By Matt Pigott - September 29th, 2015

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HSBC, AT&T, Red Bull, and Cisco make the case for putting quality content first.

In an online environment where advertising is being attacked by more sophisticated ad-blocking capabilities, marketers are going to have to think more carefully about effective ways of reaching their target audiences. Could the current less-than-friendly advertising climate lead to an upswing in brand journalism and a return to the more precise editorial values of a recent printing past?

Quality before quantity

Few would dispute the fact that the Internet, with its gratuitous glut of information, has been one of the main drivers behind a nosedive in editorial quality control. And that is a problem for the marketing industry. Sloppy, poorly-researched content and intrusive ads are detrimental in three ways: they bore the reader, aggravate them and, worst of all, erode their trust. If somebody tells you a painfully boring story while trying to sell you a product you most don’t need… Well, that’s not a great way to do business.

Ad blocking - a growing trend

A GlobalWebIndex report shows that around 30 percent of iPhone users are already blocking ads, and that’s before Apple (through iOS 9.0) gave developers the ability to code new ad-blocking capabilities into their apps. It’s a growing tech trend, one that a recent Adobe and Pagefair report suggests will cost publishers a whopping $21 billion in lost revenue. If consumer behavior is sending one message to advertisers, it’s this: ‘go away’. So unless you’re a sucker for punishment, or a hard-nosed sales rep circa 1980 who still believes it’s all “just a numbers game”, your methods have to change.

The trouble with most current advertising is that the younger, tech savvy generations believe that, far from providing the relevant information they want, ads do their level best to exclude it. Millennials in particular are more likely to trust blogs and the opinions of friends, and peers on forums, than they are adverts.

So what about brand journalism?

Against this backdrop, brand journalism is catching on. But what exactly is it? Dispensing of abstruse online definitions, it’s where brands publish content without shouting about who’s putting that content out (i.e. themselves). Instead of saying: “look at us, aren’t we great?” they’re saying “look at this content, isn’t it great?” The unstated part is: “So doesn’t that make us great by giving it to you?”

It’s clever, sleight-of-hand stuff that works effectively in a world where consumers give more credence to quality content than pictures with snappy slogans. 

Bullish Approach

Red Bull’s Red Bulletin Magazine is a great example of successful brand journalism, where the company delivers stories—including news and editorial fused with entertainment—in a non-advertorial way. While some would argue that it’s still advertising because Red Bull’s logo is emblazoned on the cover, it’s more accurate to call it advertising twice-removed—the smarter, friendlier, more interesting cousin, if you will—because the focus is primarily on newsworthy content.

HSBC Global Connections

HSBC achieves engagement in a different way by positioning itself as a financial news aggregate, a go-to point containing unbiased global business news, but with HSBC’s branding at the top of the page. This is smart, because a news portal with only HSBC stories would be repetitive and dull, and nobody would trust it as a reliable news source. But by offering a branded news portal, and presenting itself as a curator of quality content, delivering valuable stories from the financial world, readers who enjoy the stories are more likely to develop trust in the brand by association.

From CMO to Editor - and back again

For many marketers, the rise of brand publicity has meant that, even if they’ve kept their job titles, they’ve had to switch roles, effectively becoming magazine editors (not individuals or departments with the purpose of synchronizing product and brand placements for maximum visibility) overnight. Skillsets have had to either be revised or undergo a complete transformation, moving away from straight marketing to journalistic persuasion that reaches further than plain advertorial.

AT&T – The Invisible Brand

AT&T understands the importance of dampening down the big sales pitch. With their @SummerBreak campaign, they inspired original, relevant, peer-to-peer content whilst they, as a company, disappeared backstage. AT&T empathized with the demographic they were reaching out to: young people who didn’t want to hear brand baloney, but instead wanted to hear each other. It’s true peer-to-peer communication with no corporate presence or interference. And so AT&T faded into the background and allowed the actors and participants from the public to effectively promote its mobile services and products, with any subsequent rise in company sales little-more than a byproduct of what was a groundbreakingly understated campaign.

Cisco de-centered

Cisco took a slightly different tack and created an online newsroom, with articles relevant to the tech space published daily. As with HSBC, the stories aren’t company-centric, appealing instead to a wider audience. High levels of content serve to boost SEO and also confirm Cisco as a leading authority in the tech space. As well as features on connectivity, cloud-based technology and mobility, the online newsroom also features human stories behind the technology, such as My Networked Life.

Today, brands, big and small, are faced with the new prospect of moving away from product categorization towards needs-based segmentation. The brand story needs to be told through a media conversation, shaped journalistically, that subsumes radio, television, newspapers and magazines (both online and offline), training programs, exhibitions and events, along with social media and its diverse and complex ecosystem of platforms.

In 2004, Larry Light, the man who arguably invented brand journalism while he was the chief marketing officer for McDonald’s, sums it up succinctly:

“We need to reinvent the concept of brand positioning by instituting the new concept of brand journalism. Megabrands are multidimensional, multi-segmented, and multifaceted. No one communication can tell the whole, multifaceted megabrand story.” 

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