Good marketing is good storytelling.
Be it fiction or fact, the art of good storytelling is difficult, and not natural for everyone. Done well, an engaging story can turn the fortunes of a brand and company around in just one campaign. But how many great stories are being told through marketing communications today?
Not as many as there should be.
The emergence of a direct line of engagement with customers through digital and social media channels means there is a clear opportunity to deliver engaging, professionally produced journalistic content at a significantly reduced cost of delivery. Some brands that have made this style of direct brand storytelling central to their communications strategy, essentially telling their brand narrative through a myriad of other stories, capitalising on the professional storytelling talent in the marketing and media talent pool.
Not just confined to Australia, the talent pool of great storytellers is global. Startups like Contently have realised this, and are building a network of writers, publishers and clients that brands can call on to tell their stories.
This trend is what is known as brand journalism: honest brand storytelling that invites participation. Many brands already do this by proxy, to some degree, through agency partners. But brand journalism seeks to overtly place a company as the enabler of journalistic content.
Essentially, this is marketing on its head. In the past you would ascertain your brand's story, and then go about telling that same story in range of ways, all related to a consistent underlying message: Winning with Nike or proud heritage with Patek Phillipe. But a media brand tells stories that build up to a positioning or brand story. It relinquishes control, relegates the product to the background and presents a rougher edge to consumers. In return this builds a richer, more authentic, brand positioning.
Consider Redbull. They have a range of traditional campaigns, but the global communications approach is grounded in telling compelling stories – stories that often have little to no immediate relationship to the physical product apart from an implied connection to the “high performance” DNA of the brand. Check their website and you have to dig to get to the product.
They have embraced this strategy to such a degree they now run a full blown media company within a company, licensing stories and media to other brands. But they control the experience, and own the stories. Part of this is experiential, part PR, but finding and telling stories is at the core of what they are doing.
How to become a media brand
Any brand that is actively, and positively, engaging consumers and customers through social media channels is already on the way to becoming a media brand. Given social media is a buying medium, not a selling medium, companies learnt fast that the traditional didactic marketing communications approach was unsuited to the democratic world of digital. You need to offer something up, before people engage, and this concept of a value exchange, as Chris Clarke argued in Creative Social’s recent book, is the fundamental principle driving marketing in the digital age.
So here follows a not so exhaustive list of how to become a media brand, and utilise brand journalism to tell your story:
Define Your Narrative
Know what story you want to tell. If there isn’t an internal consensus on a clearly articulated brand story, get you key stakeholders in a room and nut it out. Then use that to guide the direction you give journalists and agencies you engage, e.g. “we want to tell stories about people overcoming adversity and hardship, because our brand narrative is grounded in perseverance”.
Find, and pay for, the right talent to find and tell your stories. Cisco is pushing brand journalism as a means of engaging a very specific, high knowledge community with some success. Tumblr flirted with the idea, forming an editorial team through 2012 that produced the Storyboard project – telling the stories of the 42 million strong Tumblr community. Both took a strong will of investment, and a long time – even Tumblr’s relatively short foray lasted one year. Good journalism costs money. You can reduce the cost, if you are engaging an audience based on information and expertise, by crowdsourcing some of your stories, but if you need to tell stories that engage people emotionally this may not be appropriate. Ultimately, you will have to accept that good content costs money, even if you are giving it away.
Do it right
Brand journalism has a stricter code of conduct to adhere to, compared to normal journalism, given that it would be classified as advertising, under Australian media law. Inherent to this is disclosure of commercial interests and the fact that it is ultimately designed to sell products.
Legal considerations aside, two basic rules to follow that will lead good brand journalism are: Adhere to basic journalistic values of honesty, integrity and accountability; don’t lie, misrepresent, misconstrue or plagiarise.
Make clear the intent and purpose of the content, and disclose of conflicts of interest that exist as a result of the commercial nature of brand journalism.
Remember, because brand journalism is advertising, it doesn’t enjoy some of the legal protections around privacy and other things traditional journalism does. When in doubt, consult your legal department.
Possibly the most problematic area of brand journalism is relinquishing control. You can’t be didactic or prescriptive as a marketer with content that is based on real stories, or grounded in actual truth instead of brand truth, so the typical approach to marketing communications is not applicable.
Let go of control and better brand journalism will flourish. Accepting this ultimately means accepting the lack of polish we have come to expect from corporate communications as stories go off in unexpected and varied directions, but that is brand journalism’s strength, so it must not be ignored. Not all stories will say exactly what you want, but building an authentic connection with your customer is never easy.
Brand journalism may never be able to produce the hard news of traditional media companies, but it seems set to become a stronger force in the Australian media landscape and compelling tool in any marketer’s storytelling arsenal.
Tom Spencer is research and insights manager at Rodeo.