Brand journalism is the rage. However, too often its practitioners focus on the brand and neglect the journalism.
Telling good stories about a brand can be cool and compelling. But brand journalism without good storytelling is a lot like Santa without a sleigh.
While the term “brand journalism” makes some traditionalists squirm, it shouldn’t. Journalism has played a long and legendary role in all forms of advocacy. The problem with brand journalism today isn’t tainting journalism; it's neglecting the key principles of journalism.
As someone who began my career working for daily newspapers, I learned long ago that journalism involves a lot more than the inverted triangle and short paragraphs. The most salient principle of journalism is finding the hook that makes a story somewhere between interesting and irresistible.
This lesson was illuminated for me as a cub reporter when I was assigned, with malicious intent by my managing editor, to write obituaries.
After grumping a bit, I started looking more closely at the notices sent by local mortuaries. Usually, they clinically listed date of death, the person’s birthday, surviving family members and a few sparse details of the dearly departed’s life. I made it my routine to call morticians to get more details. In small communities, morticians usually know the people who drive on their slabs. I also asked to talk to family members. The result was a gusher of fascinating vignettes about people who lived in the community and had done significant things. These vignetters often wound up as front-page feature stories.
All it took to uncover these amazing life details was enough curiosity to ask. I received diaries, journals, photographs, letters, commendations and news stories about people who had died. Their obituaries elevated from recitations of dry facts to stories that celebrated their lives.
Brand journalism should be borne out of the same kind of curiosity and storytelling. It typically involves talking about people, not products. It covers stories in depth that news media outlets cover superficially, if at all. Stories frequently center on customers, not company salespeople. The best brand journalism takes aim at what will resonate with an audience, not at what you want to tell the audience.
Brand journalism can take the form of native ads that appear like news stories or websites with a newsy look. Brand journalism also can include guest opinion pieces, newsjacking, blogs, Ebooks, real books, social media and, yes, even traditional advertising.
Walgreens' “Get a Shot, Give a Shot” TV commercial is a great example of brand journalism in a traditional advertising medium. It takes a cause marketing campaign to a higher place by telling a story that links to the drug store’s customers.
Zales Jewelers includes a same-sex marriage ceremony in its latest TV ad titled “Diamond Kind of Love.” The ad, which has sparked some online outrage, sends a clear message to the LGBTQ community and anyone about the brand’s inclusionary view of love. This is a riskier form of storytelling, but it is hardly new. Subaru blazed this trail several years ago with success using subtle storytelling in its ads.
Self-publishing has enabled brand journalism like nothing before it. However, having the power to push “post” doesn’t translate into good journalism. That requires discipline, curiosity and good stories, whether in writing, photography or video.
If brands want to connect with consumers, brand journalism can be a good path to get there. Just don’t forget that journalism is part of the pathway. Think good stories that are topical, relevant and interesting, then convey them like a storytelling star.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.