Overcoming an identity crisis: transmedia branding and the re-invention of public relations

5 years, 7 months ago


People want to engage with content that matters to them. Brands therefore must tell their stories in a way that is engaging and encourages participation. By Burghardt Tenderich.

The public relations industry is in the midst of a profound identity crisis. Not that most practitioners have always been proud of the "PR" label in their job title, but at least for the most time people working in the profession knew what it was.
Now, with the erosion of mainstream media and the surge of social media, even PR experts aren’t entirely sure what their profession is or should be. Some agencies and practitioners view this as an opportunity to shun the PR label and replace it with integrated marketing or integrated communication.
This may be the exact wrong response. The strength of the public relations practice has always been the ability to engage audiences and negotiate relationships—mostly via media relations.  These two skills, arguably, have never been more important than now, in a media environment where all participants are communicators themselves and selectively choose information they care about and engage with
Transmedia branding is centered on the idea that consumers and businesses want to engage with content that matters to them.  People don’t want to receive random brochures in their mail or ‘unsubscribe’ from email lists they’ve never subscribed to. People tune out TV commercials by fast-forwarding their digital recording device, changing the channel or grabbing a snack or drink from the kitchen. If brands instead produce and disseminate content that audiences care about and respond to, they are likely to create a conversation and engagement around a product, service or cause. 
As a derivative of transmedia storytelling as popularized by Henry Jenkins, transmedia branding is defined as a process where integral elements of a brand are dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels to create a unified and coordinated experience with each medium making its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. This definition varies from Henry Jenkins’s definition of transmedia storytelling in only one way: it replaces the word "story" with "brand," which implies that information about a brand is being turned into a story. 
A good example of a transmedia branding campaign is Dos Equis’ The Most Interesting Man in the World. It started off as a conventional advertising campaign, and, in fact, may not ever have been labeled as a transmedia campaign by its creators, but it certainly fits every element of the definition: integral elements of the Dos Equis brand are packaged into a central storyline—the most interesting man’s adventures—which is dispersed across a variety of media channels, ranging from commercial to YouTube video, tweets, a contest web site and memes and other user-generated content.  The campaign created a high volume of fan engagement by allowing fans to participate in storyline, even though it is entirely fictional.
Other successful transmedia campaigns include The Beauty Inside by Intel and Toshiba, as well as the Molson Canadian Beer Fridge or Old Spice’s The Man your Man Could Smell Like.
These examples, as well as many other cases seem to share the same methodology, which makes them repeatable. The design elements of transmedia branding are: brands, narratives, media and participation.
The most basic component of transmedia branding is the brand—an abstract idea used to differentiate products, whether that product takes the form of a consumer good, personality, company or idea. It is the collection of perceptions held by all those that are aware of the product and the meaning derived from those perspectives. 
A brand most commonly refers to a consumer product or service. Other types of brands are products and services targeting other businesses (B2B), as well as individuals, causes and ideas. As of now, most transmedia branding campaigns have targeted consumer products and services, such as Old Spice.
To be expressed in the form of a narrative, a brand requires a protagonist or main character, and might even benefit from secondary characters.
In the context of transmedia branding, some marketers choose to develop their brand’s own story elements, while others decide to join existing narratives. In terms of the first option, every brand has a story, even if the communication team has never thought about it. Old Spice translated its stodgy image and traditional maritime imagery into a loose storyline that made it hip, urban and appealing to millennials. 
For an example of a brand joining an existing story, we can look to New Zealand Air and their production of an the air safety announcement video titled "An Unexpected Briefing," all done in the style of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. 
The crew and passengers all appear dressed in-character of the film creatures. The video was posted to coincide with the premier of The Hobbit I, and at the same time, Air New Zealand painted all its planes in major airports with imagery from the Lord of the Rings franchise.
Note the trade-off between these two strategies: building a campaign with your own story is generally less expensive, but you don’t benefit from the exposure of an existing franchise. If a brand joins a big story, the investment is much greater, but visibility is almost guaranteed.
In transmedia branding, brand information travels across culture in a variety of media channels, where frequently content on one channel leads to engagement on a different one. For example, The Man Your Man Could Smell Likewas kicked off by releasing the original video on YouTube as owned media. The PR team brought the video to the attention of reporter eager to write about commercials to be aired during the Super Bowl—a classic case of earned media. 
People started to tweet and post about the video in a variety of social media, and eventually the brand responded to select tweets in a series of YouTube videos. People created and spread memes and posted their own adaptations of the video. 
In other words, the central storyline was dispersed in unique story contributions—including user-generated content—across a variety of media, in a highly engaging way.
Audience participation differentiates transmedia branding from traditional one-directional marketing communications. The narrative seeds reasons for the audience to engage. Once people are intrigued they gravitate to the story and actively seek ways to participate. 
Completing calls to action such as Facebook-liking a post, emailing a video to a friend, tweeting a signup link, commenting, submitting user-generated content or passively watching a video on a sponsored YouTube channel are forms of participation. The design of transmedia branding campaigns allows for the audience to participate as much or as little as they want and only with content that they find interesting. With a compelling narrative in hand, effective transmedia branding makes it inviting and easy for people to participate in the story. 
In summary, transmedia branding is one of potentially many alternatives to the traditional understanding of public relations, which to this day is still too focused on media relations. As the media environment continues to evolve, practitioners need to embrace the expanded nature of their profession by taking ownership of the full breadth of thePESO model, where media relations, targeted advertising, multi media content production and social media campaign execution work seamlessly hand in hand.
About the author
Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams.
Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP). 
At the University of California at Berkeley, Burghardt was the Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology and a lecturer on entrepreneurship. He has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries. Previous positions include General Manager, North America, for technology PR agency Bite Communications, Vice President, Public Relations at Siebel Systems, and Senior Vice President & Partner in technology PR agency Applied Communications.
Burghardt holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany. Follow him on twitter @btenderich


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The Author

Burghardt Tenderich

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship.

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