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Worse, this “content” often still sits there growing outdated, even harmful, sometimes out of compliance, because there was no formal publishing process or discipline to monitor the content.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  Out of date content, based on product bluster and yeterday’s shiny promises,  turns toxic.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. 


About Robert Frump

Robert Frump is an author, journalist and content strategist living in the New York City area.
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