The Role of Brands in Transmedia
In September of 2009, I wrote a piece in iMedia Connection on transmedia storytelling and the role that brands can play within this emerging practice, to which Jeff Gomez, Ivan Askwith, Jesse Albert and Conn Fishburn were kind enough to lend some incredibly valuable insights. Given the range of perspectives stemming from the film, TV, interactive and online media worlds, the article netted out in an interesting place, which was to suggest that brands could play a new, pivotal role in the relationship between media, technology and culture. (From the concluding section):
We are literally looking at a global shift in the way we view ourselves and the way we relate to others in our natural environments, all through the possibilities and intricacies of our own imaginations. Picture this: Using a transmedia narrative to engage and build a new set of cultural values for a society completely different from our own, and creating an entirely new ecosystem in the process. Or perhaps it would call competing brand environments into gamesmanship.
Imagine Adidas's latest declaration that "Impossible is nothing" joining the ranks of Nike's "Just do it" on a wondrous stage blending fantasy and real human emotion.
What this means for advertisers is a potential winfall of consumer engagement and advocacy, or true "super-use." What this means for consumers are potential gateways of self-expression that can be mass adopted and at unprecedented scale. What this means for media is an adoption of content generation that breaks down silos and gives rise to human growth (not the machines).
With this type of quenchable mythos, anything is possible.
Well, anything is possible, but with that said, I am going to be a bit critical of my own position.
Despite the fact that there are a good number of branded transmedia campaigns dating back to 2001 (starting with BMW Films “The Hire”, and then spanning almost a full decade to include Audi’s “The Heist”, Coke’s “Open Happiness”, Dove’s “Real Beauty”, Levis “Go Forth”, Red Bull’s “Flugtag” and Verizon’s “Valemont University”, just to name a few...), where we tend to fall flat as marketers is in our planning and use of technology, media and culture to create stories that can be adopted, shaped, shared and remixed at scale.
In other words, we still have the issue of sustaining branded narratives, both in meaningful and culturally relevant ways. The examples above are rarities in an ongoing struggle to identify:
- What a brand actually means and does in a narrative role (hint: not what it says it does);
- Its responsibility in helping to preserve the integrity of a story, as well as its respective media offerings; and
- Its ability to “play with others” in cultural spaces where narratives can’t really be owned by one brand versus another.
The fact that brands have become publishers with the ability to (co)create, serve and own their own media is both a fascinating and somewhat frightening proposition. For one, what is real the intention of a brand – is it to sell products and services, or, is it simply to build relationships? Can it do both organically? And isn’t this ultimately the point of developing transmedia initiatives?
Alison Norrington and I discussed this at length just yesterday. Her belief is that publishing constructs as we’ve come to know them actually underserve the idea that we both build relationships and sell products concurrently; on one side of the coin is the need to sell media inventory in the form of advertising and on the other side is the reality that no one really wants to interact with ads period. In between, publishers are faced with the dilemma of placing a hard value on the media they want to publish (eBooks, for example) and the fact that revenue models are tied to upfront sales; marketing is just one function that is put into the position of compensating for these inefficiencies.
In discussions I’ve had with Stephen Dinehart, he’s held firmly to the belief that transmedia is not a marketing discipline, nor does it function to serve the sale of products and services or their respective messages. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I do think that if brands can get comfortable with the idea of telling meaningful stories with audiences instead of talking at them or manipulating them into interacting with specific media types, then the marketing functions become an inherent part of the storytelling experience.
Just to clarify (and to Stephen’s point), not all branded transmedia campaigns do this, and one might even argue that most of them don’t, hence the issue with brands in general.
If we look at what a story actually is - simply the reorganization of information that is given new context - storytelling is an art that has been around for centuries, yet transmedia storytelling is the practice (and mindset) of developing a narrative whereby each platform or channel (medium) plays a unique role in that narrative arc. This means that the notion of “campaign” (in which there are specific in-points and out-points) gives way to something more powerful, which is the possibility that media assets – video, commercials, print pieces, mobile apps, what have you – can become bigger than themselves.
Transmedia narratives tend to take on life of their own and are indefinite in their lifecycles. Some have large gaps from the time they began or were sourced to when they reemerge in different forms and within different media environments. This is confounding to marketers, studios, creative agencies and media companies that are reliant upon regimented media plans (among other things). Nevertheless, whether we’re creating “branded content”, “transmedia”, “crossmedia” or “collaborative entertainment”, storytelling can be, and should be, ever present.
So perhaps we can look at all of this from another angle, which is the fact that brands are already the buyers and owners of media inventory, as well as their own media properties, and so they may very well be the linchpins in sustaining the relationship between people, media and culture at large. It also strongly suggests that brands can help pick up the pieces where studios and online or offline networks struggle to create storytelling franchises that have sustainable impact.
One way brands can do this is to recognize that stories are being told that have important connections to them as the organizations or businesses they represent, and that they can cultivate and support different narratives with audiences even when they are not putting media assets out into the market.
All of this to say that “transmedia storytelling” should just be storytelling in its purest form, but until we get a solid grasp on how and why stories can be cultivated meaningfully through media, transmedia has a very important – and wildly different – place within the landscape. It also has many dimensions and iterations as a practice; brands, studios, networks, academic institutions, non-profits and even independent citizen groups are all using it unique ways. It also introduces the strong implication that we shouldn’t look at any of these areas as separate from one another, which is what marketing as an industry currently does not do for the most part (just look at all the marketing silos we have created over time, including “cause marketing” and “social media marketing”).
And so the role of brands in transmedia just may culminate in something very special for all of us.