Transmedia Branding E-book from USC Professor Delivers Excellent Primer

USC professor Burghardt Tenderich e-book Trans media branding

“Branding is in a state of disruption and re-invention. Recent advances in Internet and consumer technologies have put professional branding tools in the hands of consumers. Everyday people – as individuals and as communities – are appropriating, remixing and recirculating brand icons beyond the control of those who have historically shepherded the brand.”

So states the Transmedia Branding e-book penned by Burghardt Tenderich, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

As belies his experience as a communications practitioner in the real world – Siebel Systems, Applied Communications and Bite Communications – Tenderich’s e-book is more than an academic treatise for the tweed jacket set. His narrative blends the theoretical with examples ranging from Intel to Old Spice to President Obama.

Tenderich defines transmedia branding as “a communication process in which information about a brand is packaged into an integrated narrative, which is dispersed across multiple media channels for the purpose of creating an interactive and engaging brand experience.” While most associate transmedia branding with the consumer world and Hollywood – think Spider-Man in your kid’s Happy Meal and selling Buicks – Tenderich’s definition works for the B2B world as well, though the interactive component might be a stretch.

The e-book pays homage to one of the best-known example of transmedia branding, the Old Spice campaign in which a standard 30-second commercial morphs into YouTube videos featuring Isaiah Mustafa as the “Old Spice Guy” answering questions from the “audience.”

My favorite is Mustafa responding to a Kevin Rose (founder of Digg and now a partner at Google Ventures) tweet on being sick.

“Can you imagine if your smart brain could team up with my strong muscle body and wildly handsome face parts … no, you can’t.”

Yes, levity has a place in transmedia branding as it does in all forms of business storytelling.

On this topic, I’ve discussed in previous posts the value of atomizing content earmarked for journalists, an approach that underlies transmedia storytelling:

“… the pieces of content are dispersed in unique bits and collectively make up a narrative. It’s not that you tell the same story again and again, just in a different medium. It’s that you tell a story a bit at a time in each medium, and, taken together, they create a full story.”

Does the book show you how to create a campaign for an enterprise storage company that will have Mattel knocking on your door wanting to create an action figure called the Storage Stooge?

Of course not (and that’s a good thing).

It’s fair to say that developing storytelling for multiple channels/platforms that also delivers an interactive experience lends itself to the consumer world. Still, the overarching concept has relevance to B2B companies if for nothing else than to find touch points with their target audience where they don’t share the stage with competitors (like in trade publications).

All in all, Tenderich’s e-book on transmedia branding serves as the perfect starting point for anyone coming up the curve on the topic. You can access the e-book  for free here.

As someone who has railed against the logo jockeys holding the keys to the branding kingdom, I believe that transmedia branding offers yet another opportunity for communication professionals to expand their playing field.

As long as communication professionals recognize that going down this path requires experimentation.

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What Came First in Business, the Story or the Deed?

Bloomberg Businessweek published an article by Ty Montague back in September, “Is Your Company a Storyteller? Or a Storydoer?”

After a quick scan, I determined the piece focused on storytelling in business and tweeted out the link.

In a weird juxtaposition of social sharing, a retweet of my original missive (thank you Runar from Oslo) prompted me to actually read the article.

Runar B. Maeland Re-tweet of businessweek article on storytelling

I should have read it the first time.

I’m all for contrarian viewpoints, but the idea that successful companies are “storydoers” – not storytellers – carries the absurdity of watching the emperor minus clothes.

Storytelling is a means, not an end. It can help the outside world get to know a corporation or organization. Storytelling can inspire. In the right hands, it builds equity in the brand. At the very least, it pushes an organization a smidgen closer to the interesting quadrant.

But storytelling is not a product. It doesn’t send a surge of dopamine through the customer (unless you’re a communications consultancy with enlightened clients).

Let’s break down the Businessweek article –

The old way to market a business was storytelling. Today, telling your story isn’t enough. In the rising number of brands and unending din of social media, it is increasingly difficult—and expensive—for companies to shout loud enough and long enough to be heard through the megaphone of paid advertising. In response, a new kind of company, one with a clear narrative conveyed through action, not communication, is breaking through the clutter.

I’m lost. The companies shouting “me, me, me” aren’t telling stories. And if Mr. Montague’s premise that actions alone break through the clutter were true, how do you explain Warren Buffett spending so much time on CNBC, “a touch more powder on the nose?”

Today’s most successful businesses are storydoers.

Storydoing companies create products and services that are manifestations of an authentic and meaningful narrative. They learn to organize themselves around this narrative and then express it through product design, customer service, and even how they reward and encourage employees. Whereas in storytelling companies, a brand’s story is the domain of the marketing department, in storydoing companies the story is weaved into all aspects of an organization’s culture.

As a result, storydoing firms are more nimble, adaptive to change, and, growing evidence suggests, more efficient businesses. Reebok and Adidas are storytellers; they make ads to sell shoes. Toms Shoes, on the other hand, is a storydoer. Through its one-for-one movement (for every pair purchased, a pair is donated), Toms sells more than shoes. It sells a belief system. Similarly, in the cleaning category, Tide and Clorox are storytellers. Their ads are designed to sell cleaning products and nothing more. Method is a storydoer that sells more than soap, it sells a worldview: people against dirty.

The directions didn’t work. I’m lost again. Storytelling and advertising are not one and the same. But there is a word for what Toms Shoes does. It’s called philanthropy.

Toms website

What makes these storydoing companies so interesting isn’t the fact they’re unique. It’s that they aren’t unique at all. Today, dozens of companies in multiple sectors are building large businesses by pursuing the principles of storydoing: from startups beginning with a new idea and a clean slate, to large multinational corporations beginning to do the difficult but necessary work of restructuring themselves to behave in this new way.

I challenge you to find one startup pitching venture capitalists with a business model called “Storydoing.” Now, that would get a rise from the gang at Andreessen Horowitz.

When it is done correctly, storydoing is simply better business. For instance, the best storydoing companies can reduce their cost of paid media. Sometimes to zero. Red Bull is a great example of a company that spends almost no money on paid advertising but instead conveys its story through events and experiences created and owned by the company (Flugtag, the Red Bull Air Races, content like the snowboarding film The Art of Flight).

Finally, a line that’s kind of true. When companies apply storytelling techniques to their communications, more people gravitate to what they have to say, including journalists. This can allow a company to reduce its paid media spend.

There are other benefits as well. One core attribute of storydoing companies is that they have a clearly defined purpose, transcending “creating shareholder value” and “maximizing profits.” This characteristic creates intense loyalty among customers and employees alike. Storydoing companies don’t just practice what they preach—they preach by practicing. JetBlue (JBLU), for instance, is a storydoing airline in a business sector full of long-established storytelling competitors. JetBlue’s higher purpose is “to bring humanity back to air travel.” JetBlue “tells” that story by creating better customer experiences at every possible point of contact. Its story has always been spread primarily by word of mouth—it does very little advertising, and it only advertises in cities it flies to or from. This has led to some unusual outcomes. Several years ago, as JetBlue contemplated expansion into new markets, it commissioned a national survey. One of the most notable findings of the survey was that it was the most beloved airline in the city of Chicago. JetBlue didn’t even fly to Chicago at the time.

No question, everyone wants a higher purpose than just causing the cash register to go ka-ching. That’s why organizations including public companies strive to carve out a mission that’s meaningful and relevant to its employee base. I’ll bet not even JetBlue has a chapter in its employee handbook called “storydoer.” Yet, the same handbook does explain the behavior and actions expected from the company’s employees.

Fanatical loyalty and devotion like this can have obvious quantitative business benefits, like greater pricing power, lower salary requirements for staff retention, and higher employee morale. There is a qualitative difference to storydoing companies as well, harder to measure, but just as meaningful for the customers and employees who experience it: Storydoing companies have a feeling of authenticity and humanity about them that has been lost at many traditional companies today. It makes them magnetic.

Again, there’s already a word for this in the English language: “culture.”

The future belongs to these storydoers. To survive, companies must learn to do their stories, or they will be disrupted and replaced by storydoing competitors.

Peter Drucker he’s not.

One final thought on the subject –

There have been companies that put the story before the deed. One immediately comes to mind.

Remember Enron?

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Why PR Should Be Paying Attention to the Turmoil at The Oregonian

The Oregonian logo

Changes at the Oregonian last month triggered gut-wrenching hoopla.

Naturally, a slew of media watchers weighed in with my favorite headline compliments of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), “The Hamster Wheel is institutionalized at the Oregonian.”


On the surface, this might look like inside baseball, journalists bitching about the state of their profession. No one wants to be relegated to the hamster wheel, not even the hamsters.

Why should PR care about a metro daily with a print circulation that tips 185,000 and page views commensurate of a metro reach?

What’s taking place at The Oregonian reflects a bigger trend that absolutely has relevance to PR, an accelerated push by daily newspapers to find favorable economics in their online properties.

Take a look at the following slide from The Oregonian presentation to employees – leaked to the media, making for an ironic double entendre – that calls out the content goals:

The Oregonian Employee Policy Presentation

The third bullet highlights the expectation that reporters will publish a minimum of three posts per day. Keep in mind this writing is on top of the reporters’ workload for the print product though a post might be a riff on article earmarked for print.

Such journalistic throughput requires a turn-the-crank mentality. It’s the difference between making a single point in a discussion and capturing the complete discussion.

Of course, if a single point is going to serve as your narrative, it had better be a darn good one – defining “darn good” as something informative, useful or amusing and ideally not in the public domain. In short, storytelling techniques still count.

Which brings us back to the opportunity for PR.

PR-generated content is still largely tuned to news announcements that sit in the public domain and full-blown features. To align with the changing makeup of daily newspapers, we need to be building out “single-point” content that still offers exploration and, yes, storytelling. Visual assets are also part of this equation as one glance at The Oregonian’s online business channel shows:

The Oregonian Business News Page

The upshot –

The demand versus supply ratio when it comes to content for online dailies can work in PR’s favor.

The CJR story closes with the following line:

“Here’s the bottom line: Real journalism should make people smarter. If your readers are losing IQ points reading your stuff, you are doing something wrong.”

All I can say there’s more nuance to “real journalism” than helping readers qualify for Mensa, although I did enjoy the CJR journalist channeling the 1982 best-seller, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.”

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What the Hell Does the PR Guy Know About Journalism? Five Takes up for Debate

My own career as a reporter was short-lived, not even three months at the “El Independiente” in South Tucson. Still, I enjoy sharing an outsider’s perspective on the plight of journalism.

Curating these posts on our journalistic brothers/sisters, I’ve captured five takes with a PR bent.

The Wall Street Journal Tries BuzzFeed Storytelling

The Wall Street Journal visual storytelling attempt

When I came across this Journal piece, I literally did a double take. How could such a prestigious publication produce such a dreadful attempt at visual storytelling? Even if it was the work of an intern, that still doesn’t explain how the story made its way through the editing gauntlet to the publish button. The Columbia Journalism Review wrote about this post, allowing me to check a box on my bucket list.

PR Take on the State of the Media 2013

The Pew Research Center dissects the media each year in a special report.

As the overlap between journalism and public relations becomes increasingly uncomfortable, it’s clear that the good folks at Pew are experiencing heartburn on how to explain the phenomena.

This particular passage caught my attention:

At the same time, newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media. They are also seeing more success in getting their message into the traditional media narrative.

Now there’s an alert-the-media moment. Companies communicating directly to their target audiences.

An Open Letter to the PR Community to Help Restore the Credibility of Journalists

This post is one of my all-time favorites. When the czar of journalistic inner workings, Dave Carr at The New York Times, crafted a column lamenting the fact that some organizations extract the power to approve a quote before it hits the open road, empathy consumed me. I immediately wrote a plea to the PR community to help right this injustice.

The New York Times Story on Journalism in China Is Much Ado About Nothing

Yes, the Chinese media landscape differs from that in the United States. Actions take place behind the close doors that aren’t exactly kosher.

But when a publication frames the issue as black and white implying the purity of journalism in the West, I decided to weigh in with a more nuanced take.

Journalists Accept Apple’s “Storytelling Candy”

The Los Angeles Times article - Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Foxconn factory

I’m convinced if the Nieman Lab or Jeff Jarvis published this post, it would have a triggered some healthy discourse.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook headed to China, the PR function kept silent with one exception. It hired a photographer to take photos figuring whether they communicated or not, journalists would write the Cook-in-China story and need visuals. Even in negative stories, Apple PR reasoned a smiling CEO interacting with the common folks would deliver a positive counterbalance. The ensuring coverage proved them right.

Back to the question, what the hell does the public relations guy know about journalism?

Don’t feel obligated to answer the question.

But I would welcome hearing your comments on any of these topics.




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A Little SEO Humor, the PR Wayback Machine and Trying to One-up Ellen’s Selfie

The grab bag makes its 2014 debut today.

Three takes coming at you.

A Little SEO Humor

Marcus Thompson II, the San Jose Mercury News sports journalist, showed his storytelling chops with a terrific column on Barry Bonds lending a helping hand to the Giants during Spring training:

  • “At a news conference to kick off his stint as a guest hitting coach at Giants camp, Bonds had morphed from renowned jerk to giggly middle-aged man. It was like Darth Vader after a spa day.”

The headline read, “Barry Bonds Like We’ve Never Seen Him.”

Naturally, the Merc’s digital team went to work handcrafting the URL.

But rather than play to the SEO gods, they went for levity.

San Jose Mercury News article" Thomson: Barry Bonds like we've never seen him"

Well played!

It turns out a search on [Barry Bonds has great teeth] does pull up the column at the top of page 1

Turning Back the PR Wayback Machine to 1985

I stumbled across a 1985 LA Times feature story on Regis McKenna and the early days of the Silicon Valley PR scene.

If the name doesn’t a ring bell, Regis and his namesake agency pioneered the tech PR genre. Most credit Regis with creating the concept of influencer relations.

It’s a fun read and a quick history lesson on the formation of tech PR.

The story also reminded me that PR practitioners don’t always bring the same finesse to their own communications that they apply to clients. Check out this quote from McKenna group account manager Andy Cunningham regarding client Apple:

  • “This agency knows more about Apple Computer than Barbara Krause.” (Krause headed Apple’s in-house PR function at the time.)

Not exactly a relationship-building moment.

My Attempt at One-upping Ellen’s Academy Awards Selfie Falls 3,394,618 RTs Short (as of 3/15/14 at 2:26 p.m.)

Every communications professional appreciates the near-impossible nature of generating viral content.

Still, I thought I sniffed an opportunity – allergy season has yet to kick in – when Ellen clicked the selfie heard around the world. Like news hijacking, why not “selfie hijacking” as a form of visual storytelling?

Thinking back to the Woody Allen movie classic “Zelig” which chronicles the human chameleon Leonard Zelig (played by Allen) and his penchant for showing up around famous people.


I would “add” Mr. Zelig to the Ellen selfie and watch social media work its magic.

Ellen DeGeneres selfie at Oscars

Not so fast, proving once again that what one man thinks amusing, another finds banal.

And why a search on [esoteric smart ass] puts me at the top of the SERP.


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