Monthly Archives: July 2012

New Ways to Build Belief

The name of the game in branding has always been about belief. A company has to get the public to believe something about a brand.

For a long time, that was done primarily through advertising, but it’s gotten pretty tough to create an ad that people actually believe anymore. (Some clear this hurdle: See Apple’s iPhone ads. Apple has people believing Siri can actually do all this crap.)

Starting around the 1950s, public relations became a path to belief. Get a third party — the press — to say good things about you, and people will believe it more than they believe ads.

But the press is sinking, and social media lets people say anything they want about a brand while Yelp offers ratings and search engines uncover everything. PR was about spin, and spin is now left naked. Everybody sees right through it.

So what’s next? The Arthur W. Page Society, a prestigious marketing group, says belief has to be built through things like authenticity, credibility, and trust. No more lies. No more spin. A successful brand has to offer something that feels real and true to the public.

One of the effective ways to do that now is to offer information that’s valuable or useful, or non-fiction storytelling that’s instructive or enriching. This is the kind of stuff that newspapers and magazines have always done — but increasingly don’t do anymore because they don’t have the staff or the pages.

If the content is really great, people won’t just believe it — they’ll pass it around on Facebook and Twitter and tell other people to believe it. And if the content makes sense for the brand, all that good feeling will get associated with the brand.

I recently ran across a nice example of this, called Threatpost. It’s a news blog about computer security and viruses. It’s funded by Kaspersky Lab, which happens to make computer security software. But Kaspersky hired two long-time tech journalists — Dennis Fisher and Paul Roberts — to run a credible journalistic site.

As far as I can tell, Kaspersky keeps its mitts off the journalists. So the site has become much read among people who are interested in security. That leads to some trust of Kaspersky. And Kaspersky gets another benefit: by writing about every security threat that rears its head, the site helps convince people they need security software. Even if all the site’s readers don’t then buy Kaspersky products, certainly some of them will.

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Infographic: Companies Hungry for Credible Content

Ran across this outstanding infographic created by Contently about the “brand publishing explosion.” It shows the hunger at companies for credible content that connects people to their brands.

David Carr on a News Business That’s Bad for Journalists

In today’s New York Times — more on the idea that the traditional media is a bad place for a good journalist to work. David Carr’s column details a newspaper industry circling the bowl.

The industry’s leaders knew more than 15 years ago that they had to do something about the digital missile heading their way. I was in some of those meetings at Gannett. But the investment and commitment was always too small and the ideas too unimaginative.

Carr’s home base, the Times, at least has a shot because it has continued to invest in the core of the business: great journalism.

Ancient Branded Journalism

Even Elvis had his predecessors. Likewise, branded journalism isn’t a completely new concept. We’re seeing a ton of emerging forms and models of branded journalism, and there are new reasons this kind of content is important and effective, but it’s all built on the shoulders of some pretty amazing predecessors.

Two of the best: the Mobil Travel Guide and the Merck Manual.

The Mobil Travel Guide was created by Mobil Oil in 1958. It’s purpose wasn’t so much to market Mobil gas in particular — it was to spur driving and, not exactly as an afterthought, gas consumption. The guides used experts to rate hotels and restaurants — giving birth to the Mobil star ratings still in place today.

The Mobil guides were so effective because consumers felt the guides could be trusted. The booklets were impartial and expert-driven. They were a form of journalism — the kind of thing Conde Nast Traveler might do about “best restaurants of California.” While there’s no telling how much Mobil gasoline the guides sold, certainly they made consumers feel good about Mobil.

(The guides were licensed to Forbes Media by ExxonMobile in 2009. So now the guides are owned by a journalism company, which gives credence to the idea that these were journalism all along. Lately, the operation has been turned into a web site called Startle, which seems like a really bad name for a site devoted to planning a trip.)

Even older than the Mobil Travel Guide is The Merck Manual, first published by the pharmaceutical giant in 1899. It is an example of business-to-business branded journalism — the manuals were at first a physicians desk reference, available only to doctors. The first edition set out to detail the effect on the human body of every substance used in medicine.

Again, The Merck Manual did not hawk Merck products. It was written by experts and reviewed by esteemed scientists and doctors. Instead of feeling like biased marketing material, it felt to physicians like a valuable, impartial resource. So doctors accepted the Merck Manual and put it on their bookshelves — a constant reminder that Merck was a trustworthy company.

Years later, Merck realized that individuals were getting their hands on Merck Manuals to keep at home as a medical reference. So Merck created a less-technical consumer version. By 2000, the 16th edition of the Merck Manual sold 2 million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

The Mobil Travel Guide and Merck Manual were so successful and enduring because of one key reason: trust. Both valued trust over salesmanship, and trust won the day.

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The New Branded Journalist: A Personal POV

It is with deep sadness that I say this: Traditional media is increasingly a bad place for a good journalist to work.

And it’s a scary place for a journalist who also happens to have a mortgage and a couple of kids in college and needs to ensure that money actually keeps coming in. Which would describe me.

But maybe there’s another way for journalists to get paid decently to do credible, fair work that contributes something to society. With that in mind, I’ve been working on establishing a new kind of “branded journalism” — putting together good journalism with corporate branding in a way that helps both thrive. without compromising either.

Journalism needs this. My story is like a lot of long-time journalists’ stories. I wrote for USA Today for 22 years and built a solid following as its tech columnist. Since I left in 2007, USA Today has gone through one round of layoffs and furloughs after another. Next stop, in 2007, was Conde Nast Portfolio – the most high-profile magazine launch in a decade. I joined as a contributing editor. In April 2009, the magazine was killed.

The economy sucked. The economics of print media sucked. Most every publication was also going through hell. So it’s not like there was anywhere to run to safety.

I’ve written a number of books, and that certainly helps. But in the book business these days, unless you score a mega-hit, an author is never going to make a living writing books through traditional channels.

As Portfolio died, I accidentally tripped into branded journalism — a concept that is still being explored and defined. I got pulled into two book projects, and both turned out to be a form of branded journalism.

One book was for IBM’s 100th anniversary.I had previously written a biography of Thomas Watson Sr., who built IBM. It made sense for IBM to ask me to work on its massive historical project, which led to a book that I co-authored. Making the World Work Better was, from the start, intended to be a serious, credible book — more “commissioned” by IBM than guided or sponsored by it.

Two other long-time journalists — Steve Hamm and Jeff O’Brien — wrote the book with me. We got paid decently, and never felt that IBM interfered with our work. And we created a book that was a serious look at where technology has been, and where it’s going. The book got some nice coverage in The New York Times and great reviews on Amazon. It was, no doubt, the most widely distributed business book of 2011 — some 600,000 copies in seven languages wound up in readers’ hands around the world.

The other book was TheTwo-Second Advantage. I co-authored it with Vivek Ranadive, CEO of TIBCO Software. We sold it to Random House, and then TIBCO subsidized my research and the back-end marketing. I couldn’t have afforded to do this book any other way. The book made The New York Times’ bestseller list.

These books led me to join VSA Partners, which had also worked with IBM on its centennial. I’m at VSA because we’re seeing demand for collaborations like the IBM book or Two-Second Advantage, and I want to help figure out this new marriage of journalism and branding.

Coming blog posts will continue to explore the emergence of branded journalism — as it happens before our eyes.

This post also appears on the VSA Partners site.

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