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




About Robert Frump

Robert Frump is an author, journalist and content strategist living in the New York City area.
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3 Responses to The Rise of Brand Journalism and the Imperative of the Chief Content Officer

  1. Pingback: Defendiendo los estudios de periodismo

  2. I actually just wrote a post about how we are using brand journalism in the financial industry. I’ve been lucky enough to learn about this from the best marketing professional – and the pioneer of brand journalism Larry Light.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts about my post and case example:

    In this post i write about the latest trends and strategies in Marketing and Brand Management. These include brand journalism, inbound marketing and the “personalization tsunami”.

    I also share a recent case, which demonstrates how marketer’s can make this work in practice. The case is from the Financial Industry and was centered around current financial events such as the euro in crisis, fiscal cliff, currency wars, gold, etc.

    Check it out and please tell me what you think:

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