Branding

Diesel Reboot

I've been pretty quiet about what I've been up to so far this year, aside from a few oblique references on Twitter to 'scripts' (still keeping that a secret) and 'fashion clients.' But the time has come for me to talk a little more about some of that fashion work!

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of helping Moving Image & Content to create the Diesel Reboot project. It's a deceptively simple thing: the Diesel Reboot Tumblr assigns missions; an audience submits entries; eventually, a few are selected for special treatment — for example, printed in The New York Times.

This could have gone so, so wrong. It could have felt like any other user-generated content project, asking an audience to do spec design work for a questionable payoff.  It could have felt exploitative. I am bursting with pride when I say it is carefully designed to not be that ugly thing. Here are a few reasons why:

1. No promises. This isn't that predatory "make some ads for us" garbage because… when the missions started, nobody knew they'd ever go anywhere but Tumblr. It was very important to me that the community form around the pure idea of sharing creativity, rather than gambling or competing for a specific reward. 

2. The focus is on connection, not on content. The quality of submissions is absolutely blow-your-head-off incredible. Light years beyond what I ever expected. But the focus the whole time has been on forging links between members of a community — and Diesel artistic director Nicola Formichetti is himself a member of the community. If we've done our job right (and it looks like yes), many of those new connections will persist forever.

3. The brand shares the spotlight. Diesel is a part of the community, and acting as a curator — but the Reboot isn't fundamentally about Diesel. Another team, another day, another project would have tried to make the brand the main focus, which would have led participants to feel like they were being used. Diesel is shining light on creators, and not inserting itself into the conversation where it doesn't belong — none of the missions require Diesel clothing or a Diesel logo, for example.

It's a pure and beautiful thing. A community whose seed is simply: let's make art together. I really couldn't be more proud.


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Why So Serious: Lessons in Transmedia Worldbuilding

The Why So Serious campaign for The Dark Knight was a huge achievement (and I'm not just saying that because it I love a lot of the people behind it). It's garnered awards, huge amounts of press coverage, and incredible fan love. I know I'm a little late to the game on this, but I don't think anybody has yet talked about the most important thing that the campaign did, in my eyes. 

Two digressions, first. One: Experiences like Why So Serious have come under criticism because they arguably don't create audiences where none were before. At the end of the day, the people who were really involved in Why So Serious were all people who were going to see the movie anyway, right? It's uncomfortable to admit it in public like this, but... yeah, it's probably true. 

Two: The most successful transmedia experiences are the ones where there is space for the player to live in the world. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings; these are all worlds that are very much bigger than the action on the main stage. And that's what we do in the ARG space; we provide walk-on roles that let people live in our worlds, while not requiring them to step onto the main stage themselves. 

That's why the first Twilight book is poorly suited to transmedia; there isn't much of a world there outside of the couple in love. But the subsequent books increase the scope of the world more and more, incorporating group dynamics and government structures that add up to a world bigger than just Bella and Edward and their true, sparkly love. 

So why was Why So Serious such a big deal? It's because it took a world that did not have space for an audience to live inside it -- Gotham -- and created canon spaces where players could dwell, for the first time. They became voters and accomplices. It turned a property that was previously not very well suited to a transmedia experience and created one that suddenly is. It's not just Batman and his allies and enemies anymore.

And while the people participating in that world are probably the ones who loved the property before, all of that energy and excitement brings more people in. The person with the joker mask was already going to see the movie, but maybe their roommate wasn't going to, or their cousin, or the person they enthuse about the film to at work or at the coffee shop or on the bus. 

I know I started reading Harry Potter because of all of the fan energy around it; that's also why I read Twilight. Giving your audience the freedom and an outlet for their passion for your work leads to them converting peripheral audience members into fans, and people who were never a part of the core audience into peripheral audience members. Participation is the engine that drives fandom, and fandom drives success.

So there you have it, one of the most important keys to making a great transmedia world: Scope. Make it roomy enough for your audience to play in your world. They'll love you for it, and their love brings rewards.


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In Which SciFi Channel Makes a Boneheaded Marketing Move

Today I happened on a news story that the Sci Fi channel is changing its name. To, uh, "SyFy." I am totally not making this up, guys. This would be merely a head-scratcher if it weren't for the appalling statement offered by channel president David Howe:

“What we love about this is we hopefully get the best of both worlds,” Mr. Howe said. “We’ll get the heritage and the track record of success, and we’ll build off of that to build a broader, more open and accessible and relatable and human-friendly brand.”

Do you see what I see right there? They're trying to make a more "human-friendly brand." Does this mean existing viewers loyal to the SciFi brand are... aliens? Robots, maybe? Zombies?

It's not just the stupid name or the insulting reasons behind the change that makes this boneheaded; it's the combo of the two. If they'd wanted to defocus their origin, why on earth wouldn't they switch to something like 'SFC' for Sci Fi Channel (or Center, or Source, or Universe)? This is a common branding mistake, I think, when a company decides in order to get bigger and better it needs to shed the existing fans/customers/readers/viewers who made them a success in the first place. But how did Sci Fi.... er, SyFy get there?

Despite the suggestion on Twitter that the change is either an April Fool's joke that got into the wild early or the result of a chinchilla-staffed marketing department, I actually suspect there is a deeper trend at work. Let's go back to that article on TV Week again. 

During its fourth-quarter earnings call, parent General Electric said Sci Fi racked up a double-digit increase in operating earnings despite the beginnings of the recession.

It's not a move caused by poor performance. No, I think the key phrase here is "parent General Electric." Basically I think this is GE discomfited because it perceives SF/F as a tiny niche. SciFi is for pimply nerds with poor social skills who live in their parents' basements. These people, they collect comic books, they've never kissed a girl, they have pallid skin and a weight problem (alternating too fat or too thin for the sake of variety). We've all heard the stereotype, and it's why SF/F is considered a literary ghetto

But evidence just doesn't support this ridiculous supposition, particularly when it comes to filmed entertainment. If you look at IMDB's top-grossing films of all time for the United States, arguably nine of the top 10 are science fiction or fantasy. Of the top 50, I could only find six where I don't think I could make a compelling case for calling them works of either science fiction or fantasy.

So yeah, GE? Do a little research. And Sci Fi? Stick to your guns. You know you've got the good stuff, and it's mainstream good stuff, too. Go ahead and back out of this misguided attempt to fool people into thinking you're something different. Don't worry, we'll probably forgive you.



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