super cool! Basically, three twenty-something robot enthusiasts got together and built a 15-foot, 6-ton giant robot equipped with paint guns, as a prototype for their ultimate vision: to create an international professional sports league for gigantic fighting robots.

 

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As it happens, there’s only one other mega robot currently on this planet, Kuratas, built by the young Japanese robotics company Suidobashi Heavy Industry. The MegaBots guys reached out to their counterparts with an opportunity too good to resist: they would create a video challenge that would stir up interest on a global scale.

So with some pre-warning, MegaBots shot a video of two of its three co-founders wrapped in American flags, using patriotic language, music and imagery, to challenge Kuratas to the ultimate win-or-die robot fight. A few days later Suidobashi posted its video response, in Japanese with American subtitles, flashing Japanese patriotic images and showing CEO Kogoro Kurata dissing MegaBots for the ‘ugly’ design of its robot, and then accepting the challenge.

A few weeks ago MegaBots followed up with another patriotic video to launch their Kickstarter campaign. This is the gambit to a great transmedia campaign ready to unfold.

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For an example of a brand joining an existing story, we can look to New Zealand Air and their production an the air safety announcement video titled“An Unexpected Briefing,” all done in the style of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.

The crew and passengers all appear dressed in-character of the film creatures. The video was posted to coincide with the premier of The Hobbit I, and at the same time, Air New Zealand painted all its planes in major airports with imagery form the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Note the trade-off between these two strategies: building a campaign with your own story is generally less expensive, but you don’t benefit from the exposure of an existing franchise. If a brand joins a big story, the investment is much greater, but visibility is almost guaranteed.

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams.
Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP VII).

Burghardt has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries and he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.