With the rise of the digital age, journalism and advertising have begun to merge, giving birth to an interesting combination of the two: “brand journalism.” McDonald’s was one of the first brands to wade into journalistic waters in 2004. Presenting at the Advertising Age Conference that year, the world’s leading global foodservice retailer announced a new, grand multidimensional marketing design. Straying away from the traditional one-sided, single-message pushing strategy, McDonald’s decided instead to focus on a “content stream approach.”
Since then, brand journalism has exploded, aided by rapid advancements in digital and mobile technology. With a plethora of new and emerging channels and platforms for brands to champion their message, a journalistic storytelling approach seemed only fitting. AdAge praises the use of brand journalism, emphasizing its ability to “create[s] an evolving brand story” that “captures and speaks to the interests of interconnected consumers who want customized, connective content.”
Brands like RedBull, Coca Cola, GE, and Adobe have invested a significant amount of resources into their own brand journalism efforts. RedBull’s The Red Bulletin is a hub for adrenaline junkies and sports enthusiasts to come and enjoy content surrounding their interests, from sports news and athlete features to active lifestyle and culture columns. The Red Bulletin reaches a global audience through both print and digital platforms with an impressive circulation of 2 million monthly print copies.
According to Hubspot, “brand journalism” is not only a way for brands to generate leads and create brand awareness, but also a way for brands to gain consumers’ trust. The goal is to draw in an audience of interested readers who will ultimately become paying customers or users of your product.
However, this is where the term generates some disputation. Sam Petulla, currently MSNBC’ editor of data visualization, writes on Contently, “There’s no such thing as brand journalism.” He completely rejects the term, clearly distinguishing the difference between branded content and journalism. Although the term ‘journalism’ may make your content sound more credible, it is misleading in that brands are essentially after consumers and will inevitably be biased.
There is now a new term that brand editors are using these days: lowercase-j’ journalism. Lowercase-j journalism is described as engaging, educational, thought-provoking content that brands use to build a following that hopefully results in new leads and sales. Brands utilize stories that often aren’t about their brand directly but can be connected back to the brand’s values or mission, to draw interested consumers. For example, Gap’s Deirdre Hussey recently wrote a powerful post on the buzz around Caitlyn Jenner and related it back to Gap’s values, representing its advocacy for the LGBT community. If this type of approach sounds very similar to brand journalism, don’t worry, you aren’t confusing the two, because… well, they are the same.
No matter how we try and disguise it, or attach a new buzzword to it, at the end of the day, these are all examples of CONTENT MARKETING. Today’s customer is savvy enough to know when a company is trying to give them the spin, or position certain messaging in ways that aren’t entirely transparent. Instead of looking for new ways to rebrand the way they get out their messages, companies looking to build out their content strategy should keep this one, evergreen rule top of mind: “Content that helps is content that sells.”