Transmedia Storytelling Weaves Powerful Brand Connections

by Reyne Rice, Toy Trend Expert, Toy Industry Association

Smart manufacturers, entertainment studios, retailers and licensed property owners are increasingly tapping digital media to develop their brand presence with consumers. By expanding their cross-media platform strategies with multiple communication touchpoints, marketers are reaching consumers where they already are, and engaging with them with meaningful interactions.

Dubbed "transmedia storytelling", this option (in theory) is designed to leverage the unique benefits of each platform to activate deeper brand experiences that entertain and invite participation and engagement from its users. With mobile apps, the experience may be the lighter version, whereas immersion through a blockbuster summer movie or ongoing episodic TV or entertainment vehicle will provide a longer lasting connection. Physical lifestyle-branded and licensed products that connect with the consumer will encourage a deeper, emotional attachment and tactile bond with the brand or lifestyle property.

In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins defines transmedia as storytelling that "immerses an audience in a story's universe through a number of dispersed entry points, providing a comprehensive and coordinated experience of a complex story."

In the toy and game industry, an example of phenomenal success is Twilight, which wove its initial story of "teenage angst, with a twist" through a successful series of tween and teen-driven books and blockbuster movies, through Hot Topic at retail for apparel and accessories, and now through toys and games, home décor and more.

Other recent examples include:

1. With Disney's Toy Story property, the re-mastered Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 2 were staged to create excitement and a new 3D experience for viewers, building to anticipation for the newest movie, which launched with over $100 million in box office sales during its first summer weekend.

The newly released Toy Story 2 Read-Along iPad app by Disney Interactive Studios uses a 23 page/screen adaptation of the storyline with tap-to-play sound effects and character voices. It adds two games, two songs, three coloring activities and the ability to record personal voice narration to the scrolling set of pages. This creates a richer experience with the brand and the characters.

In addition to new Toy Story 3 products launched in June 2010 by master toy licensees Thinkway and Mattel, there have been classic character re-introductions of the iconic Buzz and Woody, Mr Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Green Army Men, Rex the Dinosaur and the little green aliens by multiple complementary toy and game licensees such as Hasbro, Jakks Pacific, Lego, TechnoSource and others. In this carefully orchestrated launch, multiple licensed products have been staged across a broad array of categories and across retail channels of distribution.

2. Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda World is a web-based example of transmedia storytelling where access to the interactive online destination extends the storyline from the movie franchise. Even though parents control levels of chat and access, the site's new collaborative play features allow kids to engage in tag or a treasure hunt, play a Kung-Fu game, increase their Chi levels and move up a belt rank, or use a new heat-sensing tool to locate friends on the site. These activities all add layers to the original movie storyline in a cohesive way.

3. Mattel has selected a different path for the launch of their new Monster High franchise. They are simultaneously launching at mass and specialty retailers a consumer products line with stylish fashion dolls, plush, electronics, roleplay and novelty toys, a fashion apparel and accessories line at Justice stores, a Halloween costume range exclusively at Party City, and a series of books written by the popular tween and teen novelist, Lisi Harrison (The Clique) at Borders. Music options will include two licensed songs from Allison Iraheta (of American Idol fame) and a Monster High theme song that will be leveraged across all marketing touchpoints. MonsterHigh.com launches globally with scary games, activities and weekly animated webisodes. Additional online presence at popular sites such as StarDoll, PopTropica and on social media networks extends reach and generates buzz among older girls, where they are currently spending their time. Following the launch in other retail channels, Monster High will head to the big screen with a live action musical in partnership with Universal Pictures.

4. As we move toward the 10-10-10 launch of The Hub – the Discovery Communications-Hasbro joint venture – many industry veterans are carefully watching how the new programming model will drive business for their own brands … as well as those of other entertainment partners that will be featured on the Hub programming. This is another model where new ground is being broken. Many of Hasbro's classic and nostalgic brands – from GI Joe to Transformers and from Chuck and Friends (Tonka) to My Little Pony and Pound Puppies – will be featured in entertainment series. These brands already exhibit strong lifestyle appeal, with many of them topping over 100 worldwide licensing partners representing a diverse grouping of lifestyle brand categories for both children and adult collectors.

These examples are just a few that illustrate the potential for brand integration, relevant placements and sponsorships that can be created with transmedia implementations.

Future Developments in Transmedia Storytelling

What will the coming months bring? Certainly there will be new uses for interactive media, social networking, music, and live experiences. Richer storytelling options will evolve as developers get more familiar with emerging and new technologies, formats and platforms. Expect to see greater use of multi-player games and puzzles on mobile devices, and wider use of multi-touch interactions … especially for the larger screen format iPad apps and at in-store kiosks and entertainment events. Look for GPS locator interfaces (such as Treasure Hunts and fan gatherings in parks, malls and zoos) and accelerometer technologies that will engage consumers in ways that connect uniquely to each brand. Expect to find wireless and Wi-Fi access links to additional features that can also enhance the inherent play value. Examples include a Wikipedia look-up feature in the new Star Walk astronomy App launched in April 2010 for the iPhone and in May 2010 for the iPad, or the change in voice on a Tom-Tom GPS device, where the distinctive Star Wars voices of Darth Vader, C-3PO, Yoda and Hans Solo can guide travelers on their path.

The best intersection of transmedia storytelling is when multiple channels are not just considered, but thoughtfully planned out and integrated in ways that will delight the viewer where he/she is already spending time. This is where brands can create true cross-media experiences that add value across the storyline and engage and entertain consumers as they choose their favorite media options.