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Old Spice and the Return of Ad-Power: Are "Transformats" the Future of Marketing?

Silver Fish Hand Catch! As the social web’s echo chamber is gushing about Wieden+Kennedy (W+K)’s masterful Old Spice campaign (actor and former football star Isaiah Mustafa wowing viewers with his smooth-talking delivery in video replies to hundreds of online queries or comments tweeted to him by web users), first spoofs are manifesting its pop-cultural credentials, and the meta-story is increasingly becoming the story ("how did they do it?"), both practical and philosophical questions arise. The jury is still out on the campaign’s commercial impact (various news sites and blogs are reporting that sales have fallen by 7%, which various other news sites and blogs dispute). I’m more interested in the campaign as a cultural phenomenon and its lasting implications: Is it a one-off nifty idea or are we witnessing the emergence of something bigger than that, a whole new paradigm for marketers and content producers, as Mashable claims?

Without a doubt, several things are remarkable about the Old Spice campaign. First of all, the numbers: A total of 183 individual video responses have been posted to the Old Spice YouTube channel, and to date the videos have attracted more than 38 million individual views. During the campaign, the Old Spice channel was the most viewed channel on YouTube and with 94 million views now counts as the most viewed channel ever on the site’s “sponsor” category. Total upload views for the channel, a metric that includes the original TV ads, currently stand at over 92 million. The final video reply, addressed to “everyone,” has amassed 3.3 million views and over 20,000 comments alone. Traffic to oldspice.com is up 300%. And as of today, the brand’s official Twitter account has grown to 92,000 followers.

Secondly, the campaign has exposed a key ingredient of viral content - disruption, in the form of a classic “What If” proposition that challenges conventional views: What if the main character of a commercial suddenly takes on a life on its own and starts directly responding to viewers?

Thirdly, Old Spice has probably been the first campaign to be both hyper-individualized (Mustafa's individual replies to Twitter users) and hyper-social (spreading virally as people have forwarded and embedded the replies). In fact, the very personalization of the responses has made them so unique and worth sharing. And all of that at hyper-speed: Seldom before has an advertising campaign produced so many highly personalized pieces of content in such short amount of time.

Lastly, the campaign has beamed us back into an age of Mad Men superpower, perfectly coinciding with the imminent launch of the new season of our favorite TV series this weekend. Ironically, though, rather than by relying on traditional persuasive ad-power Mad Men’s clout has been restored by an ad agency using social media of all things. Or, to be more precise: Transmedia. After already toying with them for their 2008 “Somebody Else’s Phone” campaign for Nokia, W+K borrowed the principles of Transmedia again for Old Spice – but this time augmenting them to much more visible effect.

Consider Transmedia a variation of social media. The term is commonly attributed to Marsha Kinder, who premiered it in her 1991 book Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Communication scholar Henry Jenkins (author of Convergence Culture, formerly at MIT, now with the Annenberg School in L.A.) then made it popular by crafting a theory of “Transmedia Storytelling” in a Technology Review essay, depicting it as a cross-platform narrative where each platform adds something meaningful to the fictional world – whether it’s more back story, deeper stories for secondary characters, the interactive dimension of a game, or new opportunities for the fans to participate in telling the story. More specifically, Jenkins laid out the “Seven Core Concepts of Transmedia Storytelling”: Spreadability vs. Drillability, Continuity vs. Multiplicity, Immersion vs. Extractability, Worldbuilding, Seriality, Subjectivity, and Performance.

Over the past ten years or so, Transmedia has again and again been considered the “next big thing” without ever really breaking through into mainstream. Battlestar Galactica, the Batman series, or The Matrix were sporadic examples of innovative Transmedia entertainment plays, but only as of late, the proliferation of games, social media, and mobile platforms has given rise to a more widespread adoption of the concept.

Transmedia is now increasingly popular for content producers who are facing economic pressures to maximize their assets across platforms. The NBC series Heroes is often cited as a watershed moment, and Tim Kring, its creator, is widely seen as the man who made Transmedia plausible for a mass TV audience. Kring is also one of the forces behind Conspiracy for Good, a large-scale cross-platform movement that attempts to use Transmedia to support social causes – Lina Srivastava calls this “Transmedia Activism.” At the heart of the Conspiracy for Good experience is a locative event over the course of three weeks in London, starting in mid-July and running until August 7th. Another recent example of Transmedia Storytelling is the comic franchise The 99, Naif Al-Mutawa’s vision of Muslim superheroes that he has extended to multiple media formats. Moreover, Wired UK recently hired agency Six to turn its latest issue – featuring a cover story on Transmedia – into a transmedia Alternate Reality Game (ARG). There are even some who call the iPad “the world’s first transmedia device” – a questionable notion given the rather retro lean-back mode of consumption that the iPad encourages.

Before this backdrop, the Old Spice campaign is arguably the most comprehensive use of Transmedia in an advertising context to date, and it serves as the blue print for what I call “transformats.” I would pinpoint their three main characteristics as follows:

- Transmedia: Transformats use a multi-modular presentation of narratives that extends the story across various media and allows a social web-enabled “audience formerly known as the audience” to participate in the story development. In the case of Old Spice, it went full circle: from YouTube to Twitter and back.

- Transcendent: Transformats transcend not only the original medium but also the original story, creating new meaning beyond the conceived plot. In the case of Old Spice, the main protagonist was given a life on its own and the power to directly interact with members of the audience. Thus, the story became an open-ended conversation, and the initial message faded amidst a chorus of issues (user-)generated by the cultural fabric of the social web.

- Transformative: Transformats advance marketing best practices and lift the state-of-the-art. Key here is that the design of the marketing program itself is the story (see meta-marketing), or at least an integral part of it. Case in point: The majority of coverage on the Old Spice campaign heralded its innovative quality, and many stories were background stories that shed light on “the making of.” Perhaps that’s the most powerful thing about innovation, from a marketing perspective: True innovation always is a story in and of itself.

Transformats may indeed constitute a whole new framework for state-of-the-art marketing. They may span even more media (TV, social web, movies, radio, print, AR, etc.), zig-zag more artfully between virtual and real world, and incorporate more gaming mechanics that incentivize users through “achievements” modeled on behavioral economics. Besides advertising, transformats may also have a place in media outlets: Imagine direct video responses from reporters to readers’ comments or interactive maps that enrich stories by pulling in user-generated real-time data and commentary, as a hybrid of professional and citizen journalism. Or reporters who post their intent to run a story and publicly ask for input and feedback (a moderated WikiLeaks, if you will, where readers can follow the genesis of a story). Or articles that readers can “park” after the morning read of their print newspaper, just to pick them up in the evening on their TV screen (as envisioned here by the NYTimes R&D lab). All of this would make the newsroom of the future a social media-savvy, super-convergent, real-time multimedia production studio, with the release cycles of stories shrunk to almost zero, and various media and engagement modes extending their life cycles to X.

It doesn’t require too much imagination to see transformats also play a seminal role in transforming education, healthcare, civil society, and even politics. Already, Gwynne Kostin, director of new media and citizen engagement at the General Services Administration, examines on GovLoop how to “adopt ‘Old Spice’ success to government” by embracing what she extrapolates as the campaign’s main tenets “speed, planning, talent, and trust.” While this ambition appears to be perhaps a bit of a stretch at this point, the overarching trajectory is evident: In an economy where attention is as scarce as commitment to action, stories that transcend their original storyline, set new standards for their genre, and engage people across various media can make a difference. As the complexity of our societal challenges is increasing, our solutions are becoming more open-ended. In other words: To tackle X-problems, you need to have X-conversations. Old Spice was just the beginning.

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.