Brands are built on stories. Stories show and engage rather than push or proclaim. But not just any old story will do.
Stories that resonate with audiences are told with a journalist’s eye and ethic, then combined with a PR pro’s knack for amplification and distribution.
Larry Light, CEO at marketing consultancy Arcature, describes it best when he says, “Brand journalism marries brand management with journalistic storytelling.”
It’s a potent combination, as data from the Content Marketing Institute proves:
- Eighty-two percent of consumers feel more positive about a company and are more likely to buy from it after reading custom content.
- Eighty percent of business decision makers prefer to receive company information in a series of articles rather than advertisements.
- Seventy-eight percent of CMOs view content as the future of marketing and communication.
If those figures aren’t convincing, consider these two from Scott Donaton, global chief content officer at Universal McCann:
- Custom content is 92 percent more effective than traditional TV advertising at increasing awareness and 168 percent more powerful at driving purchase preference.
Brand journalism works, and it works for more than awareness. It influences people to make purchasing decisions.
But how does your brand leverage the tactic to see bottom-line results? Have no fears. We have the information you need to build a brand journalism program that will captivate audiences around the world; build brand reputation; and draw people closer toward buying a product or service.
Is it brand journalism or content marketing?
A lot of time, energy and online space have been devoted to the question, “What is brand journalism?” Some say brand journalism and content marketing are synonyms, but the majority says otherwise.
They view content marketing and brand journalism as related but distinct disciplines. While the content they produce often blurs the boundaries, they are markedly different in two ways:
Brand journalism starts with a journalist’s mindset. However, it is not traditional journalism. Brand journalists, like reporters, hunt for good stories, but a part of their brains always considers brand impact.
Marc Cowlin, content marketing lead at This moment, says:
Both [traditional journalism and brand journalism] aim to provide useful information to their respective audiences, but their motivation comes from a different place. In the end, brand journalism is about business and traditional journalism is about providing needed information. Very similar, yet quite different.
Brand journalism is not content marketing, either. The latter often brings products and services front and center; the former rarely does. It instead shows how people are affected in personal, tangible ways, many times without
ever calling out a specific product or service. Where content marketing shouts, brand journalism whispers.
Outcomes are where brand journalism and content marketing differ most. Sarah Skerik, founder of Spire Content & Strategy, a digital marketing consultancy firm, offers insight:
It’s important to take some time to understand the differences. They determine outcomes, metrics and measurement methods.
Basically, brand journalism helps with the top of the funnel. It invites people into a journey with your brand and its products and services. Content marketing acts as a guide along the way, encouraging people to act, i.e., buy.
How to start with brand journalism
The best way to get started with brand journalism is to look to the leaders in the space. They serve as inspiration, or idea generators. Study what they’re doing and see if it applies to your brand and its goals.
We’ve included seven brand examples, plus a take-away for each one. Many of them are larger brands, but don’t be fooled: any brand, regardless of size and no matter how “boring,” can implement and benefit from brand journalism.
When public perception wasn’t in McDonald’s favor, they didn’t say, “Oh, well. Good try, everyone. Let’s close up shop.” Rather, they listened to what else people were saying about the brand.
A notable example is the “Coca-Cola mystery.” As rumors swirled that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola had a top-secret contract, explaining why the soda tasted oh, so good at the fast food chain, the restaurant responded with a solid brand journalism play.
They investigated the rumors; backed up their findings with factual evidence; and spread the story across the web via social and other distribution mechanisms.
Take-away: Use Cision’s social listening tool to hear what people are saying about your brand. When public perception is against you, use the other lines of conversations to mitigate potential crises and build a more positive brand perception.
Starbucks takes a different approach to brand journalism. They use the tactic to maintain reputation and increase positive social sentiment and sales.
Starbucks is known for having a great workplace and culture, but they rarely tell consumers about those things. They show them in action, as they did with employee Esther Asuncion’s story.
She shared the history behind her artwork for one of the annual holiday mugs. It’s a feel-good story that produced social shares, word-of-mouth and additional sales.
Take-away: Some of your best stories come from employees. They are treasure troves of relatable experiences. Let them share what it means to work for a brand that has a great workplace, encourages innovation or gets hands-on with the local community. Their stories resonate with consumers, making them more likely to purchase from you, regardless of price point.
In addition, brand journalism has benefits internally. It builds camaraderie, lets employees know they’re valued, and establishes a culture of trust and authenticity. When employees feel like that and have content they can share with friends and family, watch out—they’ll share it, and share it gladly.
Everyone still talks about Felix Baumgartner, but that’s a tiny, tiny piece of Red Bull’s brand journalism program. They publish “The Red Bulletin,” a slick print and digital magazine targeted toward young males.
The magazine contains stories about celebrities and action sports athletes, as well as fashion and lifestyle content. Red Bull products appear very little, if at all. It’s an ironic and effective maneuver. By not advertising themselves, Red Bull gets more public acclaim and accolades.
Take-away: Brand journalism is journalism. Establish the larger brand narrative as Red Bull does, then fill it with localized and personalized stories for key audiences.
You may not have the budget or resources to produce an actual magazine. That’s not the ultimate point. The main factors here are to establish a narrative and build a central hub, or digital newsroom, where stories can be found and shared.
Nothing screams warm and fuzzy like a telecom company, but Verizon has managed to flip the stereotype with its brand journalism program.
Their editorial staff—up to 75 editors, writers and videographers at last count—promote the Verizon lifestyle through stories and other customized content.
Some of their best work is profiles of musicians, filmmakers and entrepreneurs. They’re given the latest Verizon technology for a 30-day trial period. Verizon follows along and shows how they’re using the tech in innovative ways to solve everyday problems and challenges.
The brand also asks participants to share their experiences with the larger community.
Take-away: Brand journalism is about people and effects, not products. Why do people choose Verizon? It isn’t because they need a phone or cable TV; they need a better way to live their lives and do their work.
Now think about your brand. Why do people buy from you? Keep asking why until a core motive is unearthed. Once it’s found, you’ll start to see story possibilities everywhere. It’s simply a matter of pushing past immediate benefits and digging until you find the underlying ones.
HSBC’s brand journalism program focuses on important buyer personas, namely, the people responsible for expanding businesses into international markets. HSBC doesn’t shove brand messaging, instead choosing to share stories consumers enjoy and can relate to.
More interestingly is how HSBC has scaled their program. They have a U.S. edition as well as 10 regional editions that feature localized, reader-focused content.
Take-away: When you’re starting a brand journalism program, go small. Focus on a niche. Treat it like a pilot program. Once it’s up and running, scale efforts to other audiences through personalized and localized content.
Project Walk Orlando
Project Walk Orlando, a nonprofit, focuses on telling beneficiary stories. Their approach is very much the journalist’s ethic. Each story shows the full scope of what it means and looks like to learn to walk again after a spinal injury. Their uncompromising integrity to telling true stories not only encourages people with the same or similar injuries but also builds trust.
Community outreach works for brands looking for external brand journalism opportunities. For example, a software company might begin a STEM mentorship program for girls on a local or national scale. Seeing firsthand its audience’s stories will inspire written or multimedia content. But beware: people will know if you are motivated by compassion or buzz lust.
Take-away: Share clients’ stories or use your brand’s strengths for community outreach. It’s one of the best and proven ways to establish credibility. Speaking of Project Walk Orlando, Sherry Gray writes for Search Engine Journal, “The story of their clients is their story, and a solid reputation built on caring for every client has helped the organization grow exponentially over the last few years.” That statement can apply to any brand, in any industry.
National Jewish Health is a hospital known worldwide for its research on and treatment of respiratory disorders. The organization takes a two-pronged approach to brand journalism.
They seek to grow both brand awareness and knowledge about respiratory health. To make sure stories hit both marks, they use three criteria: stories must have broad appeal; they have to make a difference in people’s lives; and they need to highlight the brand’s mission.
Take-away: Think about your brand and its ties to larger social, health or other concerns. Increasing awareness about an issue is a way to build brand reputation but remember to apply the National Jewish Health’s other two criteria. For stories to be true brand journalism, they need to be reader-centric and integrated into the brand narrative and mission.
12 tips for success
Now that you have some ideas for how to build a personalized brand journalism program, let’s talk about making it sustainable and impactful. These 12 tips will help.
As stated earlier, outcomes, or goals, are critical to success. Remember the saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there?” That’s like starting a brand journalism program without defined outcomes.
Goals are where you’re heading; brand journalism is one of the roads to getting there; and metrics and measurement make sure everyone’s staying on the road and not getting lost in the woods.
2. Create a brand framework.
A framework ensures your brand stays on the path of its intended mission.
“The brand framework is the editorial policy that defines the distinctive character of the brand, as well as the boundaries within which the brand stories are created,” says Larry Light in Ad Age.
3. Apply traditional journalism techniques.
Journalists are trained professionals who hone their skills. They tell stories as truthfully and objectively as they can. They get dirty, too. They’re out in the world, talking with people and getting a sense of what matters to them. Above all, they’re advocates for the reader.
Apply some of those techniques to your program. They’ll help you tell more authentic and engaging stories. Plus, the more you know the audience and what matters to them, the better you’ll be able to guide them from interest to purchase.
When it comes to creating a brand journalism code of ethics, think in terms of casting vision, values and standards. Share them with team members and departments. Vision and values keep people accountable and focused. Standards help with identifying viable story leads.
5. Tell the good story, not the best story.
You can spend all your time looking for the best story—kind of like looking for that magical viral campaign—or you can tell the good stories that are happening right here, right now. Focus on that, and “best” will take care of itself.
6. Use trends to your advantage.
Journalists and PR pros use trends all the time. They don’t want to report on old news; they want breaking news. Approach brand journalism the same way. Look for stories that tie into current trends and fit within the brand framework, then tell them. For help with spotting trends, consider using Cision’s social listening software.
7. Learn to repurpose content.
If a story published on your site didn’t perform as well as you would have liked, don’t abandon the story completely. Repackage it for a different format, such as sponsored content. Figure out where your readers are and take the message to them.
8. Develop content with amplification and distribution in mind.
Amplification and distribution are essential to growing awareness and engagement. Use tools like Cision’s social listening software and PR platform to help unless, of course, you really, really want to do the work manually.
Stories are found through collaboration, not isolation. DevOps may have a fantastic story, but they’ll never share it if they don’t know you’re on the hunt for it. Also, stories from other departments add nuance to the larger brand story and connect with different audiences.
10. Hold regular trainings and writing workshops.
Brand journalism requires involvement from everyone, even the people who don’t consider themselves writers. The goal with organization-wide trainings is two-fold: (1) to make people more aware of potential stories, and (2) to create a culture where sharing story leads is the norm.
Workshops should be held for the people in the trenches, that is, the brand journalists, content marketers and PR pros.
11. Measure content.
Measure content against outcomes. Also focus on analytics tied to buzz and impact. Mine the numbers to find the best-performing content.
12. Analyze content.
Once you’ve determined which content is gaining mindshare with audiences and the media, study it. Figure out why it’s compelling. Break it into individual components.
Think of it like making a pie. The audience likes one pie more than another. Okay. Now analyze the pie’s ingredients, how it was baked, for how long, and who consumed it. Apply the “recipe” to future content.
Brand journalism simply is one of the best ways to invite people on a journey with your brand and its products and services. As they travel along, they receive more content that caters to their interests and needs, nudging them toward a final purchasing decision.
They may or may not be aware of what’s happening. That’s fine. All they need to know is that they’re getting really good, true stories that are relevant and relatable.
What you know—and see in the analytics—is the payoff of brand journalism. It’s delivering the results you and the C-suite have dreamed of: increased awareness and improved lead generation.