The most interesting piece of thinking I've seen recently is something Faris over at Naked posted a few weeks ago, and his colleague Ivan presented at the excellent APG Battle of Big Thinking in London (which I thoroughly enjoyed and keep meaning to write about but something always comes up, and now I suspect I've missed my moment - but if you're interested read good summaries here, here and on the event blog here). What interested me is a model they're calling "transmedia planning," informed by some stuff in Henry Jenkins' new book Convergence Culture.
I'd recommend you read Faris' post here first. Go ahead, I'll wait.
OK. I like that they deconstruct the model of "media neutral planning." This is the practice of starting with a brand idea, rather than a particular execution, and expressing it over various media. To steal Faris' diagram:
This seems to be fairly de rigeur right now, and I think most agencies and marketers are using this model now in some form or another. That, if anything, is a good reason to look for a different model, but there are also a couple of problems with it.
One is that, as Russell has talked about, ideas don't really exist without execution, and in fact with good ideas, execution is often crucial and inseparable from strategy (think about the Bravia stuff - the strategy is the somewhat pedantic "our TV has amazing colour" but the bigness of the idea is in how that's brought to life with coloured balls and paint). Seeing the same thing executed across a bunch of channels isn't really the most interesting use of each medium, and the best ideas are often built to really leverage the strengths of a particular channel (like Bravia's gorgeous use of film, or using the social elements of blogs and Flickr and YouTube to tease the new ad). So talking about ideas as separate from the media they will exist in is a bit silly and can miss out on the most creative opportunities. Media-neutral leads to media-neutered.
But more importantly it's also missing a key factor: social relationships. I've been thinking about social relationships a lot recently, and how we tend to underestimate or miss them altogether. Marketing tends to think of people as individuals. We target individuals, trying to change individual minds and behaviours. Most of our models focus on individuals. And in research, when someone says "I don't like it but my sister would" we discount that. We say "thanks but today I'd just like to hear what you think." We make people write their answers down so they're not biased by what others think. But this is a problem because people don't exist as individuals, we are highly social beings. People form opinions and make decisions informed by what their friends/spouse/family/colleagues think about things. People talk about brands and media and yes, even sometimes ads with other people. Mark Earls has been talking about this for a few years now, that humans have a strong herd instinct, and brand behaviour being one way that is manifested. And in the big engagement research project that we've just done here at Leo Burnett, the social element of brands and communication also came out really strongly.
So fortunately Faris and Ivan suggest a new model, which they call transmedia planning. The gist of it is that rather than using different media channels to communicate the same idea, you can use each channel to communicate different things. Everything is still tied together by the same brand strategy or narrative, but each channel does what it does best, rather than bending to fit an idea that's not really built with any particular channel in mind. Each channel is strong and self-contained enough to live on its own, but can then be pulled together into a greater brand narrative. The most interesting part is that this pulling together doesn't necessarily have to be done by one person - social relationships can help forge those connections, forming a brand community that shares and builds on each others' experiences with the brand. I've seen the advertising, you've been to an event, she's tried the product, he's had a good experience with an employee, and we all compare notes. So the model looks like this (again stolen from Faris):
Faris mentions Jenkins' example of the media franchise spawned by The Matrix - the three films, the Animatrix series of short films, the video games, the comics. Each has different (but overlapping) parts of the story, different pieces of the puzzle, and each stands on its own, but you can put them all together to understand the whole Matrix universe better. Another media franchise that's done this well is the TV show Lost, and the various websites, wikis, conspiracy theories, and books that it has generated. In the world of brands, Faris mentions the example of Audi's Art of the Heist campaign, but I think the big brands like Axe/Lynx, Nike, Dove, Apple, etc all work this way. They put lots of things out there, not necessarily expecting every person to see every piece, but creating enough interestingness that people will talk and eventually hear about pieces they haven't seen from someone else. And of course, social media means that these discussions are easier, are amplified, and do not necessarily have to occur face-to-face or even in the same part of the world.
I really like the transmedia planning model, because I think it addresses those two weaknesses of media-neutral planning: ignoring that different media are better at different things, and that people are social beings. And by putting a brand community in the middle, it also forces us to think about whether we are in fact making brands and communications which are interesting enough for a community to form, and for people to want to talk about our communications.
But I think there's another potential level to this model, if you'll allow me to build on it - we can also apply this model to single pieces of communication. We sometimes talk about how a good piece of communication needs to have multiple levels so that it rewards more time spent, or repeated viewing. This might be small details, things going on in the background, music, metaphors, or references. And we, Russell, and others have talked about the power of complexity in communication - that people generally find complex, nuanced, layered things more interesting than simple straightforward things. But when we talk about this stuff, we still usually talk about people processing it individually - so each one person is rewarded for spending more time or if they see it again. But what if we looked at it through the lens of a brand community? Each different layer or detail could appeal to a different group of people, who could compare stories, and thus continually be getting new perspectives on the same thing.
If this sounds horribly complicated let me give a few examples to show it doesn't have to be. This Burger King ad by Crispin Porter is one of my favourites:
On the surface, it's a jingle about the new Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch chicken sandwich. But you might also notice that the guy singing the song is Darius Rucker from 90's band (and pop culture trivia item) Hootie & the Blowfish. Or that the jingle itself is based on the old hobo ballad and Burl Ives classic "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Or that it was directed by iconic photographer David LaChapelle with all kinds of sexual imagery, both hetero and homo. Or that model and TV host Brooke Burke makes a cameo at the end (she's often used in BK ads). But you probably wouldn't notice all of those things, and in fact I'd be surprised if the same people who know who David LaChapelle is are also into turn-of-the century hobo ballads (I'm guessing those circles don't tend to overlap much). But more to the point, not getting some or all of the references doesn't detract from the main brand message (there's a new chicken sandwich), because each bit also stands on its own. By having lots of detail, though, it gives fans of the brand something to notice and talk about and deconstruct. So you might have missed some of the details but someone else can point them out, and this gives you a deeper appreciation of it, and completes your picture of the whole a bit more.
For one piece of communication, then, the model could look like this (apologies to Faris for bastardising his diagram):
This definitely happened with Honda's "Cog" ad - while you could just see it and say "there's a new Accord" or maybe "wow, that's cool," people also talked about how many hundreds of takes it took to shoot, how many days it took to set up, whether it was actually all one take, the reference to Rube Goldberg, or that the voice-over is done by author and radio personality Garrison Keillor.
Looking at a TV show like Lost, a single episode can also get analysed like this. I might just follow the main story, but someone else might notice a parallel structure to a previous episode, a flash of a Dharma Initiative logo on something, a character's name that is an anagram, or a reference to philosophy. And some people do watch the show frame by frame, poring over it for clues, and comparing notes the next day. No one person figures out every clue and reference, it's a collective effort, and that's part of the fun.
Or consider the M&Ms Dark website puzzle that I recently wrote about: it's very hard to find all of the 50 film references needed to solve it, so communities have sprung up to share answers and observations (a google search for "m&m dark answers" returns 188,000 hits). And the fact that the painting contains other references unrelated to the puzzle, like being based on the Renaissance style of Hieronymus Bosch, is yet another layer of meaning which some people won't get but which might add to your overall appreciation of the brand. But you could not get any of this, and still understand that there's a new dark chocolate M&M.
The idea of brand communities solves one issue that we sometimes run into when attempting to create complex and layered communications - the pushback that we shouldn't put details that everyone (or at least most people) won't or can't get. This is often combined with research findings that indeed, "most people didn't get this reference you were trying to make." This kind of thinking dumbs down communication into the lowest common denominator. But with the brand community model, that ceases to apply - as long as someone, somewhere will get it, then lots of details and references can work. Whoever notices it will likely tell others about it, because the fact that they figured something out reinforces their ego, status and self-image, and because the tools to widely spread that knowledge are now readily available. So instead of talking down to everybody, we can talk up to everybody, by giving many different groups something that makes them feel intelligent for getting a subtle reference. And we give them a reason to have multiple conversations about the brand.
Still, the challenge for brands is to not just put in detail for detail's sake, but to use it to truly make the brand more interesting, to give brand users something they will enjoy noticing and talking about. So maybe that is a new starting point we should set out on our briefs: does a brand community already exist, or will this communication do something interesting enough to create and support one?