The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan announced in February that it had partnered with Nissan to replace its government fleet with electric cars. At the press conference in the tiny nation were stringers and photographers from the world’s big news organisations – AFP, Reuters and Financial Times. And right beside them were journalists from Nissan’s own newsroom.
Just one day later, in the same time frame as the news wires, Nissan’s newsy package on the partnership was on its website, complete with video.
The Japan-based car manufacturer is just one of many large brands embracing a paradigm of marketing that is focused increasingly on delivering entertaining, engaging content, rather than trying to sell a product or service directly. As traditional media and ad revenue models erode, the lines between public relations and journalism are blurring. Content marketing, native advertising and brand journalism are closely related outgrowths of this shift.
Some commentators have hailed this shift as journalism’s saviour, while for others it is further evidence of compromising the Fourth Estate, which should be objective and disinterested.
Nissan is not the only brand trying out this approach. Coca-Cola in 2012 revamped and repositioned its corporate website. Named Coca-Cola Journey, the website reads more like a magazine, with 50% non-branded content and features on sports, business and food.
Former corporate vice president of Nissan’s global marketing communications, Simon Sproule, says the Japan-based company decided about three years ago “to make the investment into its own media centre, in order to create its own content”.
The company’s approach was fuelled partly by a frustration with Japan’s lack of representation in the world media, Sproule says. “The level of interest in Japan has declined. This is natural with China becoming increasingly interesting and economies like Vietnam starting to emerge. But, we said, we have a lot of cool stories coming out of Japan, let’s tell them.”
Nissan built a studio and hired experienced journalists from organisations such as the BBC, Reuters and Bloomberg. It aims to produce content that educates and informs the general public about the brand, primarily through video, but the newsroom also makes news segments and raw footage freely available to media organisations. It produces a fresh story almost every day, says Sproule, and has more stories than it can tell.
Launching Journey, Coke announced that “the press release was dead”. So what kind of content works in brand journalism?
The content has to first and foremost fit the company’s strategy, according to Helène Lindsay, marketing director at New Media Publishing. “There’s a sway towards the term ‘brand journalism’ because of the integrity of the craft [of journalism]. It’s not the same as getting copywriters and shoving out content in the hope that your corporate site gets some hits. It’s about the principle: there’s a craft, there’s a skill, there’s an absolute DNA sense of how to link the brand story to the content you produce,” she says.
This kind of content should have a consistent voice, adds Lindsay. “It’s an extension of the trust factor. The reason we read a magazine – be it Huisgenoot or Vanity Fair – is because it is consistently talking a language we love. We know when we pick up [these magazines] they will be talking that language. It’s like a relationship with your best friend. Sporadic bits of content might be interesting, but they are not a relationship with your best friend.”
Brand communicators should start thinking more like journalists, says marketing consultant Samantha Wright. “If you’re a fitness supplement brand, for example, content about new eating trends or exciting new exercising ideas that have made their way to YouTube become pieces you can comment on and share with your audience.
“It becomes less about the brand and more about whether you’re supplying your audience with information that will be useful to them in their day-to-day lives. We need to ask ourselves the same questions journalists in a newsroom would ask themselves. Is it of value to the consumer? Is it newsworthy? Does it create debate?”
Brands now position themselves as thought leaders. “In time, people begin to trust those thoughts and ideas. When they next need a [business], they’ll be more inclined to use one that seems to be active in the industry,” says Wright.
Lindsay and Wright agree that, locally, brand journalism has yet to take off. South African brands that are doing it well are those with global proprietors. Wright cites Dove’s ‘real beauty’ campaign as a particularly fine example.
But it’s not just the big brands that stand to gain from this sort of marketing, Wright adds.
“A small business with a blog already has a space to create engaging content. No one really cares that John in accounting is getting hitched, but your potential consumer may be interested in knowing that a new standard in your industry is being introduced by SABS and how that standard affects the consumer. You know your industry and the idea behind brand journalism is to report on it. Let other people know more about what is going on.
“Brand journalism works for small-to-medium enterprises because they no longer have to tell people what they do and that they know how to do it – now they can show them,” she says.
For some, however, brand journalism is tainted by corporate interest. One blogger asks, “Are you likely to see a clothing brand that uses sweatshop labour running a story on the conditions in its factories?”
Sproule responds. “I have been in many discussions with journalists on this issue. The short answer is that we are not forcing anyone to watch our content. We will live or die on the quality of what we produce, the investment we make, just like any news organisation. Conventional journalism has nothing to fear from this.” Nissan’s journalists have few restrictions and the company is not shy to tell difficult stories, he adds.
“Sometimes we have to report on tough stuff, like if we had a bad quarter.” And Nissan ran objective coverage of a territorial dispute between China and Japan last year, he adds. “It’s about trust and transparency. We are not faking it: we are very clear that this is for Nissan.”
Wright agrees. “I prefer getting my action sports news off Red Bull’s website. For starters, it is updated more regularly and it is far more in depth than coverage on, say, Sports24, because it focuses only on action sport as opposed to the other ‘usual’ sports as well. The content is still credible (if not more so) and brands like Red Bull have begun hiring journalists and photographers to run these portals… Many a time traditional media is pushing advertisers in content without being completely honest about it.”
The challenge for brands is ultimately, with all this investment in good content, will consumers engage? One study of the Coke Journey site found that engagement was “negligible”. Distribution remains a challenge for Nissan, says Sproule. “One of our frustrations is to get it visible to more people, through YouTube, through our website. But we think consumers like it, the insight into the business they didn’t have before.”
This story was first published in the July 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Red Bull
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to email@example.com.