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

Early on, Grant McCracken used the example of Mr. Clean to illustrate what might happen as existing brand icons are given greater backstory. But, even in the entertainment industry, there’s been some debate lately about whether Hollywood is providing too much backstory now and whether backstory can bring negative consequences in terms of narrowing rather than intensifying audience engagement. What insights might you share about how much backstory might be needed to build audience interest in a brand narrative and when the backstory is doing damage to the core goal of the advertisement, which is to sell product?

I’m all for open-ended stories and for improvisation. In fact, two of the aforementioned campaigns, Old Spice Guy and the Most Interesting Man in the World, started off as a video and an advertising campaign, respectively, and over time, due to audience engagement, carried on and eventually morphed into transmedia campaigns. In a way, the less scripted and the less background provided, the more opportunity there is to take a campaign into previously unimagined territory.

There’s been much debate about the nature and value of brand communities. Does every brand need a community of brand advocates? Are some brands more likely to generate such communities than others?

In an ideal world, every brand would have its devoted brand communities — iconic groups like those who followed Harley Davidson or Apple in the 1990s, when the latter was an underdog seemingly losing to Microsoft. In reality, this is not possible, simply because many products or services don’t lend themselves to strong brand communities. Think for example about personal hygiene or cleaning products: who wants to strongly identify with a panty liner or a spray disinfectant? Hence, these brands are best served by what I call ad-hoc communities that rally around a specific campaign, either because of its relevance or entertainment value.

One example of that in the personal hygiene space is the iconic campaign – not product – around Unilever’s True Beauty for the Dove brand of soaps.

dove

The campaign showed regular women – as opposed to models – posing in underwear. This was almost cause-driven, empowering women to celebrate the reality of the female body over Madison Avenue’s stylized ideal. The campaign was widely discussed offline and online and rallied people to consider real-life beauty, and accept the reality of our bodies with a sense of confidence rather than anxiety. The ad-hoc communities emerging from this discussion are not likely to have any staying power once the campaign is no longer on people’s minds, but they’ve served a powerful commercial purpose while they were in existence.

True brand communities, one could argue, germinate organically as people become fans of a product, service or cause, and proactively seek out peers and information related to the brand. Ad-hoc communities, in contrast, seem to be primarily facilitated if not created by strategic communicators. This requires the ability to read and understand the culture of the people engaging in ad-hoc brand communities.

Your book notes several points where major brand campaigns have been targeted for parody or culture jamming tactics. What advice would you give to a brand manager if they were confronted by grassroots appropriation and remixing of their content? Are there examples where brands have responded well and turned these threats around?

Now that people have the ability to talk back so easily and effectively, marketers are beginning to realize that they’ve completely lost control over key elements of their brand. People may choose to make fun of brand messages, images, logos or other elements, and may even choose to defame them. This makes traditional brand managers and advertisers very nervous and frustrated, but it’s actually easier for their public relations counterparts to deal with. PR has always been about negotiating relationships and optimizing activities to achieve intended outcomes, with full knowledge that they had little control over what journalists would actually write, or which customers, partners, competitors they might cite.

So control is gone. Forever. Brand communicators are forced to adapt to the new environment. For many, the default reaction to unwanted brand engagement has been calling the attorneys, who would issue a cease-and-desist letter. This raises a practical question: in a somewhat anonymous internet landscape, to whom do you send the letter? What if hundreds of people have participated in a brand jam – do they all get a letter? And the bigger issue is: what if legal actions backfire by creating a prolonged negative news cycle in the media and on the social web?

bp-big-problem

If brands become the target of a culture jam, as when Greenpeace attacked BP with a competition to redesign the BP logo in 2010, they need to first ask the question: can the attack on your brand be ignored, as the issue may simply fade away in a short period of time? This would be the easiest solution, but raises the second question: even if you can afford to ignore the attack, is it ethical to do so, or do you have a moral obligation to fix the underlying issues? This, of course, requires brands to identify the core of the problem. And once the core problem has been defined, can it be remedied? To stay with the BP example, if a brand was instrumental in creating a massive and prolonged oil spill, the underlying issue obviously can’t easily be remedied, and the brand has to deal the consequences.

On the other hand, a great example of a company that turned a brand jam into an opportunity was Domino’s Pizza. A few years back, videos appeared on the social web showing company employees purposely contaminating ingredients that they were placing in the pizzas. The spread of these videos led to an onslaught of negative comments about not only this particular disgusting incident, but the quality of Domino’s pizza overall.

Domino’s “The Pizza Turnaround” Documentary from Andrew Lincoln on Vimeo.

In a case like this, most brands would have responded defensively or would have tried to divert the public’s attention. Domino’s actually did the exact opposite: they launched and chronicled an investigation into the perceived quality of their food, and the results were shocking. Many people apparently strongly disliked their pizza and even referred to the crust as tasting like cardboard. Remarkably, Domino’s embraced this feedback, reinvented their pizza for improved quality and taste, and then told the story of the entire journey across a variety of media channels, including TV advertising and social platforms. They launched the website Pizzaturnaround.com where they posted the “Pizza Turnaround” documentary.

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.