Brand journalism is a tactic used by companies and organizations to target and provide useful information to customers while promoting a company, product, or service. The term brand journalism is linked to a number of similar terms, including custom publishing, native advertising, corporate journalism, and branded or sponsored content. Marketers are increasingly relying on these techniques as they seek to build brands and brand values. As of 2013, marketers were investing a third of their budgets on average into direct-to-consumer content. Brand journalists are employed by news organizations, public relations (PR) and marketing firms, and large companies in in-house corporate newsrooms. Brand journalists use the techniques of journalism as part of an overall strategic communications plan to strengthen relationships and build trust with consumers. Consumer trust is a key component in perceptions of an organization’s reputation. This entry examines the evolution of brand journalism, the criticisms expressed against brand journalism, and the steps that can be taken to alleviate those concerns.
In traditional public relations, a practitioner provides information to a journalist with the hope that it will be used in a story and then read by customers. Brand journalists bypass reporters and produce journalistic content directly for the consumer. For example, Lowe’s allows customers to sign up for its free, quarterly print magazine, Creative Ideas for Home and Garden, as well as numerous e-newsletters on specialty home improvement topics. Content is promoted through numerous social media platforms, including boards on Pinterest, a Twitter feed, an Instagram profile, a Facebook page, and a YouTube channel. The content highlights Lowe’s products and services and aligns with its current corporate strategy. When appropriate, those in the Lowe’s newsroom insert the brand into trends and breaking news stories.
The Evolution of Brand Journalism
The roots of brand journalism lie in early advertorials and infomercials. Famed advertising executive David Ogilvy argued in the 1960s that if companies made ads look like editorial pages, they could boost their exposure by 50%. In advertorials, a company pays a newspaper or magazine to produce a positive story visually indistinguishable (other than a small disclaimer) from the independent content produced by the regular reporters. In broadcast form, short segments are inserted into talk shows or other programming promoting a product or service, similar to short embedded infomercials with hosts and interviewees. The goal is to blend the information seamlessly into the content surrounding it and to capitalize on the credibility of the media organizations printing or broadcasting the sponsored information.
In the digital and social media age, the ways marketers reach consumers directly have grown exponentially, with more platforms, interactivity, and user-generated content. As a result, many larger companies have started their own newsrooms staffed by former journalists as well as PR practitioners. Public relations, advertising, and marketing agencies now include brand journalism in options for clients. Traditional news organizations, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes, also offer brand journalism services to companies through special departments separate from their newsrooms. Brand journalists are in demand as the number of traditional journalism jobs shrink. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, estimates that in 1980 the ratio of PR practitioners to journalists was 1 to 1. By 2011, the ratio was more than 3 to 1.
In any setting, brand journalists use the tools of traditional journalism. This includes looking for trends, timely stories, and compelling narratives. Brand journalists seek out useful information, verify facts, and interview experts and average people. They must understand news values, what matters to audiences, and how to tell a good story. Rather than working from a neutral point of view, however, brand journalists align with PR and marketing specialists in that their underlying goal is to advance the communication strategy of the company or client.
Criticisms and Solutions
Critics contend that no matter what tools are used, brand journalists are not practicing journalism. Many critics bristle at the term journalism being used in a clearly promotional context because journalism is a term linked with the concepts of objectivity and independence. Equating custom content and public relations activities with traditional journalism could be detrimental to both entities, they argue. Traditional independent news organizations could see their credibility diminished, while consumers may resent being “tricked” by companies.
One issue critics cite is that customers often cannot distinguish native advertising, advertorials, or other sponsored content from traditional journalism. Studies have shown that most readers do not attune to the disclaimers identifying sponsored content, even with overt and numerous cues present. The result, even if this is not intended, is a perceived lack of transparency, which could harm the sponsoring company as much as it could harm the traditional journalistic outlet featuring the content.
Ogilvy contended that consumers do not seem to mind the use of advertorial content, and some recent studies have supported his claim. Readers in one study, for example, rated overtly commercial content as less credible than neutral content, regardless of the commerciality of the publication. In other words, a balanced article in a publication from Lowe’s, for example, would be accepted as credible. Another study found that although readers rated an overtly commercial magazine as less credible than an independent one, that credibility rating had no bearing on how they perceived an article inside the publication or, ultimately, on the brand producing the publication. Even when commerciality was noted, it did not influence consumers’ perception of the brand.
Former journalists working in corporate communications and marketing experts agree that the solution to these concerns is for brand journalists to be transparent and use as much balance as possible while still aligning with the communication strategy. For example, the brand journalist might give one negative statement countered with several positive ones, instead of using only positive statements. Companies that make their sponsorship of the content clear can increase credibility and not harm the trustworthiness of the content.
Brand journalism has been around in many forms for decades, but recent growth in publishing platforms, in digital and social media in particular, has cemented its place in the corporate marketing tool kit. It is likely poised to grow in importance, as companies are seeing returns on their brand journalism investment. They report communities forming around their corporate media sites, citing stronger relationships and increased trust among their customers. Furthermore, brand journalists have allowed them to reach new customers. Studies have shown, for example, that prominent placement of a product in nonadvertising content can increase memory of a brand. Despite some criticism, especially from journalists, traditional news outlets are embracing the trend as well. Some news executives have touted brand journalism units as a new revenue stream that will allow them to continue to invest in independent journalism in an era of shrinking ad revenues.
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