Transmedia: branding’s next new thing?

GoofyAmerican Icon

Goofy was enormous.  At least four feet tall.  Standing guard at the door of the giftshop with that…look on his face.

The giftshop belonged to the Marriott and the Marriott stood within shouting distance of Disneyland. 

So the Marriott was loaded with families coming to and from this holyland of branded entertainment. 

An American Boyhood

I couldn’t feeling like that the Goofy doll was looking a little tacky, as if he’d been punked out in polyester.  But as I was standing there, a family of four walked by, struggling with their luggage, obviously on their way home.  The little boy, about 7, said with unmistakeable sorrow,
"Goodbye, Goofy."

It might look like 5 dollars of polyester to me, but for this little boy, Goofy was a god. Well, not so much a god as a someone with whom he had a deep and enduring emotional connection.  One trip to Disneyland, a couple of hours of cartoons, and maybe a comic book or two, and this polyester bundle had slipped the bounds of implausibility and morphed into matter that mattered a lot.  This childhood would be shaped, warmed, and animated by a guy called Goofy.

American Girl

I had lunch in Chicago recently with my esteemed fellow ethnographer, Rita Denny.  Rita was telling me about the phenomenon called American Girl.  I resolved to go see the American Girl store for myself.  There’s one just off Michigan Avenue, and it was a short walk.

Trundling up the Avenue, I began to see young women clutching dolls, walking with a interesting mixture of urgency and self composure.  This is one of those moments when a little cultural literacy goes a long way.  Had I seen these girls before my lunch with Rita, I’d have been merely puzzled.  But with an ethnographer’s expert briefing, I thought, "oh, very good, American girls on their way to American Girl."

American Girl was founded by Pleasant T. Rowland in 1985.  The enterprise centers on 8 characters, each from a different moment in American history.  Thus, Molly is 9 year old with pig tails and bands.  Molly has seven novels.  The first opens with Molly’s father going off to war, and the last, Changes for Molly: A Winter Story, describes Molly’s life in 1944 as she awaits her father’s return. 

"Molly," then, is a character with several manifestations, the novels, the doll, and the accessories.  Molly can be "reached" at the American Girl retail store, website, catalogue and magazine.  The last was founded in 1992 and now has 650,000 subscribers. 

American Girl was acquired by Mattel in 1998.  Almost certainly, this is a classic case of an entrepreneur, Ms. Rowland, coming up with an innovation too strange and wonderful to interest the mainstream players in the early days.  But Ms. Rowland struck a cord, stayed close to her audience, and tried things the "doll makers" would not contemplate.  Thoughtful, observant, creative, risk taking, the enterpreneur creates explosive growth and Mattel is obliged to step in and buy out.  Barbie meet Molly (and move over).


I have been thinking about Goofy of the Marriot and Molly of Michigan Avenue for awhile now, but it was not until I spend a day with my colleagues at MIT that things began to click.  Henry Jenkins, with his  colleagues and his students, is working on a notion called "transmedia."  Here’s how Jenkins defines it:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. 

Jenkins offers The Matrix as a case in point.  This "property" is now three movies, a program of animated films, a series of comics, a couple of games…and counting. 

So what happens if we thinking about brands from a transmedia point of view?  I don’t mean only entertainment brands like the Matrix or Star Wars.  I mean products like Campbell’s Soup, Coca-Cola, Mr. Clean, Purdue (chicken), and Brown Jordan (furniture).  Should these brands  "go transmedia."  Is this the way to build the brand that will speak to the consumers of the 21st century?

The answer tomorrow.  Please come back Part II.  [Sorry, I ran out of time.]


Jenkins, Henry.  Forthcoming.  Convergence culture: Where old and new media intersect.  New York: New York University Press. 

5 thoughts on “Transmedia: branding’s next new thing?

  1. Jüri Saar

    Interesting story, I especially liked the Matrix case, which I followed with interest through almost all of the mediums.

    Right now “Lost” seems to be all over the place.

    First making their content available for video iPods through iTunes, then launching podcasts ( ) with some experimenting taking place with the format, and now declaring their intention to do original content for mobile phones ( ).

    It’ll be interesting to see how the “Lost” experiment develops, and if certain mediums begin to get “typecast” e.g. podcasts for behind the scenes and mobile content for alternative views, but I’m looking forward to part 2.

  2. Grant

    Juri, thanks, the Matrix example, for me, raises the issues of how many more or less different narrative can share a putative sameness and at what point the narrative breaks open like a birthday pinata. It is a measure perhaps of our new tolerance for, and interest in, messy categories that we are prepared to say of all the Maxtrix venues, yes, this is one narrative. And this is perhaps some measure of our new tolerance for, and interest in, multiplicity, that we now care about properties and brands that have “many faces,” many identities. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, Thanks for the link. It’s really good. It reminds me that there is one aspect of AG that I forgot to mention: that kids can buy the same outfits as their dolls. I also like your recursion idea and both come out in this passage, which if I may, I will reproduce here.

    The store plays host to young girls with their mothers, and their grandmothers, each
    taking this in from a different perspective. Grandmothers
    remember their childhood, and raising their own children,
    mothers can continue a legacy, and the girls are into
    something tuned just for them. The extra dollop of genius
    is in the next step of recursion: the child can play
    mother to her doll through these products (certainly,
    allowing a young girl to play at motherhood has been part
    of the appeal of dolls forever, but American Girl taps
    into that incredibly well, for example the Dress Like
    Your Doll department with matching girl-sized and
    doll-sized outfits). The result is three-and-a-half
    generations of customers! (please see Steve’s link above for the origin and the rest of this passage.)

    Thanks, Grant

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