The Rise of Brand Journalism Part II: Plausible Messengers


If corporations managed money the way corporations handle content, then accountants could coin their own currency with few standards and erase deficits by drawing happy faces at the bottom of columns. 

Well, it does not work like that for numbers.  And increasingly it does not work like that for words. 

The challenge is that in the past it has worked that way with words.  Unlike corporate numbers, marketing words generally  are untethered by fact. 

At the old Merrill Lynch and other major corporations across the world, it was not uncommon for brochures and product material to read like Hallmark cards.  The same attractive older couple walked the same golden retriever across the same lovely beach with the same tired word “retirement” hovering somewhere nearby.  

The best scenario for such marketing is a sort of senseless and mildly annoying white noise.  The worst case – and often the real case – is that one more chip is taken off the brand monument so far as clients are concerned.  They are not interested these days in false people and false landscapes and false hopes.  They discard such material.  They come away from contact with you with a “more-of-the-same” ennui and categorize your brilliantly designed promotions in one phrase. 

 Nice house, nobody home. 

The first and second generation corporate websites were little better — just brochureware shoveled on to the web. 

Worse, this “content” often still sits there growing outdated, even harmful, sometimes out of compliance, because there was no formal publishing process or discipline to monitor the content.   Run a search on 90 percent of corporate websites today and you will recover unhelpful information filled with dead links, “404 Errors,) and helpful headlines and stock tips from 2003. 

Content does not age like wine or artisan’s cheese.  Out of date content, based on product bluster and yeterday’s shiny promises,  turns toxic.  They mestasize a cancer in the brand as more and more people come to a site – and  find nothing that is helpful or actionable.  Or real.  They shuck more and more of a corporation’s printed and web material, looking for the substance.  And finding none, they move on, mentally noting that they never will reclaim ten minutes of their life because of your bad content.    

In today’s world, if your words are not real, your company suffers.  Plain and simple. 

If you cannot create content that helps your clients and customers, your competition will. 

If you stick to the ways of the past in your promotion and marketing, then the past is where your brand and reputation will stuck.  

Corporations need a content overhaul.  Not “new content.”  They need to adapt the processes and ethics and organization of a first rate magazine, newspaper or news show.  They need a chief content officer to do that and then they need to practice content journalism. 

And they need to do that now. 


I could make the case for an ethical duty to clients and markets, cite concepts of “perfect information” and quote some Rousseau. 

But the truth is, the truth is the one thing that works.  

These days, little else does, because in today’s world of WikiLeaks, viral videos, Twitter, social media and the “content cloud,” “real words” are out there already.  Corporations seeking to establish and maintain good brands really don’t have much of a choice:  

They need to move quickly to a new organization and discipline.  They need a philosophy and skill set that puts content and the consumer of content first among equal stakeholders. 

Will concentrating on fact and truths carry the day?  

It gives you the basis.  It gives you a better foundation than conventional marketing.   It gives you an excellent chance and provides an organizing ethic and principle.  

It also recognizes all of our limitations in remaining “promotional.” 

An old politico I once covered as a young reporter explained it to me this way. 

“I’m not saying I am an honest man, but I am saying I am not smart enough to lie well,” he told me one day.  “If I lie, I can’t possibly remember all the stories I made up and who I told which stories to so I tell the truth whenever I have to.” 

So it is with corporations. 

If your marketing begins with the concept that you will promote and push product through exaggerations and appeals to emotions and promises that then are not fulfilled – your market will eventually catch you in lies.  

Let’s look at two corporations, both with reputation problems, and how they approached those challenges. 

The first company is MacDonald’s.  The second is UBS Financial Services in the US.  

Both were suspected by a skeptical public of infusing its services and products with unhealthy substances.   

For McDonald’s questions were raised through web rumors and innuendo about the purity of its food and food sources.  

For UBS, investors were wary after being burned by a number of derivatives (ARCS) that were said to act like cash –but proved to be worthless.  A short time later, UBS then turned over the names of Swiss Bank clients to the IRS and a senior executive of UBS was caught smuggling diamonds in a toothpaste tube. 

How did each company seek to improve its brand and reputation?

UBS responded by amping up its advertisements — restating its commitments to clients at a time when every client knew they had been worked over by the company.  At first these advertisements seemed self-parodying — and then desperate.    

Who will believe “You and Us: UBS” after it was disclosed that UBS knowingly pushed useless investments as cash-like safe securities?  When the Swiss company’s US ads   then flashes a picture of Amelia Erhardt and other American iconic heroes and then announces, “We’ll never rest” what does that conjure in the mind other than guilt and neuroticism? 

The ads resulted in a sort of ironic “negative” branding that if anything hurt the company’s image as jokes and comments went “viral.”

Tens of millions of dollars were spent in such a way – a way that actually hurt the company.  

Switch to MacDonald’s in the mid 2000.  Concern had grown   based on rumor and web urban legends that all sorts of weird ingredients were substituted for beef and chicken and other food served at the mega-restaurant chain. The cult-hit film “Super Size Me” also contributed to the perception that MacDonald’s served impure food.  At the very least, McDonald’s was seen as unhealthy.  

McDonald’s did not go on an expensive ad offensive to “repeal” the image.  Instead, it went to the heart of the matter, its food supply chain, and then it went transparent — about as transparent as one could be in fact. 

It created a group of mothers from throughout the United States who were concerned about their children’s health.  They invited them to tour MacDonald supply lines and growers — strong elements of the company — at any time.  And then they let the mothers blog about what they found. 

It can’t be said that all the blogs were one hundred percent positive.  But it can be said that the blogs were one hundred percent believable.  Far more good was said about MacDonald’s than bad and the rumors of MacDonald’s hiding bad food practices was forever changed to MacDonald is open and buys good food.  In fact, its open doors, transparent policies built a brand by positioning the company as honest and open with nothing to hide. It was able to do this, of course, because it had a good story to tell:  the ingredients and the suppliers were good.  

What if UBS had taken a similar route?  

What if instead of its cello-playing commercials, UBS had taken that money to publicize some of its more admirable qualities?   Its independent research for example?      Or let clients witness the process and blog about it just as the mothers did of MacDonald’s food processes?

What if UBS had launched financial literacy campaigns and columns? 

What if it had quietly created quiet, competent, useful content that helped rebuild its brand from a foundation of truth?  

We’ll never know because UBS did not understand that brand is no longer a function of Super Bowl-sized commercials and high line videos.  While it relied on its ads, it folded all its magazines, which like Merrill Lynch Advisor made a credible case for the company by truly addressing client needs.  (Note:  UBS has new marketing chefs so the cooking may change.) 

What the case studies here do prove is that any large company that has the challenge of a complex sale, or a sale that continues or must extend over a long period of time, must be in the game long and hard. 

“I can’t say that ‘brand journalism,’ is for everyone,” said Kyle Monson of JWT, a national “practice leader” of brand journalism and the former editor of a high-end trade magazine. 

 “I can say that any corporation that depends on a ‘considered sale’ — a sale where clients seek out information about a service or product before buying — that corporation needs to seriously consider a journalistic-like effort to get good, accurate, fair content out there.”

What is a considered sale in today’s consumer “cloud” context?  

“Hard to say,” Monson continued.  “When you think about it, if you throw a birthday party for your kid, the parents are likely to spend at least a half hour Googling all the potential gifts and decorations for health swallowing issues.”

(And probably finding McDonald’s stories or “Mom Blogs”)

 It’s hard to think of services and products that are not rated and reviewed and chat boards and social networks quickly distribute a failing or shortfall. 

So if your company or corporation or product or service is mentioned on the web, then you have a stake in cloud content.  

You also have the real possibility of cloud content putting a stake in you.  

The way you treat your content — how you create it, police it, refresh it and retire it — will determine whether cloud content is good for you or bad. 

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The Rise of Brand Journalism and the Imperative of the Chief Content Officer

(These blogs grew from an informal address I was asked to make to the faculty and students of Medill at Northwestern University last year.  With the decline of traditional news media, “content journalism” may well fill the void.  But it will not be an automatic transition — even if it should be.  I’m convinced that the old methods of marketing communication may cause far more harm than good.  Content — authentic, factually content — needs to be king in the marketing efforts of major corporations.  And to do that, you need to name a king of content.) 


When I walked into Merrill Lynch as its new Editor in Chief twelve years ago, I asked my mentor there exactly what I was “chief” of and he replied in a classic two-phase good-news, bad news manner. 


“The good news is that at a conference for all writers and editors at Merrill Lynch, we filled a hotel banquet room with 600 people,” he said. 


This was impressive.  A staff of that size could power a metropolitan newspaper of a major city and produce a good forty-page publication every day.  


“Of course,” he added, “I cannot say how many of them actually talk to each other or how many will talk to you.  Or how many agencies and freelancers they have.  Or how many know what our marketing message is or what our brand stands for.”


They were dispersed.  My staff numbered perhaps ten.  All the other writers were attached to product groups or different divisions like human resources.  It was a mark of the time and my background that I was not at all surprised at this because most corporations have “content” organizations defined by their disorganization.  


We had a mandate, however, and looking back at it all, the influence of our team was amazing, in both its publishing output and its impact on culture.  


With the help of Tine Inc. Custom Publishing, we produced a journalistic like magazine called Merrill Lynch Advisor that received a 90 percent favorability rating from clients and spent six weeks on coffee tables. 


Moreover, the notoriously finicky Financial Advisors at Merrill – the Thundering Herd – also liked the rag.  Because of that, other groups at Merrill wanted to be in our publication and so they followed our lead in how to conceive of stories and write them in a credible manner.   Other news-like publications followed — a Financial Advisor-to-client custom monthly newsletter and an ultra-high net worth quarterly called simply The Whitepaper. — employing HNW Digital as our agency.


All the publications had one thing in common.  They were journalistic in tone, realized we had skeptical readers, and kept the message real and actionable. 


The marketing superlatives and exaggerated product sub-branding so common in financial services skinnied down to nearly nothing.  The move to an editorial view of content also saved millions of dollars through a re-architecting of redundant eight color glossy publications.  


And the success was not lost on the brass.  The Merrill CEO stated that Advisor magazine was “the best and most innovative marketing idea to hit Merrill Lynch in a quarter century.”


Merrill has taken its hits along the way – most deserved and most as a result of trades and investment banking schemes removed from our wealth management end of the business.  But throughout scandal and merger, Merrill Lynch Advisor now is in its eleventh year of publication and is as popular as ever.  Long after I left the firm in 2006, the magazine has been a valuable tool in showing clients what Merrill and its financial advisors did right – even as the leadership of the company was, in another division, squandering the good will of one of America’s best brands.   




The effort – a bold and clear experiment in content journalism quite apart from traditional advertising and promotion   was a clear  success, but it is just one part of a much larger trend.  


There are dozens of other examples out there as well.    Ford used it to realign its culture and positioning.  Nissan and Groupon have editorial departments larger than that of the Chicago Tribune and Microsoft employs a small army of geek journalist/bloggers. 


All these developments flow well past the banks of “custom publishing.”  In sum, they comprise an acknowledgement that the world of content and marketing has changed and changed profoundly from one of advertising, brochures and commercials to content that informs, advises or tells a credible story.   


All of these companies have acknowledged that in today’s world, they must do more than just communicate.  They must go beyond that and become a “publishing corporation.” 


Slowly, leading corporations have come to realize that content — news, features, product descriptions, FAQs, thought leadership pieces,   — is so vital that it needs to be handled as carefully as a company manages money. 


No longer can it be an afterthought or a bolt on. It must be produced with careful preparation to make certain corporate content is actually useful to clients and actually factual — not just a shiny can-we-get-away-with -this claim.  


This is so because in the new world of the “cloud” social media and Wiki leaks, the truth will out far, far sooner than in year’s past. 


The cost of getting caught in a lie or a disingenuous statement does not cost an apology these days.  It costs you your brand.  If your content is not aligned with facts and truth — if it is not actionable — you are engaging in risky behavior that is as dangerous as fiddling with derivatives and investments with the Liberian oil minister’s aunt. 


“Non-fiction” advertising and “brand journalism” is how it is described by some. 


I call it “content journalism”  I believe that corporate content should not just be “journalistic-like” as some have suggested.  I believe it should be journalistic.   Period. 


Not everyone sees it that way.


“Congratulations,” my CMO at Merrill told me when Advisor rolled off the presses. “You’ve created a real wolf in sheep’s clothing.”


She meant that as a compliment in a business that can be incredibly cynical and calculating and has as one of its standing half-jokes, “Sincerity is the most important part of this business.  Fake that, you can fake anything.”


“Actually, “ I told the CMO, “what we’ve done here is try to put a sheep in sheep’s clothing,” but she never really bought that. 


But that is what I am proposing: truth in promotional communications.  


In an age when truth will out, why not start out with truth?  In an age of skeptics tired of over promises and half-truths, why not start with an effort to inform accurately?


Why not practice “corporate journalism” that mirrors what Walter Lippman threw down as a challenge for good journalism:  the presentation of facts and analysis, that readers can act upon with effect?  


I’d argue that this alignment is far from a pipe dream.  It is practical. It is the logical next step in the decades old “client based needs” school of marketing.   And it actually is less expensive to do than old-style advertising and commercials. 


Client needs-based marketing has been around for some time and implemented with various degrees of success.  


Rarely has the marketing communication end of this equation manifested well.  Much  marketing communications to this date tends to be a product-push based on client susceptibilities not client needs.  It is conceived from a wolf-in sheep’s-clothing mind-set.  


How can we put our product or service in the best possible light, without ever acknowledging downsides?   Above all, do not suggest the product or service is anything but excellent for all clients and customers in all cases. 


Strategically, the realm of “positioning” starts not from the client’s needs but how promotional material can affect their minds.   Here is one definition from the seminal work on brand positioning. 


“Positioning is not what you do to the product; it’s what you do to the mind of the prospect. It’s how you differentiate your brand in the mind. Positioning compensates for our overcommunicated society by using an oversimplified message to cut through the clutter and get into the mind. Positioning focuses on the perceptions of the prospect not on the reality of the brand.”


In an age of skeptics, that approach falls flat.  It is worse than ineffective.  It can harm brand in a world where the first stop of most customers is Google and a web search that will show your product and brand warts and all, with blogs, rankings, and twitters examining the good and the bad — with real time pictures and Utube videos of the ugly.  


I’m hardly the pioneer of such thinking.  Seth Godin is believed to have  mentioned “brand journalism” first in 2004.  Larry Light, the CMO at McDonald’s practiced it during his tenure through 2009.  John Blossom outlined the trend eloquently in “Content Nation.”  Michael Maslansky expanded on it in “The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.”  And David Meerman Scott uses it as a platform for his new world manual, “The New Rules of Marketing and PR.”


“Whether you’re selling an idea, a candidate, a widget or yourself, ‘just trust me” just isn’t enough,” Maslansky writes.  “In fact, the more you try to convey that you’re better, safer, or smarter than the competition, the less likely people are to believe you.”


At McDonald’s, Larry Light declared the old rules of positioning and brand commercials all but dead. 

“Identifying one brand position, communicating it in a repetitive manner is old-fashioned, out of date, out of touch,” he said. 

What would replace it, he said, was a journalistic like narrative of what the company and consumers were doing.   “Brand Journalism” ascended in this form:   

“Brand Journalism is a chronicle of the varied things that happen in our brand world, throughout our day, throughout the years. Our brand means different things to different people. It does not have one brand position. It is positioned differently in the minds of kids, teens, young adults, parents and seniors. It is positioned differently at breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, weekday, weekend, with kids or on a business trip.

“Brand Journalism allows us to be a witness to the multi-faceted aspects of a brand story. No one communication alone tells the whole brand story. 

“Each communication provides a different insight into our brand. It all adds up to a McDonald’s journalistic brand chronicle.”


Says Scott:


“The tremendous expense of relying advertising to convince buyers to pay attention to your organization, ideas, products and services is yesterday’s headache…. …(Today) I’m talking about having journalists create stories just as they are doing now — but for a corporation, a government agency, a nonprofit, or an educational institution, instead of a media outlet.”


So the concept of “content journalism” is not a theoretical.  It is here, practiced widely.  It will never supplant older, more conventional commercials, ads and brochures.  But it is spreading and growing fast.   


It is spreading so fast and becoming so important that its management and administration requires a new C-level suite position in order  create and protect publishing skills as a core corporate skill. 


Here’s why.  


At Merrill Lynch, no matter how mighty the title sounded, Editor in Chief was not in the C-suite management tier.  The firm’s budget process still favored to a fault  brochures and expensive commercials and magazine ads. 


Such productions may well still be needed for mega-corporations.  But more and more, even mega-corporations are turning to more targeted marketing and content.  And as they do, they will come to realize that the traditional marketing organization needs change.  


“If all the people, the systems, the real estate, the factories and the menus are organized around monolithic marketing, slapping a little brand journalism on top isn’t going to work awfully well” writes Seth Godin.

 I’d argue that a C-level suite content position is needed now at many corporations to create, shape, channel and control content on a corporate-wide basis because the sum of that content — coordinated or not — shapes brand and positioning.  

The cloud shapes the content one way or the other.  So it is not as if corporations have a choice.   They will be impacted whether they choose to play or not.  The only rational choice they can make is to engage — and play the game as well as they can.   

This challenge takes a Chief Content Officer, one who would sit next to the CFO and the other C-level suite officers and in so doing would represent the emerging importance of content and its unique needs and creative capabilities. 


Chief Marketing Officers will still exist and help form strategy and resource, but the function of communication cannot rest just with the CMO — and the slim silo marketing generally commands.  Nor can the other “silos” of communication in product groups, public relations and executive communications, remain siloed. 


This is true because the content and communication ingested by clients no longer is siloed, no longer just contained in the morning newspaper or the evening news.  The web and apps and email and social media have thoroughly de-siloed such information.


Search engines and social media scour every bit and byte of the cloud to serve up a new version of your brand everyday.  


Content can no longer be controlled by a “no comment, ” a full-page ad and eight color glossy brochure.  It leaks, seeps, soars and pours from a million sources online and in the cloud.  


Today, content and public relations form brand and determine perceived positioning more so than advertising campaigns, product placements or events.  The messages cannot be controlled – only channeled. 


And only someone skilled in the ways of creating content quickly and accurately can provide the sort of content needed to keep a brand on target and whole.  


This someone will be the Chief Content Officer.  And the someones who work for the Chief Content Officer will practice a discipline I call “content journalism.” 


The intent of the modern corporation is to — finally and at last — make content king. 


So it should be unsurprising that the way to do that is to name a king of content. 


Next:  The New Plausible Messengers



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The Trick to Corporate Content

There is no trick to good content. Really. Don’t try tricks.

If you try to trick your way to content, you’ll inevitably sound false and phony.

Many of you do now because:

  1. You think content is putting promotions on the web.
  2. You’ve succumbed to SEO tactical tricks.
  3. Or more probably, you’ve not been unable to thread the interior mechanics of your own operation to overcome the bureaucracy of your own operation.

Here are some steps to drive authentic content.

  1. Determine your true client need. (Or pay new attention to it.)
  2. Formulate the value prop that fulfills those needs.
  3. Now think what you want your client to come away with once they have read your content.  What response do you want?  Think of this before you even think of what your actual content is literally?
  4. Define your content as stories, charts, tools and wizards that answer the questions your clients have concerning #1 above crossed with your answer to #3.
  5. Make your value proposition incidental in the content – not in overt offers or direct branding.
  6. Place this useful content within branding contexts in custom magazines or web sites.
  7. The same goes for SEO terms.  Use them, but don’t abuse them. As they occur in natural usage, use on.

Try it any other way and you’ll have only half-formed content.  Your readers and clients will be attracted initially but if it is only half-formed content then they will drift away with the feeling you are only a half-formed company

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