What is Transmedia Storytelling?
Transmedia storytelling is the practice of telling stories across multiple media platforms, where each medium makes a unique contribution to the story world. Any combination of media may be used to do this, including movies, TV, online video, web apps, video games, blog entries, radio and advertisements. The practice of transmedia storytelling originated in the entertainment industry, and has since been adopted by marketers as a way to promote brands and products.
Stories told through transmedia storytelling need to make sense to the audience as parts of a coherent ‘universe’, with shared components such as characters, visual elements, uses of language and storylines. In transmedia storytelling, there is no single place people can go to get all the details and story points of the universe portrayed. Instead, the contingent story points exist across multiple media, without repetition from one medium to the next. This motivates audience members to seek out all the strands of the story across multiple media.
|Transmedia storytelling in entertainment – basic example
|Transmedia storytelling in marketing – basic example
|Film + TV series + comic book = transmedia story
|TV ads + print ads + web app = transmedia story
Henry Jenkins, a media theorist, raised awareness of transmedia storytelling through an MIT Technology Review article published in 2003, after learning of the concept from high-flying contacts in the media industries. The terms ‘multiplatform storytelling’ and ‘enhanced storytelling’ are sometimes used interchangeably with ‘transmedia storytelling’.
How does transmedia storytelling relate to mainstream media?
Transmedia storytelling originated in mainstream media such as novels, films and comic books, and it is still most commonly and expansively used in entertainment contexts.
Many of the most famous examples of transmedia storytelling relate to the genres of science-fiction and fantasy, both of which hinge on the creator’s ability to depict a believable alternate reality. A key example is Star Wars, which has used a combination of films, screenplays, radio dramas and novelisations to build a vast ‘canon’ storyworld for fans to explore. For an exhaustive account of Star Wars’ use of transmedia storytelling, read Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (PDF) (ed. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest).
Another example of a mainstream media brand using transmedia storytelling is Pokemon, which has drawn fans into its own make-believe world with a combination of video games, card games, TV series and movies, providing an engaging combination of passive and interactive experiences.
The growth of transmedia storytelling coincided with the growth in corporate ownership of fictional characters in the mid-20th century, from Superman (DC Comics) to Sonic The Hedgehog (Sega). This suggests the resources and media-spanning skillbases available to corporations may have been necessary to the development of transmedia storytelling in the entertainment industry.
How does transmedia storytelling relate to marketing?
There are two key strands to the relationship between transmedia storytelling and marketing.
First, transmedia storytelling can serve marketing objectives within an entertainment context, since each platform used can be a unique point of entry for audience members. For example, the Naughty Dog video game series Uncharted will gain in profile through the release of a spin-off film starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg in 2021, which will likely generate sales of the brand’s existing video game products. The film may well prove to be a standalone success at the box office, but the other dimension to its commercial potential is the opportunity for synergy with other components of the brand’s transmedia storytelling. This sums up the power of transmedia storytelling as a marketing tactic: two (or more) related media products which both have inherent value, and both of which create extra value for one another.
Second, transmedia storytelling is being used by some ambitious marketers as an advertising tool to promote brands and products.
The use of transmedia storytelling in marketing has grown in-step with the proliferation of digital media and the rise of ‘dual-screening’, where a person is interchangeably using two media devices at the same time (e.g. browsing social media on a smartphone while watching Netflix on a laptop or TV). In a world where consumers are often accessing multiple media platforms at the same time, it makes sense for brands to tell a story that holds together across those platforms.
Marketers using transmedia storytelling do not tend to go into anything like the same level of detail as can be found in examples of transmedia storytelling from the entertainment industry, such as Star Wars and Pokemon. However, the principles of transmedia storytelling in marketing contexts are broadly similar to those which apply to entertainment contexts:
- A coherent story, or story world, is communicated to the audience across multiple media;
- Each platform has value as a self-contained experience;
- Each platform makes a unique contribution to the story; and
- Shared components such as characters, settings, themes, aesthetic similarities and lore are used to link the platforms.
Examples of exceptional transmedia storytelling in marketing
Comparethemarket.com – “Compare The Meerkat”
A highly successful example of transmedia storytelling in marketing comes in the unprepossessing form of comparethemarket.com’s Compare the Meerkat characters, which were created by the ad agency VCCP in 2009.
Following the overwhelmingly positive response to the initial Compare The Meerkat ads, which starred an aristocratic animated meerkat, Alexander Orlov, and his IT technician, Sergei, comparethemarket.com expanded the Compare The Meerkat campaign with a book and web content featuring ‘biographies’ of the meerkat characters. Together with a range of stuffed toys featuring the campaign’s characters, these transmedia storytelling elements deepened Compare The Meerkat’s appeal, especially to younger viewers.
These extensions to the Compare The Meerkat story world, beyond the scope of ordinary advertising, added significant value to comparethemarket.com’s campaign. The book, which was a purported “autobiography” of the meerkat Alexander Orlov, generated more pre-orders than genuine autobiographical works featuring Tony Blair, Cheryl Cole and Russell Brand in the same year, 2010.
Meanwhile, the Compare The Meerkat web content fed into several of comparethemarkat.com’s conversion goals, with links through to the brand’s products and its Meerkat app reward scheme, which offers restaurant and cinema discounts, similar to Orange Wednesdays.
While this case study doesn’t exactly showcase the most artistic side to transmedia storytelling, it does illustrate how couching a ‘grudge purchase’ like insurance within a fantasy world split across multiple media can create a positive experience for customers – even if the link between story world and product is as simples as the similarity between the words ‘meerkat’ and ‘market’.
Burberry – ‘Burberry World’
Since at least as far back as the mid-noughties, British fashion brand Burberry has used transmedia storytelling as a conceptual framework for its approach to marketing, which is described by the company’s former CEO, Angela Ahrendts, in the video above.
Burberry has used a combination of video, audio, web content and in-store customer experience to convey both its 150-year history and its contemporary brand story to customers. According to Ahrendts, the brand’s strategy across these platforms is built around core values taken from Open Spaces, a book written by Burberry’s Victorian founder, Thomas Burberry. These values include the words ‘protect’, ‘explore’ and ‘inspire’. The story told through this approach is not a fictional tale like Superman or Compare The Meerkat; rather, it is a non-fictional representation of a brand.
The media platforms Burberry used to tell its story were chosen to suit its audience.
“We needed to keep the story authentic, keep it pure,” Ahrendts has said. “We knew we were going to have to speak in millennials’ language, and their language was rapidly becoming digital.
Ahrendts and her team started thinking of the Burberry website as ‘Burberry World’ – a place that lived, breathed and fully embodied the brand’s story. This approach proved so successful, the brand ultimately decided to replicate it in-store.
“We wanted it to feel like when you walked through the door, you were actually walking into the website,” Ahrendts has said. Burberry’s transmedia storytelling had come full circle, from historical reality, through transmedia storytelling, to the reality of its in-store experience in the present day.
What is the history of transmedia storytelling?
The practice of transmedia storytelling is predated by a related concept called ‘intertextuality’, which describes how separate texts interact to create a new meaning.
Frankenstein author Mary Shelley was using intertextuality when she quoted poems written by other authors in her novels – a technique which changed the significance of both her own novel and the poetry it quoted. At the very start of the novel, Shelley quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay, To mould me man? Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me?”
The inclusion of Milton’s verse conditions the reader’s response to Shelley’s novel, bringing into focus the core theme of humans playing God. As a reader, the experience of the two texts together is different to reading the novel without the verse, and vice versa.
This idea of one text changing the meaning of another is central to how transmedia storytelling works: one medium relates to other media in ways that alter the meaning the audience takes away, hopefully for the better. For example, if the audience has read a novel that gives them the backstory on a character who is set to appear in a film, when the audience watches that film, their relation to that character will be richer, and hopefully more emotive.
Contemporary transmedia storytelling differs from classic intertextuality, insofar as there is usually a common creator (or licensor) of all the media involved (e.g. Marvel owns Spider-Man across all the media used to tell that character’s story), whereas intertextuality has often involved one creator referencing another.
The prototype for transmedia storytelling can arguably be found in the Superman franchise. The DC Comics superhero first appeared as a comic book character in 1938, and over the subsequent decade or so, the “Caped Crusader” appeared in two separate comic series with different publishers. Both series depicted the same character inhabiting the same story world, but both narrated distinct events within that world. This set the precedent for complete story worlds to hold together across multiple platforms, opening the door for the emergence of truly transmedia storytelling.
Is transmedia storytelling right for your brand?
Transmedia storytelling means something different to every brand or creator that uses it. For some brands, like Star Wars or Pokemon, it means crafting a complex story world that users can lose themselves in for hours on end. For others, like Burberry, it’s more a case of telling a consistent story across every interface between the brand and its customers.
Whichever approach you take to it, transmedia storytelling is a big commitment. In a marketing context, it tends to require the brand to present itself in a certain way across multiple platforms, potentially for a lengthy period. Of course, if the storytelling aligns with the brand and its objectives, as has been the case for Burberry (see case study above), this will likely turn out to be a positive outcome.
With the long-termism of transmedia storytelling in mind, the ideal time for a brand to pursue this approach to marketing would be at the time of a rebrand/brand refresh, or at launch. Transmedia storytelling is not a technique that marketers can sprinkle into their strategy here and there; but it could be ideal for those who wish to drive significant change in brand perception and audience demography.
As transmedia storytelling grows in scale across different media, successful implementation of brand guidelines becomes more challenging. Every component, every character and every perspective expressed on each medium should align with the brand’s values. We therefore recommend marketers take a “less is more” approach to transmedia storytelling. Start by telling your story exceptionally well and concisely across just a few channels, and if this proves successful you will be perfectly placed to extend the project going forward. With transmedia storytelling, you really are creating a little world of your brand’s own – so start small and perfectly formed.