Monthly Archives: August 2012

Why the Political Parties Need Branded Content, Not More Convention Schlock

The two major political conventions, like never before, are getting hammered for being irrelevant.  Some argue that the conventions have changed, becoming more scripted, more fake, and with all the surprise of the pre-flight instructions from a jetliner’s crew. (In the unlikely event of a water landing…)

But I really don’t think the conventions have changed much at all. For as long as I can remember, they’ve been scripted, fake and familiar.

It’s us who have changed. Reality shows, DVRs, Yelp, digital media and social networks have helped fuel a flight to authenticity and credibility. We unmask fake. We skip past commercials. We crave sources we can trust. We’re already seeing evidence of audiences abandoning TV coverage of conventions and looking instead at social networking sites.

CurrentTV has been scrolling Twitter feeds alongside the live video from the Republican Convention floor, and it’s a comically dissonant experience. Most of the tweets rake the convention proceedings over the coals.

The conventions play like one long infomercial. They are marketing material. True believers nod their heads while the bulk of Americans roll their eyes.

What might the parties do differently? One suggestion: produce credible, great branded content.

But this could be difficult territory, because creating great content that wins people’s trust means taking the chance of going off script — of showing the bad so that we believe the good. But the reward is that if a party produces a terrific web video or a gripping Kindle Single, the public will devour it and post it on Facebook and Tweet about it and believe it.

I’ll throw out some content ideas. (I’m sure someone who knows politics could do better…)


— How about if the Democrats fund a real West Wing — essentially a White House version of HBO’s behind-the-scenes docu-shows that have turned cameras on NFL and NHL teams? Let’s see how Obama works and how the White House functions. Let’s see him arrive at a decision, or blow up and bitch someone out. It would help me decide whether I want such a man running my country.

—  The Republicans want us to believe that cutting taxes is the key to reviving the economy. So, have the party sponsor an eminent historian to write a short e-book — untainted by Republican editing — on the history of cutting taxes around the world and its effect, drawing conclusions about what might or might not work today. Implicit in just publishing such a book is that cutting taxes has over and over proven to be the right idea — because if that’s not true, then why the heck are the Republicans espousing that doctrine?

—  It’s hard to get the nation to fix Medicare without understanding it. Either party could fund a Ted Talk-like video by someone such as Freakonomics author Steven Levitt explaining how Medicare became what it is, the role that skewed economic motivation has played in creating a monster, and what kinds of changes might alter that motivation and lessen the burden on the U.S. budget.

I’m not saying the conventions should be tossed aside. The parties just need to recognize them for what they look like to most Americans: marketing schlock. It’s time to try something else.

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How Weber Used Content to Make Us a Nation of Grillers

The latest issue of Fortune includes a story about how Weber grills are made. Further into the story is a bit of background that I hadn’t known about: Through the 1960s, backyard grilling wasn’t common, but Weber changed that.

Weber started making its distinctive grills in 1952. In the 1970s, an employee named Mike Kempster was put in charge of educating the public about grilling. He turned out to be brilliant at it. He dove into what we would now call branded content. Weber didn’t just pump out marketing schmaltz. It hired chefs to experiment with grilling techniques that could be passed on to the public. Some of the techniques and recipes took advantage of Weber’s unique characteristics, but some could be applied to grilling on anything.

“Soon there were pamphlets and cookbooks, classes, and radio shows, and Weber grew to be the largest charcoal grill brand in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa,” Fortune reports.

Backyard grill products are now a $2.2 billion annual business in the U.S.

It’s a wonderful example of useful, credible, trustworthy branded content effectively building not just a brand, but an entire market.


And Weber hasn’t stopped. It still pumps out books with titles such as Weber’s Smoke: A Guide to Smoke Cooking  for Everyone and Any Grill, and Weber’s Big Book of Grilling. It should be noted that these are not books that Weber gives away. The Big Book of Grilling costs $40.

Weber has a new target for its content: women. Men, it seems, are happy throwing burgers or steaks on a grill and flipping them with tongs. Women, not so much. The onslaught of TV cooking shows, though, has stirred more women to try more new cooking techniques. Weber put its chefs to work to design gourmet recipes for the grill, and pump out more content.

The idea is that if women become convinced they can make everything from pizza to pound cake on a grill, they’ll line up to buy Webers.

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OMG! Branded Content Lessons From Nine West!

A show called “You’ve Been Prom’d” with Kelly Cutrone is not exactly my cup of saki. (A total makeover for the MOST IMPORTANT NIGHT OF MY LIFE!? OMG! And by KELLY from THE HILLS!? OMFG!)

Anyway. That’s not the point.

The point actually is: Nine West is doing some interesting stuff in branded content here. A New York Times story today details the brand’s plans for an online video channel called, appropriately enough, Channel Nine. It will feature a handful of shows that look and feel a whole lot like the typical TV reality show. One is Cutrone’s “You’ve Been Prom’d.” Another features “Megan & Liz, twin sisters from Nashville” who “share their best shoe tips and tricks.” It will also have bloggers with names like Saucy Glossie. (Is that a Muppet?)

The full channel isn’t up yet, but from the previews, this looks like it’s going to be real content, not marketing drivel. The site itself is, to the company’s credit, barely branded by Nine West — only at the bottom does it say “Powered by Nine West.” The shows are about fashion and shoes, not about Nine West shoes — though Nine West shows up as product placement. (No doubt there will never be a shoe on Channel Nine that’s not from Nine West.)

The company is saying all the right things about branded content. To quote the Times, quoting Richard Dickson, president and chief executive of the Jones Group’s Branded Businesses:

The video channel “will be a way for us to bring original content and entertainment to viewers” and build an online community around Nine West, said Mr. Dickson, who also oversees other Jones Group brands, including Stuart Weitzman. “We want to rewrite the rules of fashion marketing so it’s not just about a shoe, it’s about a conversation.”

Generally speaking, fashion brands understand branded content as well as any industry. Though the content itself might not exactly change the world, every brand could learn from the kinds of things Nine West is trying.

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Two Rules for Branded Content, Violated By Many

If a brand is going to spend a lot of energy and money on content, it really ought to consider a couple of things:

  1. make sure the content is something the world, or some specific segment of the world, will really appreciate and think is special;
  2. create content that leverages what the brand knows or does.

This week I learned about a branded journalism site operated by chip maker Intel, called Intel Free Press. I heard that it’s a tech news site, and I got a little excited. I’ve known a lot of the Intel communications team for a very long time, and they tend to be thoughtful and insightful people geared toward the long term. A lot of tech news on the web has become quick-hit stories, how-tos, and shallow analysis. I had hopes that Intel might’ve funded something different — maybe a site of really interesting, longer-form stories exploring new ideas or issues in technology.

Instead I found a site of…more of the same. I’m not saying that Intel Free Press is bad. It’s got some good stuff. But it’s not different. It does what most other tech news sites do. And given that other tech news sites are in the tech news business and Intel is in the chip business, it’s a good bet that other tech news sites do it better than Intel.

A sure sign that Intel is not doing anything special is that I — a big consumer of tech news — just now realized Intel Free Press existed. It launched in the fall of 2010.

As for point No. 2 above, Intel makes the microprocessors that drive most of the planet’s PCs, laptops and servers. It has a huge R&D lab. Intel inherently knows a lot of inside stuff no web news editor will ever know. I wish Intel Free Press would tap into that and tell me things no one else can.


(When the site launched, the editors did an interview with blogger Tom Foremski. They told Tom: “Our goal isn’t to compete with other news sites, we aren’t going to do a deep dive into the technology or benchmarking our chips. It’s about telling stories that haven’t been told yet. For example, a story on our VP of Investor Relations.” Hm. It’s one thing to tell a story that hasn’t been told, and another tell a story that really doesn’t need to be told.)

I don’t mean to hammer on Intel Free Press — it’s just a handy example of what a lot of brands are doing in content. Many seem to want to create web sites or publications that are a lot like existing web sites or publications. And they don’t understand that what they know — what they are experts in — is valuable, especially if presented in a credible, authentic, non-salesy way.

Earlier posts cited newcomers such as Rapha and old-timers such as Merck as examples of great branded content. High-end cycling apparel company Rapha funded great storytelling about hard-core cycling. Drug company Merck funded a guide to drugs a century ago when no such credible guide existed.

In each case, the project was great because because the company found a hole in the market, and threw its expertise into the mix to help bring the public something of unique value.

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More On the Magazine Tailspin

David Carr, in today’s New York Times, uses Tina Brown’s seemingly impossible task of reviving Newsweek to tell the continuing story of the mess magazines find themselves in.

It’s interesting that the truly precipitous decline in magazines is happening now. The first wave of the Internet had more of an impact on newspapers. Web sites and computer screens in the 2000s were relatively low-fi, and that was competition for newspapers, which offer news in a relatively low-fi way (grainy photos, mostly text).

High-gloss and well-designed magazines had an edge over the web of that era: They could present beautiful images in ways the web on computer screens couldn’t, and they could present longer-form stories (think The New Yorker) that proved clunky and unreadable on a computer screen.

But now the web on an iPad or even on a modern laptop screen is a beautiful thing. It looks every bit as good — maybe even better — than a magazine page. Long-form stories can be packaged and presented in elegant ways on screen, while Kindles have gotten us used to reading text as long as War and Peace on screen.

Print magazines not long ago could hold onto an edge over the web in the total experience they could present — but that edge is gone for most publications. The web now delivers as good an experience in a more convenient package. So the web wins. (I wrote about how that experience-vs.-convenience dynamic works across all kinds of industries in my book Trade-Off.)


What does this mean for brands thinking of doing content? For one, it should make them think twice about delivering content primarily as a print magazine. Sure, there certainly are a lot of people who like a print magazine, and it might make sense to give them one. But the logic of what’s happening the market says that print should follow digital — not the other way around anymore. In other words, design a beautiful digital version first, and then turn it into print.

Here’s another take-away from the decline of pint magazines: The transition to digital is going to continue to be painful for magazine publishers. They’re going to cut pages, cut staff, probably even shut down magazines. That will send yet more journalists and designers into the marketplace — a talent bonanza for brands. And if publications disappear, that could open opportunities for credible, journalistic branded content to take its place.

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Top 25 Magazines: 21 Down; Only 4 Up

The ABC numbers for newsstand sales of the top 25 consumer magazines paints a depressing picture of health for the industry. Digital versions are not enough to really help the publications. Yet more reminders of the opportunities for brands to step into the gap with credible, journalistic content.

Investing In Community Through Journalism

For each kind of company or organization, there’s a matching kind of journalism that, if it thrives, helps the company prosper. Hollywood is helped enormously by movie reviews and celebrity tabloid crap (which, oh my God, I hesitate to call “journalism,” but whatEVer). Technology companies need tech journalists to air new ideas and share advances.

Journalism has a lot of social functions that we don’t readily recognize. It’s an important way a community — geographic or based on interest — talks to each other and builds bonds. It’s part of a community’s glue, along with things like live gatherings and, these days, social media.

So if you’re guiding a company or brand, and you look up and realize that the journalism your community needs is non-existent, or not as good as it could be, or crumbling, what might you do?

Most brands, of course, do nothing. Smart brands, though, would understand the gap and realize the benefit of helping to close it.

Bike apparel company Rapha recognized that good journalism about hard-core biking would create more interest in the sport, which would in turn create more potential customers for Rapha — and, somewhere downstream, more sales of Rapha products. So Rapha started a hard-core biking magazine, Rouleur.

Not every brand wants to actually own and operate a magazine or other form of journalism. But what about more arms-length relationships? Like maybe help back a journalistic start-up where it makes sense.

A couple of years ago, a friend and colleague in journalism, George Quarashi, saw a need in the U.S. for thoughtful, New Yorker-level journalism about soccer. He and pal Mark Kirby started Howler — a magazine, web site and app — and have slowly crawled toward a launch. They’ve had to rely on a lot of free help from journalist friends (including me) and funding through Kickstarter.

But it would be smart of Major League Soccer to back Howler. As a brand, MLS has a smallish base that it needs to grow. Its community has a fraction of the journalistic glue enjoyed by the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball. MLS knows all about the Howler venture. Investing in it would be a pretty low-risk, low-maintenance form of branded journalism. Brands should think that way. Too often, they don’t.


A lot of thoughtful, journalistic discourse is disappearing from a lot of communities that are important to brands. Anyone running a brand should consider what that loss means to its audience. Somewhere in there is an opportunity.

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Back Togather: New Take On the Old Book Tour

Just read about this New York start-up, Togather, and it’s an interesting take on the old idea of an author’s book tour. It’s sort of a mash-up between a Meetup and a Groupon. Essentially, readers and an author strike a deal that if people in a geographic area buy a certain number of the author’s e-books, the author will come and give a talk there. (Scientists have yet to discover how to have an author sign an e-book.)


This could be a tool in a branded-content strategy involving a book. As the previous two posts pointed out, a lot is evolving about how a CEO or company can use good, credible books to build a brand. The old “book tour” or book reading has become an economically unviable mess. Through something like Togather, combined with the interests of branded content, this could see a revival.

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Growing a Book, Part 2: A Personal POV

TIBCO CEO Vivek Ranadive is getting all sorts of huzzahs from the media these days — some for his company’s performance, and some for his personal elan, like in this Esquire profile.

Part of Vivek’s brand is the book he and I co-authored, The Two-Second Advantage. It’s worth looking at how that book worked as branded journalism — and how it could’ve worked better.

This all started because — as described in the previous post — the CEO wanted to write a book. Vivek wants to be seen as a Big Thinker in technology, and it’s been a good strategy for him, getting him on TV and written about in major publications. That’s helped TIBCO get noticed even though it’s relatively small compared to competitors such as IBM and Oracle.

A good path to Big Thinkdom is a book. Of course, the book has to actually be good, or it can backfire. It doesn’t have to sell that well — society concludes that just publishing a good book makes you smart — but obviously a popular book is better than an obscure one.

Anyway, Vivek and I met in a TIBCO conference room. He had some ideas about how computer systems were going to become instantly predictive, allowing companies to anticipate what’s just about to happen.

I’d been harboring ideas about writing a book on how human talent is based on our brains being instantly predictive. When I described the idea to people, I used a term slightly borrowed from Wayne Gretzky, calling it “the two-second advantage.”

Vivek loved the phrase. Our ideas mapped to each other. And a deal to write The Two-Second Advantage was born.

With the aid of my agent, Sandy Dijkstra, we sold the idea to Crown Business (a Random House division). Vivek and I split the advance and royalties. That wouldn’t have been enough for me to live on and work full-time on the book, so Vivek essentially sponsored me with some additional support. The book took about 14 months to research, write and edit.


Importantly, the book is not about TIBCO or anything it sells. It’s not even about the current computer software business. It’s a ride through neuroscience and computer science and technology experiments and ideas about what can be. It’s a journalistic book. If you didn’t read Vivek’s bio on the flap, you wouldn’t know TIBCO had any connection to it.

After the book came out, TIBCO adopted “the two-second advantage” as a marketing slogan. I thought that was smart. It tied TIBCO to the book’s ideas, rather than tying the book to TIBCO.

The book came out in September 2011. In its first week, it edged onto The New York Times bestseller list. Then promptly dropped off.

TIBCO created a web site for the book once the book was out, but it remained static. It did a little advertising for the book, and we all (Vivek, the publisher and I) did publicity. In the end, the book certainly boosted Vivek’s brand, which is what it was supposed to do for him. (Hopefully it also informed and entertained a lot of readers and gave something useful to the world.)

On the other hand, we should’ve done more to grow the book and build an audience while we did the research. The web site shouldn’t have been static at the book’s launch, but alive during the book’s creation, and afterward. We could’ve built more lectures and events around the ideas.

We wound up with a bestselling book, which is great — and more than most people ever expect. But in this age, a brand can get a lot more out of doing a book than just a book.

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