Brand Journalism: The New Marketing or Oxymoron?

By Jake Sorofman | February 4, 2013 | 3 Comments

Remember when journalism felt beyond reproach? Edward R. Murrow signed off with “good night and good luck,” and it was granted. Walter Cronkite said “and that’s the way it is,” and so it was.

But that was when we had three channels beamed over rabbit ears to a 400-pound console TV in the rumpus room. Times have certainly changed. Today, media is ubiquitous, a fragmented patchwork of channels that have blended to become pervasive “experiences” delivered to suit our expressed preferences, observed behaviors and explicit relationships with people, institutions and brands.

The fragmentation of media has created fierce competition for mindshare in a world where audiences have an embarrassment of choice. While room remains for the measured tones of serious journalism, more often than not, fact has been displaced by opinion and point of view has become the currency of all media. We see this in the opinion-driven format of cable news and on the social web, where, on the spectrum of fact and opinion, the pendulum has swung decidedly toward the latter. Look no further than the blogosphere and the more formal practice of digital journalism; here, it’s less about authority earned through gumshoe reporting than it’s about authority earned through compelling point of view.

As the structure and expectations of media have changed, so have the barriers to entry. There was a time when you needed to buy ink by the 50-gallon drum or own a TV station to get your opinions heard. Today, these barriers have been virtually eliminated. We all have access to the same digital publishing tools and the same social communities, which allows brands to disintermediate traditional media networks to reach audiences directly with their own opinions and points of view.

Calling this a true media democracy would fail to acknowledge the fact that media companies still command vast audience networks and publicity machines. But, media has become far more of a meritocracy, as brands are empowered to give the old-guard a run for their money.

What do you call these would-be brand reporters hanging shingles on the web? Brand journalists, brand publishers, content marketers? All are accurate descriptions of this trend, which is becoming a top area of inquiry for Gartner. I’ve collaborated with my colleague Allen Weiner (himself an ex-journalist and digital media pioneer) on a new report entitled “Are You Ready to Think Like a Publisher?” (subscription required).

It’s the first in a series of research from Gartner on the rise of brand journalism and how brands can change their thinking to capitalize on this new form of audience engagement. In many ways, the transition will be challenging for brands, which will be expected to hold fire on the hard sell, putting aside the brand agenda in favor of issues-oriented dialogues.

Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum; when space is created, it’s quickly filled in. The same thing is happening here. The structural changes in media have created space for brands to play a direct role in shaping the dialogue that used to be owned and controlled by traditional media companies.

In doing so, brands can build deeper relationships with consumers. But it will require a shift in thinking. In the same sense that our trust in Cronkite and Murrow was informed by what we instinctively read as “integrity,” brands will have to convey the same to win the hearts and minds of their audiences.

Does this mean learning to deny your brand agenda? Absolutely not. After all, its ad revenue that allows the traditional newsroom to function. It means living by principles of transparency and knowing when, and when not, to make your brand the star of the show.

And that, fellow marketer, is the way it is.

3 Comments
  1. 4 February 2013 at 8:03 pm
    Paul says:

    Well said. Trust is the key ingredient in the content marketing recipe. Brands that are able to earn the trust of their audience will shape the dialogue and ultimately be rewarded in the form of a purchase and loyalty.

    The best way to become a trusted source is to start abiding by the same principles Cronkite/Murrow abided by. Here’s a blog post with some basic guidance for budding “brand journalists”: bit.ly/WpPZvy

  2. 6 February 2013 at 10:43 pm
    Susan Breidenbach says:

    I am a professional journalist by education and background, and I am both profoundly affected and fascinated by the Internet-enabled disintermediation of publishing and its effect on the journalism profession and the content-consuming public. There are some studies that are of interest here. First, recent studies indicate that the consuming public in general seems to be willing to use brands as a valid information source. Said public doesn’t seem to hold the journalism profession in anywhere near the same kind of esteem the journalism profession has for itself. That might be because of much older studies showing that (a) the journalism majors in universities tend to come from the academic dregs of the student populations, and (b) journalists as a class are among the most opinionated and least objective of individuals. I’m not sure that the professional-journalism-equals-integrity emperor ever had much in the way of real clothes. But professional journalists were protected by the huge barriers to entry that traditional publishing and broadcasting represented. Those barriers are now gone, and content sources are competing for readers/viewers on a much more level playing field. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out, and what kinds of filters emerge to help content consumers find what they want in all the noise. One thing I as a wordcrafter am very concerned about is the copy-editing function, which is a casualty of the disintermediation of publishing. I was always so grateful that there were people willing to spend their days cleaning up after the elephants (including me)!

  3. 7 February 2013 at 3:05 pm
    Jake Sorofman says:

    Thanks for the comments, Susan. Interesting times, for sure! There’s no doubt that what we’re witnessing is a disruption, but I think, despite (or, more accurately, because of) the blurring lines that’s allowing the brand journalism trend to emerge, the writerly craft will have appreciating market value. Disruptions create opportunity for the adaptable. What does it mean for the integrity of the profession? Brand journalists are still accountable—maybe not to an ombudsman, but to their audiences who will reject content that fails to pass the authenticity test.

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