Brands, Narratives and Story Worlds – Part 1

In Part 1 of this series I talk about the application of cutting edge entertainment IP franchise production techniques to address some of the challenges we see today in corporate communications.

Entertainment and corporate communications have intertwined for as long as there have been things to sell and stories to tell. Marketing has traditionally shown consumers what they want the consumer to see, but pervasive communications– the explosion of multi-directional communication channels – has made this model obsolete. The age of broadcast is clearly dead and we are not just dealing with an audience, but an audience of audiences. This requires new techniques and processes. The solution lies in the substance of the corporate story world.

Corporate Story World

The notion of storytelling within a larger context has emerged.  Words like “engagement” and “brand narrative” have entered the vernacular and are staples in the lexicon of those tasked with communicating for businesses and organizations.  New digital and social media platforms have raised the bar – and raised the stakes – in how businesses communicate with their ecosystem.

A recent Google search for “brand narrative” gave me 14 million results; on Bing, 20 million results.  It’s clear that conversations surrounding brand have moved out of the marketing department. These same results show us that all the stakeholders of an organization – customers, employees, investors, partners, vendors, and yes, even competitors – are trying to tell some aspect of the story of the brand.

The issue? They’re not always talking about the same thing.

Who Owns The Brand?

I’m not going to get into semantic arguments about whether the corporation or consumer owns the brand. The bigger issue is: who within your organization is internally and externally responsible for the continuity and contextual integrity of your “brand narrative?

When you’re dealing with pervasive communications the management of brand narrative becomes more complex. Creating a brand narrative requires being able to manage multiple threads of content on multiple channels across multiple events and spanning a wide range of audiences and objectives that extend well beyond the domain of the marketing department. Brand narrative infuses internal communications and processes as well, including human resources, operations and product development.

And it’s no longer just about content creation.  As Jonathan Becher, CMO for SAP said in an interview with Maggie Fox in Social Media Today:

“Content creation is shifting to content curation. It’s not about us originating all the content. Figuring out what is relevant and presenting it in a way that’s consumable…it’s a huge problem for us.“

Content curation results in the creation of new and often unanticipated content. The challenge lies in ensuring the new content fits the narrative of your brand. Every business or organization has a mission statement. In it lies the foundational narrative of the business, the all-important “why” that drives all successful enterprises. The brand essence.  Successful companies are capable of infusing their brand essence throughout their communications ecosystem. So what is the mechanism for coordinating brand essence? Yes, it’s your corporate story world.

Where Does This Model Work Today?

The entertainment industry recognized the need to extend the value of their IP franchises beyond a single, initial platform. They realized they needed to create an extended narrative across multiple media platforms to foster high levels of engagement.  In fact, they recently ratified a new producer credit called transmedia producer. The Producers Guild of America lists the role of the transmedia producer as follows:

A Transmedia Producer credit is given to the person(s) responsible for a significant portion of a project’s long-term planning, development, production, and/or maintenance of narrative continuity across multiple platforms, and creation of original storylines for new platforms. Transmedia producers also create and implement interactive endeavors to unite the audience of the property with the canonical narrative and this element should be considered as valid qualification for credit as long as they are related directly to the narrative presentation of a project.

The role a transmedia producer fills in successful entertainment franchises is analogous to the role required today in every business and organization to create and manage a brand narrative.

Let me show you an example of how this works. I’ve known Starlight Runner Entertainment CEO Jeff Gomez for many years and I’ve worked with his firm since its inception.  Jeff and co-founder Mark Pensavalle have built Starlight Runner into the world’s leading developer and producer of global transmedia franchises. They have spent the last decade working with some of world’s biggest entertainment franchises and most iconic consumer brands. They didn’t write the screenplays. They didn’t code the video games. They didn’t script the commercials. What they did was help them solidify the foundation of their “story world” to allow them to most effectively manage and produce content across multiple media platforms. In a broader context, they are particularly adept at discerning “brand essence”, the timeless, aspirational elements of a brand, and building upon that essence to allow for the brand to connect with and engage much larger audiences.

While working with Starlight Runner it occurred to me the same techniques they use to develop and foster blockbuster and evergreen entertainment franchises could have efficacy in the corporate world. The skill sets, frameworks and processes they developed for managing complex narratives across an ecosystem of communication channels and fostering high levels of engagement with audiences — transmedia and beyond — can be applied to solve some of the most difficult challenges being faced by corporations and organizations worldwide. Creating a framework within corporations and organizations, internally and externally, to align with a strong brand narrative could allow them to duplicate the success of some of the world’s most iconic brands. They need to create their story world.

As I work with clients it’s important for me to educate them that the skill set required to fill this role is unique and typically doesn’t exist within a non-entertainment business or organization. And if it does exist, that person most likely does not have the authority to span multiple departments and/or business units to effectively implement an organizational policy. What’s more, it often takes an outside perspective to understand what your true corporate narrative is and how it should be adapted and presented to the rest of the world.

In Part 2, I’ll lay out the correlation of and implementation framework for corporate story worlds, including Starlight Runner Entertainment’s 10 Commandments of 21st Century Franchise Production, applying the same techniques used to develop blockbuster and evergreen entertainment franchises.

(Acknowledgements: Thanks to Fred McClimans for his blog whispering services.)