What is “brand journalism” and why does it matter?

Posted & filed under Advertising, Branding, Life, Social Media.

When I first heard the term “brand journalism,” I wasn’t buying it. I spent 20 years as a newspaper journalist, and I admit I still suffer from hopeless idealism about that field’s higher purpose.

Brand journalism is a form of marketing, after all. A company publishes “journalistic” content intended to draw people to its brand.

I’m still not fond of the term, but having come to better understand what it’s about, I think it offers intriguing marketing possibilities.

But it needs to be understood properly and executed with skill. Marketing author and speaker David Meerman Scott defines it this way: “Brand journalism is not a product pitch. [Rather] it … positions your organization as one worthy of doing business with.”

This is a key point, often misunderstood. I think it’s a hard thing for businesspeople to grasp: “You mean I’m going to spend time and money putting something up on the Web, and it’s not even going to mention or be about my product?”

The answer is: “Correct! It’s not going to be about your product. It’s going to be about your brand.”

This is a far subtler thing. But it’s a powerful thing.

Your brand is more than just your products. It is who you are, what you stand for, what you believe in, how you’re different. A brand works on an emotional level. It’s what makes customers (and employees, for that matter) loyal. It’s why they tell others about you. It’s why they “like” you on Facebook.

So what does brand journalism look like? Well, it’s a fairly new term, but it’s an old idea.

In 1901, for instance, a guy named Gustav Stickley started publishing a magazine, which may have seemed odd because he owned a furniture company. (Maybe you know the name “Stickley” – the company still exists and it’s had resurgence in recent years.)

The CraftsmanThis magazine, called The Craftsman, wasn’t about furniture, not exactly. It was about a way of living, a philosophy of life. There were articles about homes and furnishings and craft, but also essays about the virtue of planting trees or the evils of industrialization. You could also find a profile of naturalist John Muir. There were even poems and sheet music.

For all I know, the magazine was profitable on its own, but its larger purpose was to advance the values and ideals Stickley believed in and that he wanted his company to embody.

I think you could call this magazine brand journalism. But today, we typically use the Web to do the publishing, instead of a magazine, and we encourage social media to spread the word.

Portland-based apparel company Nau does this on its “Thought Kitchen” blog. The hip razor company Harry’s does it with an online magazine called “Five O’Clock,” which features profiles of exceedingly hip people, people who are often, strange as it may seem, bearded.

Like these efforts and like Stickley’s magazine, brand journalism can only succeed if the content is authentic, sincere, useful and interesting. Of course, that’s not easy. Ask any newspaper editor.

If you can pull it off, though, you help your customers – and potential customers – understand who you are and what you care about. You help them understand that you are a brand they want to know and do business with.

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