Brand Journalism and the Thin Red Line Between Marketing Success and Taking the Easy Way Out

Nowadays, humans are being flooded with advertising. People keep getting bombarded by sponsored stories on Facebook and Twitter while trying to run away from traditional ads on TV. The attention span of an average user, however, is not limitless. Brands must therefore carefully choose ways to approach potential and existing clients, as the latter are not responding to campaigns the way they used to.

This tendency is precisely what pushes marketing and PR experts into a never-ending, vicious battle for „innovative stuff“ (ads, campaigns, pitches).

Enter brand journalism

Brand journalism is trying to fill in the gap between traditional advertising, journalism and marketing campaigns. Humans have an innate desire to communicate and share stories, which is why story-telling seems to be the best way to approach modern media consumers. Let’s face it – brands are not very adept at trying to convey human stories to people. The effort to humanise brands (especially those of technology companies) has mixed results. The promise here is that by trying to engage with customers, brands are establishing a healthy and stable relationship.

According to James Del, director of digital content at TAO Group and former executive director of Gawker Media’s in-house creative department, Studio@Gawker:

“Even talented writers are having a hard time maintaining consistent work. At the same time, companies are now realising that if they want to remain relevant, they need to produce stories that are of interest to their customers; it’s no longer enough to run a 30-second spot or a banner ad to convey a brand’s message. Those things are easily ignored and often provide little or no informational or entertainment value.”

Brand journalism advocates are trying to convince you that this particular type of journalism is „simply another kind of journalism“ like political, sports or tech journalism. Of course, it is not. This particular content is not produced in newsrooms and does not, therefore, abide to basic journalism laws, especially when it comes to objectivity. If we put aside the fact that pure objectivity is non-existent and that journalists should seek ways to use objective methods to convey the intersubjective reality people are used to living in, there is no way any company could call its content „journalistic“. Brand journalism is always going to be another name for PR content sold as news-worthy. This is the precise reason more and more companies are hiring ex-journalists to write their brand’s story – they know what can and can not pass as newsworthy. This is particularly true for countries with insufficient or severely limited media freedom as old (now considered traditional) forms, such as newspapers, are struggling to make both ends meet. Although they heavily rely on traditional advertising to keep the money flowing, brand journalism is slowly emerging as the new cool kid on the block. Brand journalism (called by some „advertorial“) poses as a way for outlets to get the best of both worlds – keep their integrity in the eyes of the wide public, while also securing a consistent cash flow. It’s a win-win for both brands (as they see this particular type of journalism as a way to reach consumers who could not otherwise be reached) and media outlets alike. But do people believe it? Are we sure they are not spotting the PR behind the „journalism“?

Let us turn our eyes towards the public opinion. Reputation is a complex concept. The lines between online and offline reputation are inescapably blurring. Companies are turning more and more often to brand journalism in order to win the hearts of their consumers. Before crafting a good story to define a brand, however, companies should first pay attention to some key elements:

– The public opinion does not care what the reality is –  people only see what is currently manifested.

Before you start building your brand, dedicate some time to examine the objective reality surrounding it. Although people say they want to know „the truth“ behind something, the reality is that they do not. Examine what is manifested, what is being misinterpreted by the general public and what could be done. What are the most perplexing things about your brand that customers are commenting on? Why are your customers hating on your brand? Why are they loving it? Do not limit yourself to archaic methods to get this information. Do not rely on traditional sociologic methods – look at places where people are being true to themselves, instead. Social media listening platforms and media analysis may be the answer to this.

– Understand your product and introduce changes, if necessary.

Ok, You have got a grasp of user opinions and now know the basic issues your brand/product has. What do you do – do you change the product to respond to user expectations or do you try to change the general perception of the brand? Decide on a case-by-case basis. The key here is to listen and base your decision on some solid data. The answer may not always be to change and respond to consumer desires – after all, customers do not know what they want (thanks, Steve).

– Turn to brand journalism only if you know what you are doing.

Brand journalism is a tricky venture and not everyone can carry it out properly. Try to understand your brand prior to turning to brand journalism. Now that you know your weaknesses and your strengths, use the knowledge.

The key thing to remember about brand journalism is that while it poses some evident advantages, it most certainly is not a panacea for every problem there is posed by the need to raise brand awareness.