‘Brand journalism’: ditch the horse meat

brand journalism

By Mike Exon

Brand journalism’ was one of the most enticing, but least explained new buzzwords of 2012. It didn’t so much hit the headlines of the digital marketing world as wriggle under the radar, waiting to be discovered, like a hot lead for a spicy news story.

The problem is it suffers from being what Wendy Gordon, research guru and former colleague, used to call a ‘big word’. These are words of the moment that sound important but don’t have commonly held definitions. This creates problems because people use them in different ways to mean different things based on individual perspective.

Like all Big Words, brand journalism still lacks finite height and breadth. The upside of this is you can dangle or drop it tantalisingly into professional conversations. The downside, it can mean anything or nothing at all. So here’s a bit of meat to give substance to the sandwich.

What is brand journalism?

The idea behind brand journalism is simply that brands employ journalistic techniques to create editorial content traditionally reserved for the publishing world. As we seek out facts and fiction from the expanding universe of our web browsers, it turns out that our love of the brand label makes the content around it pretty sticky.

In the mobile world of interconnected conversations, brands have new powers, new voices and friendly faces. Streams of dialogue ebb and flow across different channels and all kinds of media that are accessible any time, any place. Your personal context can now shape the conversation. We’re talking digital postmodernism over the airwaves here.

Where’s this brand journalism happening?

Coca-Cola, one of the most forward thinking brands content-wise, launched a new ‘corporate’ content portal at the end of last year. The Coca-Cola Journey site is not designed to talk to coke drinkers about drinking coke. It’s telling the everyday stories behind a leading consumer business (with its own star bloggers) – a business that also works with UNICEF, WWF, Save the Children and The Gates Foundation. This is a site with news, debate, politics, and opinion, but still looks and feels like a brand site. It’s graphic, social, and content rich.

This kind of content does not just happen. It’s planned and managed with a clear editorial vision. Here’s a brand that’s chosen to adopt journalistic models and processes, promising to regularly keep its audience abreast of developments in Coke World, where stories can come thick and fast.

Who creates this stuff? Journalists? Former journalists. Sometimes yes. But not just journalists. Anyone willing to take responsibility for writing or filming regularly to a standard that can command an audience and earn its trust, is right there.

Brand journalism that tastes bad

The arrival of ‘brand journalism’ may become a convenient hook for commercial marketers to exploit with stories paid for by brands. And overlapping paid ‘stories’ with independent articles or videos is a whole lot easier online than it was in print newspapers, where the delineation between advertising and editorial is so black and white.

What brand journalism is not is pseudo news, or promotional content masked as ‘real news’ on established publishing platforms. (Not to be confused with Native Advertising). Aggregated news streams from advertisers that deliberately hide promotions amid bona fide features and news articles are the horse burgers of digital content.

It’s well and good for brands to bring new perspectives and original insight to customers as brand content, but not to win influence by duping customers with pseudo-publishing models written to sound official but push product. Brand journalism needs to hold its hand up and be proud of what it is.

But readers and consumers are unforgiving of deceitful brands. Brand content has enormous potential to give audiences something new and win their affections. But the natural order must be respected and readers know what they are reading, and why/how it’s been created.

Quality publishers tread carefully

On the train back from a client meeting yesterday I read a whole ‘help guide’ for one of their banking products which was one part help and nine and a half parts cheap, dirty promo. What are they thinking? You can’t fool the reader. They darn well know and judge accordingly.

Brand journalism is still finding its feet. At it’s best it’s a tactical way of creating new types of awareness – a new medium – using the tried and tested technique of the professional news desk. At it’s worst it’s the deliberate masking of promotional content within a page of ‘independent’ news.

Well, it’s time to ditch the horse meat. If brand owners have learned one thing recently it’s that customers want to know what they’re eating.

* * * *

Types of brand journalism

• brands publishing regularly on their own platforms (a smart new content model that gives readers original insight and new experiences)

• brand sponsored content (advertorial) on existing publishing platforms, eg. Brandvoice content on Forbes.com

• promoted tweets or facebook ads from brands (arguably this blurs the line with native advertising)

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