Business, and marketing in particular, seems to fall for new buzzwords periodically. "Brand journalism" seems to be the hot new one, and a story in PR Newser a few days ago asks if brand journalism is the new PR.
The story quotes a strategist at a major PR agency who says the best way to promote your brand is to create content, and he sees the Public Relations business moving in that direction. He is right, to a degree, but the article makes a complex issue a bit too simplistic, thus offering advice that may be off-base for many marketers.
The article cites as examples the Open Forum project by American Express and HSBC's Business without Borders program. Both are good examples of creating media to promote brands without a direct hard sell. Instead, both provide relevant and useful information to target audiences via original content. Both also have huge budgets to help direct people to the branbded content.
But wait... isn't this what smart marketers have been doing for years? Many companies have created their own branded content such as specialized magazines and catalogues that are far more than listings of products and services. What about give-away publications that give home decorating advice, or lawn care and garening tips, or fashion and accessorizing ideas? Thirty years ago, I remember developing a lawn care series for Ciba Geigy's Spectracide bug and weed sprays. We were creating branded content in a journalistic manner, rather than hitting consumers over the head with hard-sell "buy this" messages.
Good PR people knew, long ago, that a branded newsletter had to offer lots more than sales pitches if you expected people to pick it up and actually read it. It had to be like real journalism, with the sell message pretty much implied subtly. But if the branded content has real usable information, the subtle sales pitch will have even greater impact because it's coming from a source that has credibility.
The weakness I see in this approach, though, is that this technique is harder to pull off for small or unknown brands. Thanks to the internet, branded content can be created and posted at relatively little cost -- unlike printing a magazine or creating an infomercial. But the challenge remains -- you've got to get people to click on your site. SEO, PR and social media can help build an audience, but none of those tools come cheap. Unlike the phrase from the film Field of Dreams that says "Build it and they'll come," just putting something out there doesn't mean people will see it. Building an audience is something that takes effort. And as more content is available, your branded content has lots to compete against for the same eyeballs.
So yes, branded content is a good tool, albeit, hardly a new one. Solid PR and publicity will be needed, more than ever, to support the effort and help it succeed.
photo: David Henderson