Transmedia and the Art of Brand Storytelling



Part two of two-part series on transmedia and the changing landscape of media, including the evolving role of online video. You can read part one here.

In my previous post, Are You Ready for the Transmedia Revolution?, we looked at the foundational elements of transmedia, a communication strategy that is quickly becoming the standard for storytellers of every kind.

As we discussed, with transmedia’s multi-platform outreach approach, people can engage with your story on a deeper level than any single platform allows, opening the door to a more immersive, collaborative experience. That’s because transmedia takes advantage of the way we live and communicate now, crossing freely from one conversational medium to the next, engaging and sharing in different ways within the daily flow of our digital lives.

With a thoughtfully architected transmedia experience, we’re no longer forced to leave our favorite stories behind when moving between devices, screens or locations. Rather, we can carry our stories with us from platform to platform, adding layers of engagement at each stop along the way. Indeed, one of the basic tenets of crafting and implementing a good transmedia narrative dictates that each platform—online video, social media channels, printed or digital books, games, etc.—be used in a way that maximizes the communication strengths of each. Within that framework, the various touchpoints should advance the storyline in such a way that each story level is capable of standing on its own while at the same time contributing to the larger story where the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Brands Move Into the Transmedia Space

For some time, transmedia was a concept driven mostly by the entertainment industry. Movie releases like The Matrix or Toy Story included story extensions in books and graphic novels, video games, television shows, websites, short video features, and merchandise—all of which deepened the moviegoing experience while opening up new revenue streams for the story developers.

Now, advertising agencies and other brand storytellers have jumped into the transmedia fray with ambitious, layered campaigns that seek bigger shares of hearts and minds through tightly coordinated and cleverly distributed engagement strategies.

For marketers, writers, online video producers and others with a role in the marketing ecosystem, this requires a whole new way of approaching your objective. Rather than creating your own story, you’re now a part of conducted symphony, with a specific and unique role to play. In her post on the topic, Tania Yuki, formerly of comScore and now Vice President of Advertiser Solutions for Visible World explained how this is one of the biggest hurdles for transmedia campaigns to scramble over:

“Transmedia advertising requires a fundamental re-think of how the creative and planning process is organized, demanding a breakdown of silos and greater collaboration and agreement on campaign objectives across teams at the outset,” Yuki said, “The potential obstacles to successful implementations include lack of planning and integration, as well as any assumption that new channels are merely ‘another screen’ for which the same creative can simply be repurposed. While this may work in part, it misses the larger opportunity.”

For online video marketers, this means stepping up the game with tighter coordination, recognizing that video has the power to be far more powerful when it’s contributing to a larger brand story.

Telling Your Brand Story

It’s no surprise that people are more likely to engage with a brand and ultimately buy that brand’s product when they feel good about what it represents in their minds.

Feeling good about a brand means first honing in on a brand story that matters and is worth telling in the first place. Great brand stories are usually born from the brand vision—that big, audacious idea that boldly states how your brand improves the lives of those who encounter it. It’s there, in the loftiest peaks of your vision, where meaningful brand stories can be found.

The best brand stories makes you feel good in a way that goes way beyond the actual specifics of your company’s product, and the best brands all provide clear examples of this highly aspirational ingredient. Here’s a few examples:

  • We don’t simply make running shoes, rather, we are the gateway to a physically fit, richly fulfilling life beyond what you thought yourself able to achieve;
  • We don’t just sell 12 ounces of soda, we are a 15-minute oasis of happiness in the middle of your busy, overworked day;
  • We are not just manufacturing computers and tablets, we are helping people to live more passionate lives and change the world.

So powerful are these brand stories, that I’m certain you know of the companies I’m referring to without ever mentioning their names.

It here, at the core of your brand story, where genuine human connection and value can be found. And it’s here where you’ll find the invitation into the lives of busy people. It’s branding from the inside out, and only after completing the discipline of creating a good story should you start the process of think about the different platforms your brand followers can use to interact with and contribute to your story in their own way.

Case Study 1: American Girl Celebrates A Girl’s Inner Star

American Girl’s mission is to celebrate girls and to be there for them as they begin to read, start school, face issues about friends and family, and start to understand the larger world. The American Girl dolls are at the center of the American Girl brand, a collection of contemporary and historical dolls with a full line of accessories, clothing, and even matching clothing for the doll owner.

Anyone who’s been in the vicinity of an American Doll store has surely seen the armloads of familiar red American Doll bags being carted towards the hotel or car. At one of the 11 America Doll stores across the country, young girls bring their dolls for hair salon appointments, makeovers, or a bistro lunch with a place setting for the dolls.

But American Girl is also a hugely successful publishing company, with more than 100 million American Girl books in print featuring the fictionalized stories behind the dolls. American Girl fans can also interact by subscribing to the popular American Girl magazine, while watching one of the highly successful feature-length American Girl movies on TV or on DVD, or by visiting the American Girl website where fans can play games, send e-cards, and share their own American Girl stories and pictures.

The newest addition to the American Girl universe is Innerstar University, a new American Girl virtual world that allows anyone who’s purchased a doll to create a doll personality online, enroll in the fictional school, and explore the campus in the form of games, awards, and other activities.

American Girl does feature a number of videos on their Facebook site promoting the movies and new website features, but the real power of video within the American Girl universe comes from the thousands of videos created and shared on YouTube by American Girl fans all over the world. Videos include visits to the stores, reviews of recently purchased dolls, accessories and clothing, plus home-made shorts featuring the dolls as actresses and stars. It’s an incredibly rich source of American Girl creativity from a fan demographic that increasingly views social media channels like YouTube and Facebook as their primary source of entertainment.

Case Study 2: Snapple and the Pursuit of Bestness

For more than a decade, Snapple fans have enjoyed the Real Facts underneath the Snapple caps, a collection of true trivia facts that have spawned fan websites, books, and even a game.

Looking to better engage their loyal fans in the digital environment and find new, creative ways to tell their “Best Stuff on Earth” brand story, Snapple put together a dynamic multi-platform campaign focused on the best of everything, which of course includes their own ingredients.

The campaign utilizes all of the major social media channels, each in their own way. A new website featured a curated list of the best sites on the Web as selected by Snapple, music videos, and a connection to the fan-driven Pursuit of Bestness, which plays upon the Snapple caps fixation, rewarding fans with specialized caps for their love of all things Snapple.

On Vimeo and YouTube, Snapple fans can watch an original web series, Best Stuff with Dave, that features a variety of different takes on the best idea with Dave, your friendly and funny Snapple host. Meanwhile, the Real Facts campaign continues to connect with Snapple drinkers ten years after its initial rollout, with fans sharing Snapple facts on their own websites and talking on Facebook and Twitter.

Fan Engagement in Transmedia Campaigns

A very important element in both the aforementioned campaigns is the user contribution to advancing the story. When one fan is able to share and build out the story for another fan, it positions the user as a full co-creator of the narrative, not just a consumer of it. For a new generation of socially savvy fans, creating personalized extensions of their favorite stories is the ultimate stamp of approval, a sign that the brand idea has fully permeated the consciousness of your target group of followers.

This is a phenomenon fans of Harry Potter and Star Wars have certainly known for a long time. Fan fiction, artwork, and other creative extensions of the wildly popular franchises have long enriched these fan communities, leading to the formation of separate subgroups within the larger community. In an article for Sparksheet, entrepreneur and transmedia enthusiast Ja-Naé Duane said it this way:

“By encouraging your audience to be involved in the storytelling, you allow for crowd sourced open innovation, a process that could drive your company and/or its suite of offerings in new, unique and hopefully more profitable directions. As content creation becomes a shared responsibility between brand and audience, the person formerly known as the customer becomes a full-on co-creator and brand evangelist.”

There’s certainly a great deal of discussion happening today around the transmedia concept, though the idea of a story being told across multiple platforms is hardly new. But what is evolving from previous incarnations of the idea is element of a more disciplined distribution of story, and a more thoughtful approach to the timing and delivery of story layers across the various touchpoints.

But while the idea evolves, the execution and steps required to roll out a well-choreographed campaign are still in a formative stage. There’s no perfect formula that can be applied evenly to every campaign. Each story will have its own audience and own strategies but as more of us use and understand the growing communication tools at our disposal, we also become more savvy about how best to combine them in a more artful way. When we mix our own enhanced understanding with a willingness to trust our audience to make the story even better, then we’ve truly created an opportunity for something special to happen.

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