Guest Article: Manu Prasad: A brand's new story

By Manu Prasad , Bengaluru | In Advertising | September 09, 2011
Brands have always been storytellers, but new platforms bring with them opportunities and complexities that warrant a tweaking of the craft. Welcome to transmedia storytelling.

An audacious game begins

Long ago, in 2005 actually, when brands conveniently split their strategies into ATL (above the line) and BTL (below the line) territories, and digital and experiential still required 'parental guidance', an Audi A3 was stolen in New York City.

The small detail was that it happened the night before it was to make its first appearance in an autoshow. Security cameras showed the burglars driving the car away. Audi asked the public for help in retrieving their car. Over the next 90 days, through newspapers and magazine announcements, handbills, television spots, blogs, the website and live events, more information was disseminated and people could help Audi solve a complicated, but well co-ordinated art heist, led by a master thief known initially only as Arclight. His main pursuers were Nisha Roberts, an art recovery expert, and her friend Ian, a computer hacker, but a 'glitch' in their website made emails, telephone conversations, photos, maps and documents available to those following the story using which they could crack the case in many different ways.

At any one time during those 90 days, half-a-million people across the US could be seen doing exactly this, making the 'Art of the Hei3st' one of the earliest, and most successful transmedia (in retrospect) storytelling campaigns in marketing history, blurring the lines between online/offline and real/fantasy. Successful, not just as a completely gripping story, but also in terms of actual sales and dealership enquiries since everything the car was capable of, was conveyed through the story using various media.

Social storytellers

Wiki describes Transmedia Storytelling as "...a technique of telling stories across multiple platforms and formats..." Is it a 'new' idea? Not really. afaqs! itself had a story a few years back on Transmedia Planning. But, five years have passed since the Audi campaign, and the world has seen an explosion of platforms that can be used as storytelling devices -- Facebook, Twitter, Mobile and Tablet Apps, Augmented Reality, Location Based Services, and so on. Audiences are also consuming media and social platforms in ever-changing ways.

Many conventional storytellers have now embraced this multi-delivery channel way of building a story. Neal Stephenson, whose 1992 novel SnowCrash popularised the term avatar in the context of role playing games, recently launched The Mongoliad, an interactive fiction narrated mostly in non-text forms like smartphone apps. Fans of the television series Heroes would be interested in this map that shows how to navigate the transmedia components of the series.

Other examples include the television show Dexter, and the Star Wars and Matrix franchises. The WWE's use of Twitter, through its superstars, to further (or even begin) the storylines that appear on their television shows is another example.

What's the brand connection?

But, Mad Men's (arguably) botched attempt at transmedia is not the only reason why the brand/advertising community should be interested. The Old Spice man is the easiest contemporary example of how a story can be told well using multiple platforms, showing that after all, it's not the categories that are boring, it's the conversations.

What brands need to do is to create narratives that make them interesting and relevant to the consumer, expanding the brand into a meta-world that can include combinations of real, virtual, online, offline, where the consumer can reconfigure the brand in his/her context. This age has given the brand manager the tools and technology to provide all sorts of contexts, and even weave them together if required.

Multimedia vs transmedia

Instead, what we see now are disjointed broadcasts safely operating within the silos of the platforms they exist in -- the 30-sec spot on television, the print ads, the website and lately, the official Facebook and Twitter accounts, without understanding the difference between rendering and adaptation.

With increasing number of platforms, and decreasing attention spans, the challenge for brands is to understand the possibilities that each medium offers, the 'why' and 'how' of the consumer's usage of these different platforms and create storylines that would not only work seamlessly, but even work as self-contained units that (however) contribute to the larger brand story. The user -- whether he/she is a reader, viewer, gamer, tweeter -- would mix and match to make up his own non-linear narrative, one that he would probably be more inclined to share through whatever medium he chooses. Everyone's a broadcaster/publisher now, after all.

A typical brand strategy is aimed at provoking a pre-determined action from the consumer, transmedia storytelling throws the idea open and allows users to co-create new brand stories with indeterminable results.

For example...

Godrej has made a good start -- a virtual world called GoJiyo -- also because they carry out topical exercises like the tie-up with the movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, but their efforts, especially on social networks, are yet to utilise the potential completely.

The lowest hanging fruit would be brands which use celebrities as brand ambassadors. Many celebrities are now reasonably heavy users of Twitter and Facebook. So, imagine Deepika Padukone and Karan Johar furthering the Nescafe storyline on Twitter to their collective 14 lakh plus followers.

Back in 2008, when Tata Sky ran the Tata Sky Plus teasers with Gul Panag and Aamir Khan, I had blogged about the interesting storyline. Gul is a very savvy Twitter user, imagine conversations between her and Aamir on Twitter, which take the story forward, probably with inputs from their followers for the next TVC. Aamir's current mobile app promos, poking fun at Cyrus, is another opportunity, made even better because as per Cyrus' Facebook page, he doesn't seem to be a fan of Twitter, while Aamir has almost 10 lakh followers there.

A great platform to tell the world what Cyrus is 'watching' without him knowing.

What happened after the TVC ended?

The interesting part is that brands are present across platforms, but without a cohesive story that will motivate the user to travel across the rest of the brand's world. Oh yes, saw the cross linking, well done! Consistency is what brands now aim for, perhaps they should consider cohesion.

Obviously, not every user is going to hunt for the brand's narratives across platforms, but if the brand tells an interesting story, it has seeded attention. That opens the doors to:

• Engage the core brand users better with platform specific contextual content that allows them to build the brand story and share it
• Use employees from diverse functions to seed different narratives across their favourite social platforms
• Take an idea that resonates on one platform and render it on another
• Use the crowd as a source for ideas on product/service or brand communication

As technology gets better at mixing online and offline, the third P of traditional marketing takes on a completely different meaning. 'Place' becomes anywhere the consumer meets the brand -- retail store, customer care call centre, hoarding, website, Twitter, direct marketing, TVC, print ads, sponsored events and TV shows, product placements, all offer a context, an opportunity to create entry points and communicate the brand's values and perspectives through characters, topics and associations. If the brand makes it interesting, the consumer opts in, and can be then led to more stories through an engagement path he co-creates. The thing to remember is that brands aren't transmedia, their stories are.

(Manu Prasad is an independent consultant and is virtually at

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