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Mohanbir Sawhney on transforming marketing with transmedia storytelling and agility


Mohanbir Sawhney on transforming marketing with transmedia storytelling and agility


Content-led storytelling on transmedia platforms coming from an agile, always-on approach – these are the new ways of successful marketing, says scholar and consultant Mohanbir Sawhney.

Sawhney is a professor of technology and the director of the Center for Research in Technology and Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He has been teaching marketing more 25 years and is the author of five books including Fewer, Bigger, Bolder with Sanjay Khosla.

Sawhney was in Melbourne last week to talk to delegates at the World Marketing and Sales Forum.

He started his talk by pointing out that over the last five years a lot has changed in regards to the toolkits available to marketers, the availability of data and the improved speeds possible to implement projects. But he strongly believes the fundamentals of marketing will always remain the same:

“Marketing is about making compelling value promises to your customer and keeping the promise.”  

The changes we need to focus on are those that have occurred in consumer behaviour, such as:

  1. always connected (smartphones, wearable devices, online, etc),
  2. learning forward (wanting to participate and have a say),
  3. socially influenced (by friends/family, expert reviews, etc),
  4. channel surfing (between online and offline, wanting a seamless experience),
  5. demanding purpose (asking brands to associate themselves with a cause),
  6. resisting advertising (uninterested in disruptive ads, want brands to help not interrupt), and
  7. demanding engagement (asking ‘what’s in it for me?’).

Sawhney discussed five ideas to help understand where marketing is coming from and going to, to transform what we say, how we engage, and the process by which we become more agile and create cultures of experimentation.  

Five ways to transform marketing:  

  • value proposition: from product-led to content-led,  
  • creative: from rational to storytelling,  
  • media: from traditional media to transmedia,  
  • execution: from launch and forget to always on, and  
  • process: from waterfall to agile.

1. Value proposition: from product-led to content-led

While traditional marketing communication is often grounded in product features, Sawhney argues that marketers need to shift their strategies towards providing customers with useful, relevant information.  

“You can’t attract attention simply by talking about your products anymore. Ask not what you can sell, ask how you can help.”  

One example he mentioned was P&G, which listened to dentists who said they wanted to be able to keep up with new technologies, procedures and tools, and were struggling with business management. P&G then launched an online portal with helpful information for dentists.

Sawhney urged marketing departments to think like media companies and build “data-driven newsrooms”.  

Content can provide value in a variety of different ways, including to provide information, convenience, inspiration, entertainment, to foster community or to create social value.

Corning’s ‘Day made of glass’ is an example of an inspirational piece of content from a B2B company:



Sawhney urged marketers to “know your story”, then create a content calendar to tell it – with a mixture of real-time and planned, curated and original content, in the form of ideas, features, news or how-to guides.   

2. Creative: from rational to storytelling

Referring to Disney, Nike, Starbucks and Virgin as just a few brands that have managed to emotionally engage their customers, Sawhney said:

“If you think about the brands you respect, the brands you love, these are brands that have captured an imagination. Stories touch us deeply and we love to share them. Storytelling is a language that transcends language.”  

Microsoft’s ‘The Sound of Azure’ worked from an insight that a disproportionate amount of IT professionals were also musicians. So the company converted the dots and dashes of real data into a symphony. This helped to tell an engaging story about the company’s cloud computing capabilities.



Marketers should keep in mind the universal structure of a good story, Swahney said. Every story features a hero or a subject that is seeking a goal or outcome. An obstacle, whether that is a villain, accident, problem or circumstance gets in the way of that goal.

“This is where your brand comes into help,” he pointed out, and then the story results in action and is finally resolved.

In a very non-traditional way for a tech company to tell a story, Google India released this ‘Reunion’ video, in which Google search is the force that resolves the tension in the story:



3. Media: from traditional media to transmedia

Transmedia storytelling is a concept that started out in the entertainment industry, Sawhney explained. It’s all about transcending media; combining and integrating a variety of channels into seamless experience.

The Hunger Games, The Matrix and Pokemon are three examples he mentioned.

A definition of transmedia storytelling:

“Transmedia storytelling is a story experience both for – and with – an audience that unfolds over several media channels. Transmedia storytelling weaves together individual strands of a story into a larger and richer interactive fabric and offers the audience multiple ways to participate, through content production, collaboration and interaction.”

“Each medium is used for what it does best,” Sawhney explained. “Each element of the franchise should be semi-autonomous.”

The Three Little Pigs in transmedia

Sawhney explained the transmedia storytelling concept by applying it to the classic story of The Three Little Pigs.

  • The main story, featuring the three pigs and the wolf, is told in a novel.
  • Pig 1 starts a blog telling his backstory.
  • Wolf starts a website discussing why he is antisocial.
  • Pig 2 goes to Twitter looking for building materials.
  • Pig 3 starts a cooking blog.
  • Wolf opens an online community for like-minded individuals.
  • Pig 2 opens a Pinterest account and starts a contest looking for eco-friendly building designs.
  • The three pigs launch a game called ‘Angry Pigs’.
  • The pigs start an online community to bring together other wolf victims (Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, etc).

The idea is about “aligning but not replicating” the elements of a story, Sawhney said.

‘The Beauty Inside’ 

Intel and Toshiba’s ‘The Beauty Inside’ content series aired as six weekly episodes, during which the main character, Alex, was played by a range of members of the public (the story allowed for this consumer collaboration arrangement since in the story, Alex’s predicament is that he wakes up every day in a different body).


Intel – Toshiba – “The Beauty Inside” – BTS from B-Reel on Vimeo.


4. Execution: from launch and forget to always-on  

While traditional campaign-based marketing works with a ‘big bang’ ‘launch and forget’ approach, social media is always on and marketers need to adapt, Sawhney argued.

“Campaigns are wasteful. You put in an enormous amount of effort, then shut it all away,” he said, advising that brands shift “from campaigns to conversations”.

He described this idea using the metaphor of a river that is always flowing. “You can jump in with a boat then jump out – that’s the product launch”. But it is always on.

Nike has reduced its traditional marketing spend by about 40% in recent years as it moves from campaigns to experiences. “Rather than sponsoring the Olympics, they’re sponsoring your fitness.”

Nike’s software products help customers to track their progress and improve at their chosen sport, as shown in this video:



5.Process: from waterfall to agile

Sawhney argued that companies should shift from waterfall strategies (sequential, with annual budgets, quarterly reviews and calendars) to creating cultures of agility and experimentation.

“Traditionally in marketing planning, it’s a big strategy, then big launch, big measurement and onto the next big strategy,” Sawhney said.

“The big bang is the sound of your money blowing up. Now we should think about lots of little strategies. You don’t want to be spectacularly wrong.”

Agile development is all about working on many small strategies, testing them, learning, and scaling when something works: “think big, start small, scale fast”.

In these situations, Sawhney stressed that collecting and analysing data was key.

“The next time you’re in a meeting and someone says, ‘I think…’ Stop there. It’s very important to think about validated learning over opinions. Gut gives you hypotheses, but data is proof.”

He discussed the process that Airbnb went through when it was attempting to launch a service for hosts to receive free photography to include on their listings. The team started small, with a ‘concierge MVP (minimum viable product)’ – a manual version of the product to test the concept before building the automated version. They went through many iterations of the project before it was able to scale.

“Start with something that’s cheap and dirty, fail early, fail cheaply, fail forward,” Sawhney advised.

“You cannot scale a mess, you get a bigger mess.”


Final words

Sawhney concluded his talk by paraphrasing Charles Dickins:

“This is the best of times and this is the worst of times to be a marketer.”

Those who are lazy will struggle, he said, but those who combine creativity with analytics will take advantage of great opportunities.


Michelle Herbison

Assistant editor, Marketing Magazine.

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