Transmedia: Branding’s next new thing? (Part three)

Santa(This is the last installment of a three-part series on branding and transmedia.)

Yesterday, I argued that, traditionally, brands have kept  their icons free of narrative. 

For instance, we have no idea who Mr. Clean is.  There’s no backstory and not much of a front story for that matter. 

But it’s not so hard to imagine Mr. Clean in more fully realized narrative terms: child of an orphanage in a French colony in North Africa (circa 1890), early childhood spend as a runner in a souk (market), taken in as a servant by a family of French nationals who holiday in Morocco and eventually he joins the household even when it is "at home" in France.  In the late spring of 1907, "Gerard" is travelling back to Morocco to help to set up the summer home when (mon dieu!) he is kidnapped by pirates.  Gerard sails for some years as a pirate and this allows him to built up a small store of wealth, and to return, eventually, to the souk where he buys a stock of carpets and a stall, marries his childhood sweetheart, and begins to raise a little batch of runners all his own.  It is on one of his trips to replenish his supply of carpets that…

Ok, ok, will someone put a sock in the anthropologist, please?  Thank you.

I didn’t say it would be a good story.  I need merely demonstrate that even modest narrative gifts can help free this icon from his branded captivity.  (And, yes, there is a great big problem of setting Mr. Clean and his family in a souk, mon dieu, but hey.  I might just as well have chosen the current campaign for Coke which shows a young woman roller skating in what looks like Santa Monica.  This has quite substantial narrative clues in place (some natural, some supernatural), and expansion would take us straight into worlds that the Coca Cola Company does want to occupy.)

The question of course is whether any brand manager would ever dare give Mr. Clean his liberty.  And the answer at the moment is a resounding "no."  For most brand managers, the narrative strategy will promise risk more surely than benefit, and our brand manager is really committed to sending her kids to college. 

It’s also true that brand managers don’t generally know a lot about narrative and this increases the risk even more.  On the other hand, brand managers are risk takers by nature and training, and the moment that someone rises to great heights in the corporation by opening things up here, well, everything could change.  The narrative strategy could be an express elevator to senior management.  You never know.  (And, hey, if it doesn’t work, there’s always Hollywood.)

There is a simpler, less risky route and that is to evoke those two magical words from the post yesterday: soap opera.  Here is a precedent for narratives that make meaning and momentum for the brand despite, perhaps because, they are so loosely tethered to it.  The soap opera actually helped bring P&G to its present and very considerable glory.  There was little direct connection.  I guess, and I am guessing, soap operas helped to build brands and brand relationships because they demonstrated that P&G understood and cared about the emotional lives of the consumer.  As a meaning maker, the soap opera is a matter more of form than content. 

We might call the soap opera narratives that serve the brand "cadet narratives.".  (I am thinking about "cadet lineages," where a kinship connection is  simultaneously evoked and distanced.)  Cadet narratives are not about the brand or its icon explicitly.  They merely  occupy the same branded space, while in the manner of a soap opera, keeping their distance.  This narrative would be tied to Mr. Clean, say, by association, but it would be allowed to go its own way and develop its own imaginative resources. 

There is a certain damage control built into the cadet model.  After all, when things get a little too over the top, the brand manager can dial back the immediacy, the intensity of the association.  Indeed the brand manager can dial back the connection without have to dial back the narrative.  (And this, as we shall see, is key.)

I have an illustration of the cadet narrative.  Faithful readers of this blog will know that, unwittingly, I invented one of these for The Coca-cola Company. Nick Hahn, Charlotte Oades and I, working in Cologne of all places, came up with the notion of a creature called Sophie.  Sophie was a virtual creature, designed to exist on line and manifest in the world.  We hoped that Sophie would be fabulous in both senses of the term and that she would be an object of interest and inspiration to teen girls in the middle years. 

Sophie was a cadet narrative in so far her story was never about Coke or the Coca-Cola Company.  Sophie was for Sophie only.  As I said in the post in question:

 Sophie … would be funded by TCCC (the Coca-Cola Company) but she would have to be leveraged in the most delicate way possible. The moment that TCCC claimed her, she was over. The moment TCCC so much as labelled her, she was over. The best TCCC could hope for is to have Sophie sometimes smile in its direction. This meant, among other things, merely more Cokes in Sophie’s fridge than Pepsis. Not no Pepsi’s!

And now, finally, to the Jenkinsian question: could we, should we, open brand or cadet narratives to many authors in several media.  This is the heart of transmedia.  To quote Jenkins once more, "A transmedia story unfolds across multiple meida platforms with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole."  Could this be allowed to happen for Mr. Clean or Sophie?

Here too the corporate instinct is to dig in and say "no." After all, the brand manager is supposed to manage brand meanings, and, surely, this can’t mean handing over the reins to everyone.  But isn’t this already a central problem of the cocreation strategy, and isn’t this very much in keeping with our understanding that brands that have immaculate conception and hermetic seals  are not really very interesting to the world any more.  Letting lots of people play is a problem that all of us face already.

No, the real issue with the Jenkinsian challenge is allowing other professional meaning managers in on the game.  It is one thing to allow consumers in on the game of meaning manufacture.  It is quite another to bring in film makers, comic book artists, bloggers, writers, and then to let them loose in all the media they represent.  How would we exercise any thing like David Aaker’s branding discipline in a world like this?  There are too many cooks in the kitchen.  Too many messages in the world.  No real chance to control the inevitable diversity of treatment that would ensue.  No real way of protecting oneself from brand mischief or malice. 

Well, all of these anxieties are fully justified, but don’t we sound a lot like parents who would rather ground their kids forever than send them into the world?  In their hearts, marketing managers know what parents do: you have to let them go. 

The good news is that consumers are prepared to sort and edit.  They will see the brand played out in a variety of new ways.  They will hear associations reaching out of the cadet narrative potentially to reform the brand.  But they are pretty good at sayng, "No, that’s not the Mr. Clean or Sophie, I know."  In other words, this is not a game of high vigilance driven by copyright crazy lawyers.  This is more a question of "winning some and loosing some" and the exercise of patience that rewards us because it gives us access to the  sheer "invention of crowds." 

Now, I can hear some marketing people banging the key board with disbelief at this, and saying perhaps, "Why would I want to entertain any of the risks of the transmedia enterprise when I can keep the levers of control to myself?"

The answer is simple.  The consumer has spoken, to film makers, artists, writers, and marketers.  Given the choice between something pristine and something messily more intimate,  the consumer has no doubts.  The latter is much more interesting, vital, robust, and engaging.  It’s worth remembering that many brands are now a little like Ron Burgundy, slick with formula (both kinds) and self congratulation.  The world is having a harder and harder time taking these creatures seriously.  It may even be true that some brands, like some newscasters, are sustained by self parody and not much else. 

Jenkins’ notion of transmedia may be the next new thing in marketing, not because we take to it joyfully but because it may be one of the best ways of making the brand an active, attractive part of contemporary culture.

Or let me put this another way.  Coca-Cola is largely responsible for the creation of the present Santa "narrative."  (Sorry.)   The creation of this creature has done the corporation an inculculable amount of good.  But very clearly if someone were today to propose such a creature the marketer’s reaction would be to limit, control and constrain.  Santa is nothing if not a public property, from Coke’s point of view, a cadet narrative, given over to the inventive powers of many artists working in several media over close to a hundred years. 

The Coca-Cola company doesn’t have much control of Santa now.  Just as plainly, it is content that this is so.  For every year, around this time, a plump, jolly man appears wearing the colors of the Coca-Cola Company. 


Jenkins, Henry. forthcoming.  Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect.  New York: New York University Press.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Sophie: marketing goddess. This blogs sits at the intersection of anthro and econ. October 24, 2005.  here.

McCracken, Grant. 2002. License to Overkill.  Case Comment.  Harvard Business Review.  December, 8-9.

The Ron Burgundy reference evokes the lead character from a film of the same name.

The Coca-Cola Company’s creation of our image of Santa is a story that has been told in several places.  See for instance Belk, Russell’s "A Child’s Christmas in America: Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion," Journal of American Culture. 10 (1) Spring, 1987, 87-100, and Okleshen, Cara, Stacy Menzel Baker, Robert Mittalstaedt. 2000. Santa Claus Does More Than Deliver Toys: Advertising’s commercialization of the collective Memories of Americans. Consumption, Markets, and Culture. 4 (3), 207-240.

10 thoughts on “Transmedia: Branding’s next new thing? (Part three)

  1. steve

    Do you think the BMW films venture was an example of what you’re talking about? They used real film directors to make short films about BMWs (some pretty good ones in there). Undoubtedly, some sort of editorial filter was involved, explicitly or implicitly–none of the films show the Beemer breaking down or symbolizing snobbery–but it looks a bit transmedia-is. Next question–does it help sell cars?

  2. Grant

    Steve, very good question, and now that I think of it, very good point. And your last question is key. I believe I had a colleague at HBS who taught the BMW films venture as a case, and I believe he says that that in fact the demographics of the website visitor, film viewer did not match well with the BMW crowd, but let me check. Thanks, Grant

  3. Jens

    bmw comes to my mind too, but not only because of the films.

    in general i also have the feeling that brands that are driven by a product (bmw, porsche, apple, boogaboo…) – or even more: all brands that are driven by *experiencing them* (to experience the buying qualities of a discounter for example, because this discounter manages to surprise you with damn useful products for a super reasonable price again and again..) kind of work in the narrative transmedia way.

    bmw though is a super interesting example, because the brand got a massive spin in the last couple of years by giving people the responsibility and in a good extend the freedom to create the brand.

    think of bmw architecture. all around the world they have extremely well known – and mostly extremely eccentric – architects building their factories and showrooms. (ok – prada does that too)

    or for example think of there art installations and art events that accompany the big car fairs.

    or think of the bmw art car – an already quite traditional concept of having an artist coloring a one-of piece.

    and so on and so on and so on…

    and – of course – think of bmw design. controversial, provocative, unique and – yes – daring.

    bmw may not build the most beautiful cars – but they build the most daring ones. – because they let their people do the work. – according to the head of bmw design their goal is to create vintage cars.

    and at this point bmw’s old corporate philosophy of giving good people responsibility and the freedom to create pays off quite well – id say.

    the result is: you look at a brand that supports the arts, has great architects building for them and product designers who do not listen too much to market research. the result: you see a company that is daring. one of these true old time companies with guts, a smile and a focus. (not only investment portfolios.) and that then is a wonderful transmedia sensation. created together with common focus and individual freedom.

    sounds a little bit like a vision for a better world.
    sounds like this is exactly what the markets want today.

  4. Grant

    Jens, I wasn’t aware of these other opportunities for outsiders to contribute to the BMW brand. Thanks. It’s not clear that a narrative is advanced. But as Steve was pointing out, less narrative might be more. Also, isn’t odd how many of the things undertaken by the brand that once looked tangential (sponsoring art exhibits in NYC) and looked as if they were probably inspired by the CEO’s significant other, actually begin, from a transmedia point of view, to make more sense. Thanks, Grant

  5. Henry Jenkins

    A few more potential examples, Grant:

    1. The BMW films project has extended into a BMW comics series, also called The Hire. As with the films, it involves top name tallents who push the character and his story in different directions. To what degree is it important that the Driver be emptied of extensive characterization and be adaptable to so many different narrative contexts? This seems like the opposite of your Mr. Clean example where you overspecified his past until he fit logically within a single genre.

    2. The old Folger Coffee serialized commercials, which featured Anthony Head, who went on to play Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here we had a story which unfolded across a number of commercial installments — following a fairly simple genre — the romantic comedy. Could you imagine extending that outward into some kind of epistelary fiction? a series of love letters between the two in print or on the web, which come complete with coffee stains? Perhaps even some kind of game where the goal is help true love win out and good coffee taste find an appreciating consumer.

  6. Grant

    Henry, you and Steve have suggested the potential value of generality, and I get the point of this argument, but I am inclined to think that if we want the brand narrative to attract real talent we must allow for specification, and indeed, I think the interesting brands might issue from the richochet between different narrative threads. Which is to say we can profit from specificity as long as we encourage lots of specifities. It’s the multiplicity thing, again.

    And, yes, that Folgers ad returns to usefulness as a precedent, doesn’t it? Interesting. I don’t know that this ever got written up. It was kind of like showing the soap operaa inside the ad. What it did for consumers, whether they would participate in the construction of narrative(s), these are interesting ethnographic questions! Thanks, Grant

  7. Mary Schmidt

    Hmmm…and here we are again, gathered around the campfire waiting for wise ones to tell us a story. Of course, these days the “fire” is the light of the television and the stories are about much more than why lightening comes from above or it’s really not a good idea to poke even a baby wooly mammoth with a stick. (Oops, there goes the old liberal arts/sociology major who’s read more books than is probably healthy for any one person.) All comes down to – as illustrated above in this string – we humans love a story and we remember images much better (and with feeling) if there’s an interesting story attached. I actually used to rather look forward to the next Folger’s commercial. But, I never bought the coffee. So, does creative story-telling reinforce a brand? Yes. Does it help sell more product? Hmmm…

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