Transmedia Storytelling - How to keep media multitasking audiences happy. Part 2

26th June



Written by Masters Student


Continuation of blog post part 1 published on 23rd of June.

          4.     Theoretical Framework – How to build a transmedia property

Building a compelling transmedia property requires a great amount of planning and skill to achieve seamless communication between media properties, each able to be understood by itself, as well as in combination with others. By integrating a diversity of traditional and web based media and utilizing their inherent strengths, consumer engagement is increased. Four stylistic devices form the foundation of any transmedia property and should guide marketers in their attempts:

          1)     World Building

In contrast to franchises, which are center around strong characters, transmedia storylines start with an engaging world (Merkin, 2003). This urtext should develop archetypes or prototypes on which all narrative extensions can be based, hence, the text needs to be leverageable. Transmedia worlds are able to support multiple storylines, including different characters and time periods within the world, all held together by narrative cohesion and cannon (Reid, 2009). These narrative fragments trigger “encyclopedia impulses” or curiosity to learn everything that can be known about the unfamiliar environment in consumers (Jenkins, 2009, p.243).

Christine Huang (2009) recommends marketers take a closer look at their brand´s history, their users and their mission to determine an appropriate world. Obviously, the challenge for transmedia worlds in marketing is making the world interesting but simultaneously fitting to the overarching goal of promoting the company.

           2)     Negative Capabilities

To make all employed media platforms connect to each other, negative capabilities should be inserted into the storylines. Negative capabilities refer to “building strategic gaps into a narrative to evoke a delicious sense of uncertainty, mystery, or doubt in the audience” (Long, 2007, p. 53). The general idea is to make the story appealing to both casual audiences, who are able to enjoy each storyline independently, and to hard core fans, who are aware that pieces of the puzzle are missing and are involved enough to actively seek the completion of the storyline (Haralovich&Trosset, 2004). Hence, all storylines can stand on their own and be enjoyed in their totality. However, consumers engage in a synergistic experience when involved with the totality of story pieces. The entirety of storylines amounts to more than the mere sum of its individual parts and each consumer engages with parts in the context of the whole (Jenkins, 2006, pp. 101-108), therewith increasing the entertainment value.

           3)     Migratory Cues

Closely linked to negative capabilities are migratory cues. After all, parts of the story cannot simply be left out; audiences need to be able to find where the story continues. Migratory cues are exactly that: hints towards other mediums that present the consumer with the story continuation (Ruppel, 2009). Each piece of storyline does not only reference back to the overarching idea, but also references each individual part of the transmedia world (Fog , Budtz, Munch&Blanchette, 2005). This stylistic device is key to producing intertextuality between media outlets and enables a successive revelation of the storyline (Long, 2007). The story becomes “drillable” (Huang, 2009, p.13). While the world building allows horizontal expansions to include multiple storylines, migratory cues allow vertical expansion or a deep understanding of each storyline itself. In this manner, the sum of all storylines constitutes a “Gesamtkunstwerk” and the “homo ludens” (Giovangnoli, 2011, pp. 17 & 25) will be enticed to engage in this hunt for finding all of the story´s parts.

          4)     Consumer Participation

If, however, the storylines provided by the marketer are unsatisfactory, consumers become co-authors, e.g. through textual elaborations, proliferations or augmentations (Ward, 2009). Transmedia properties actively encourage such forms of participation that are mostly done in the virtual space where content can easily be shared (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy&Silvestre, 2011). Consumers are able to explore characters, subplots or any unanswered questions within the limits of the overarching world provided by marketer, even employing new media platforms for this purpose.  Just as an improvisational theatre, marketers and consumers engage in a multi-directional exchange about how the storyline can be improved, extended or kept alive (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Also, consumers become a knowledge community, where fans can exchange ideas and clues with each other. As Susan Fournier and Lara Lee (2009) demonstrate: while the brand fosters the community, the community fuels the brand. Storytelling, in that sense, becomes a means to connect consumers to marketers, content and other consumers in new ways (Berelowitz, 2011), building new communities around brands (Cova&Pace, 2006; Antorini, Muniz&Askildsen, 2012). 

Exhibit 2: Building a transmedia property: Connecting consumers, marketers, mediums  

Exhibit 2: Building a transmedia property: Connecting consumers, marketers, mediums



          5.     Coca-Cola´s – How the Happiness Factory boosts engagement and sales

Coca-Cola sees itself as an entertainment company, always tying their brand to content, such as American Idol or sport sponsorship. However, the new phase in Coca-Cola´s strategy is creating meaningful in-house content (Benn, 2008).

Coca-Cola´s first transmedia storytelling attempt was the hugely successful “Happiness Factory” Campaign in 2006 that operated under the “open happiness” umbrella (The Coca Cola Company, 2014). The storyline unfolds in a Coca-Cola vending machine and explores the magical world of all Coca-Cola workers that contribute to bringing a refreshing Coca-Cola to the customer waiting outside the machine. The campaign unfolded across TV commercials, 3-min movies on youtube, mocumentaries with the magical Coca-Cola workers, a gaming website, even soundtracks from Janelle Monáe and Cee-Lo Green. Furthermore, additional media platforms were used in special countries, such as comics in Brazil and Japan (Berelowitz, 2011). On the digital front, the “Happiness Factory” campaign included microsites, partnerships with other websites, online games and apps.

Coca-Cola successfully employed all four stylistic devices recognized as crucial for transmedia properties. Firstly, the vending machine world is not only authentic and expandable, but centered around the Coca-Cola product, relating the storyline to the core business. The transmedia consulting firm Starlight Runner spend one year composing the “Happiness Factory bible”, a document that describes the entire world, names and motivations of all characters (Ewalt, 2013, p.40). Hence, the storyline can be expanded to include different characters in the past, present or future, as well as other vending machine interiors and its daily life. Secondly, the story is drillable. No media property conveys all of the world at once. Thus, gaps are left for the consumer to close on his/her own. The more consumers engage with the different media touch points, the more information and joy do they receive. Lastly, the campaign has definitely stirred consumer participation, including the establishment of fan clubs and facebook groups (e.g. “The Happiness Factory 3” facebook page or The campaign was an opportunity for Coca-Cola to get audiences to immerse in the Coca-Cola universe and actively communicate with each other and the company, without being directly sold to.

The success of the campaign is undeniable. Not only did global sales increase by 4% (Ewalt, 2013), but also the campaign website scored over 1.000.000 UVs in the course of the first 6 months, an average of 5.000 people remained 7,5 minutes on the site per day - the benchmark being below 3 minutes (Chaffey, 2012). Moreover, 813.000 online games were played with an average of 7 minutes playing time and the app was downloaded 10.000 times in the first week (Adobe, 2010).

Based in this success, Coca-Cola has made transmedia storytelling part of their 2020 branding strategy. Jonathan Mildenhall, VP Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence, narrates two youtube videos about this strategy (The Cognitive Media, 2011): 

“We need to move from one-way storytelling to dynamic storytelling […] it is the development of incremental elements of a brand idea that get dispersed systematically across multiple channels of conversation for the purposes of creating a unified and coordinated brand experience.”

This statement highlights Coca-Cola´s commitment to content creation and distribution through transmedial approaches. As does Mildenhall´s further point of utilizing “liquid and linked ideas” to reach today´s consumers – ideas that flow freely across mediums but are linked by an overarching theme.

Transmedia storytelling has proven very valuable and rewarding for Coca-Cola. Although it remains to be seen whether the 2020 branding strategy can be implemented as suggested, the “Happiness Factory” success gives reason to assume as such. 


Exhibit 3: The Coca-Cola Happiness Factory Campaign Source: Own composition based on The Coca Cola Company, 2014; Adobe, 2010

Exhibit 3: The Coca-Cola Happiness Factory Campaign

Source: Own composition based on The Coca Cola Company, 2014; Adobe, 2010


6.     Conclusion – Developments in Transmedia Storytelling

The concept of transmedia storytelling, which encompasses the systematic dispersion of narratives across multiple media platforms for individual as well as synergetic enjoyment, is gaining momentum in the marketing world. When employed correctly, meaning building an enticing world, integrating negative capabilities and migratory cues and engaging the audience as co-authors, transmedia storytelling can yield big result.

Accordingly, while entertainment giants such as Disney and Warner Brothers have used transmedia storytelling for years, Starlight Runner, the premier transmedia consulting firm and number one creator of transmedia properties is increasingly servicing consumer brands. Today, about 25% of all Starlight Runner contracts are for non-entertainment brands (Ewalt, 2013). Besides Coca-Cola, companies such as Mattel, Nike, Old Spice and Toschiba (Carlton, 2012) are entering this space successfully.

However, transmedia storytelling has not received a lot of academic attention. Most scholars focus on content creation instead of content distribution. Nevertheless, with consumers lack of attention span, interest and trust in advertising, empowering consumers in their quest for media synergies will become increasingly important and force brand managers to rethink their traditional models (Berelowitz, 2011) – opening the door for transmedia storytelling.


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