Transmedia Storytelling and Multi-Modal Brands

Audiences are now, literally, all over the place. For brands, the ‘all over the place’ scenario is confusing at best and at worse, totally unfathomable. How do you reach people if they can be anywhere?

If brands are to connect with disparate audiences, they need to start thinking in ways that enable them to connect in different ways, in different places. Basically, in a more transmedia way.

Transmedia storyteller Jeff Gomez suggests that

“Most of us flow naturally from one medium to the next. Unfortunately most of our content doesn’t. Instead the stories are re-purposed and repeated. They do not extend the franchise nor do they build brand equity. With transmedia, each part of a story is unique and plays to the strengths of the medium. The result is a new kind of narrative where story flows across each platform forming a rich narrative tapestry that manifests in an array of products and multiple revenue streams. The audience is both validated and celebrated for participating in the story world through the medium of their choice.”

We now consume content across a phalanx of different platforms and channels. We consume more niche content than before, as well as more, what could be regarded as, non-professional content. We also still consume things like mainstream films, TV programmes and news content, but we consume these things in many different places now and shunt our consumption from one platform to the next.

Media consumption is now transmedia consumption: It is multiplicitous. It covers many different touchpoints and consumers now have a much greater expectation of control. Brands need to adapt. The days of command and control are quickly dying. The question is: How can brands still reach audiences and engage with them, across an increasing number of channels and platforms?

Faris Yakob (who wrote a blog post on transmedia planning) maintains that brands need to think about the “myths” that are created around them, in order to communicate in a transmedia landscape.

“Think about the myth that is the brand you are charged with building. Find the brand’s point of view, create the brand’s world. Don’t treat consumers like idiots. Get online and see how people are living – but that doesn’t mean charge and claim a stake in Second Life! It’s the brand’s myth that is interesting. What’s interesting about trainers? What’s interesting about Japanese cars?”

It’s definitely true that most products in themselves are generally not all that interesting; they have to be placed into context, sort of hyper-reality brand stories, to explain their relevancy. Brands need to be ‘made’ interesting or, rather, made relevant. Their values need to be demonstrated, but at the same time, they also need to create a fantasy or ideal, with which to vault their products into a depiction that incites desire. In transmedia terms this means building brand ‘worlds’ or mythologies that tie every communication and experience back to a brand’s underpinning values, offering up a different part of the world or story in the different places it populates. In the advanced capitalist, consumer reality we inhabit, USP is not all that relevant: value, or values, are what counts.

Transmedia brands need to provide a world that audiences can participate in; a world in which consumers can shape brands, twist and stretch them, to fit their needs. Consumers now expect to curate and control more of their consumption experiences.

The major difference between a consumer brand such as Coca Cola, and an entertainment brand such as Warner Bros, is that the consumer brand’s products are not stories. So where does this leave consumer brands, in terms of storytelling? Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, represent the sharp end of transmedia storytelling but transmedia campaigns needn’t always end up as an ARG. Brands can employ transmedia tactics in less immersive ways, indeed, this is where consumer brands will need to look more closely to build out effective multi-modal, transmedia identities for themselves. Identities that are able to connect widely and deeply, across disparate environments and audiences. Some brands are already operating in less immersive transmedia ways that still enable consumers to engage with a brand world.

Coca Cola has gone some way towards deploying a transmedia approach with it’s Happiness Factory campaign. They’ve created a rich story-world (or brand-world) around the idea that their vending machines have a whole world existing within them, known as the Happiness Factory. The campaign has seen the production of all the usual campaign activity: a website, some TV ads, etc, but also things like a co-created music track.

Although, for all of the rhetoric from Coca Cola heralding a bold new transmedia dawn, the Happiness Factory sits tentatively between a media neutral approach and a transmedia approach, as if it’s trying to grab hold of one without letting go of the other.  But, even if the Happiness Factory doesn’t turn out to be the mother of transmedia campaigns, it does represent a conscious step towards a greater understanding of transmedia in consumer engagement.

The dominant line of thinking within the mar/comm.’s industry still promotes a ‘media neutral’ planning approach to brand strategy. This basically posits the belief that we should develop a single, unifying idea that iterates itself across any touch point. That practice worked when advertising was predominantly a broadcast medium, but not so much anymore, given that we’ve evolved into a media-dense world, where audience attention is fragmented across many different platforms and media types.

Transmedia storytelling (a phrase Henry Jenkins first coined back in 2006) is sometimes referred to as being multi-modal, meaning it uses multiple representations to convey a complex story through numerous media channels and platforms. Brands themselves now need to become multi-modal, that is to say, more multifarious and flexible in their identities – in how they portray themselves, in order to remain relevant and accessible to an increasingly differentiated audience. They have to simultaneously manifest themselves across multiple differentiated touch-points. To summarise: a multi-modal brand is a brand that is able to maintain it’s core values, but be flexible enough to be represented in a multitude of different ways, so as to fit more closely to the medium it is being placed within and to the community it finds itself talking to.

In order to do this an over arching brand mythology is required, that can support multiple different stories and brand representations. What would a multi-modal brand look like exactly? I’ve sketched a little diagram (very roughly) to demonstrate simply how a multi-modal brand might work:

In my sketch, brand ‘nodes’ are created as autonomous consumer engagement experiences. Each Brand node is targeted to complement a specific audience and a specific medium, channel or platform. A brand node could be anything really; an ad, a PR initiative, a video, an interactive experience, anything.

Every brand node has, at it’s heart, the brands core values, yet each may look and feel different. In this way, brands can become modified to suit the audience and the experience, yet still retain core brand values.

I wanted to see how a multi-modal brand can be placed within a transmedia framework. Brands can use transmedia storytelling to connect audiences, experiences and media into a single brand universe or story-world, with active participation from audiences enabling feedback and the evolution of the brand world they participate in. Less active audiences can still engaged, with more active audiences being provided a more immersive experience, across disparate brand nodes. Collective intelligence is leveraged through the creation of an over-arching brand narrative, that threads together very different brand experiences, by placing them within a greater brand narrative. So what does a multi-modal, transmedia brand look like? Cue another poorly drawn and most likely innacurate sketch:

Now, each brand node is still hyper-targeted, to suit a specific audience and experience but in the context of transmedia storytelling, a brand can thread or connect seemingly disparate experiences into a unifying brand world, encompassing multiple campaigns, or numerous disparate experiences.

When viewed as a platform, this model could enable brands to simultaneously grow and connect disparate audiences, through an ever evolving, highly targeted, brand universe. It is a model that also requires the participation of the audience, in different ways, depending on the audience and the experience, to evolve the brand narrative through interaction, in more or less immersive ways.

The audience is integral in the creation of the story and the storytelling. One other point I wanted to make about this model, is the importance of a mix of factual and fictional storytelling. Consumer brands need to be able to inspire as well as demonstrate utility and value. Creating transmedia brand worlds that are able to do both and, importantly, cross over from one to another, will be able to build cohesive transmedia storytelling while managing to service their different communication requirements.

Categories: Strategy

Your Vending Machine Knows You’re Unhappy » « Taking a trip to Liver Land: Collaborative play, participatory storytelling and social engagement


  1. Interesting take on the Coca Cola’s transmedial approach to Happiness Factory. I’ve yet to see much of this wonderfully cool looking ‘world’ they’ve created translate furhter into a ‘story-verse’, but do appreciate Coca Cola’s willingness to drop alot of coin on this grande experiment of non-broadcast specific, multi-modal delivery. Thnaks for the great read!

    • willrenny

      September 1, 2010 — 11:18 am

      I have to admit Marc, I wonder whether there was more fanfare than fanfiction with this one. I mentioned that I thought they were treading a tentative line, and you’re right, there hasn’t been many signs of life from the Happiness Factory. It could well be the case that more was invested in the idea than the realisation that, actually, creating a transmedia-storytelling approach will undoubtedly take investment in both time, money and people. Part of the problem is getting Brands to realise that the investment is worth it. Also, most creative/ad agencies don’t really get this approach, so it’s going to take a bit of time before we see these kinds of platforms being developed to a meaningful extent. I have no doubt though that we will increasingly see more of a multi-modal approach for consumer brands. It may not always result in a full-on, transmedia story-world being created, but then again, I can see a whole bunch of different takes on what story-worlds actually are and how they manifest themselves. Perhaps that’s a subject for another post?

  2. Great blog here! Also your web site loads up very fast! What web host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my site loaded up as fast as yours lol

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