Brand journalists: what they do and why it matters

Brand journalists: what they do and why it matters

Alberto Maestri Published on 3/17/2023

Companies are increasingly hiring brand journalists to create content that’s primarily designed to be useful to people, rather than just sell them stuff.

In 2008, the founder of the Diesel fashion label, Renzo Rosso, gave an interview in which he said that: “brands will have to be managed increasingly like newspapers”.

And in 2013, Michael Brito – one of the world’s leading experts on content marketing and digital strategy – published Your Brand, the Next Media Company. The book – and the message neatly encapsulated in its title – signalled a paradigm shift for corporate marketing professionals: an exhortation to brands to act more like media companies and concentrate on interactions with users and customers by producing a constant stream of content.

Never has a prophecy in marketing been truer 🙂

Content creation has become a fundamental part of the marketing for every organisation, large or small.

The same also goes for firms in the business-to-business (B2B) sector: according to the latest report by the Content Marketing Institute, 83% of marketers say that content-based strategies improve brand awareness and 63% say that its helps to build customer loyalty.

Yet many companies still take a traditional approach to marketing: the content created is only aimed at sales and the product (or service) is always front and centre. They make the mistake of adopting a narcissistic brand narrative that boasts about a product’s features or advantages over the competition.

From content marketing to brand journalism

This approach just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Content should be seen as source of information for customers.

If people trust a brand as an authoritative voice that brings them value, they will be more inclined to turn to it the next time they make a purchase, overcoming the perennial barrier of distrust.

As we’ve covered content marketing for business in a previous article, today we’re going to focus on an activity that involves sharing knowledge with customers through constant communication: brand journalism. We’ll define this as follows.

Brand journalism involves a firm providing information on topics of its choosing for the target audience of its products or services.

In other words, brand journalism uses journalism techniques to talk about a brand using informative content. Legend has it that this corporate communication strategy was conceived in 2004 by Larry Light, then Chief Marketing Officer at McDonald’s.

The infographic below illustrates the main differences between content marketing and brand journalism.

Both have the strategic development of content for promoting the brand at their core, but where the former is focused on the product and on marketing performance metrics, the latter is oriented more towards good communication. The goal of brand journalism is to find stories that best express the brand’s personality.

While the boundary between the two seems clear, the line between journalism and brand journalism is blurrier: these days, there’s much talk of people going over to the “dark side” and whether they can still be called journalists.

So we decided to ask an expert: Mariagrazia Villa. A pioneer in brand journalism, she’s a journalist and lecturer at IUSVE and the University of Parma and has written extensively on the subject. Here are her thoughts:

I don’t think there’s a boundary, just a single playing field. There’s just one profession, journalism, that can be slanted to talk about things from different points of view. Just as we have science or culture journalism, we have corporate journalism, too. The only thing that changes is the information provided by the journalist, not the tools and techniques used. Over the last 50 years, the journalism profession has been steadily moving towards greater specialisation and industry-specific training: brand journalism is one of the many areas a journalist can work in today.

What content do brand journalists use?

A good brand journalist is skilled at distilling information from different sources and using it to create a portfolio of content to help tell a brand’s story. This portfolio might include:

  • Long and short form content (informative articles on specific topics)
  • Landing pages (web pages created for a marketing campaign)
  • Infographics
  • Scripts for videos
  • Advertising stories
  • Posts on social media
  • Marketing emails
  • Podcasts
  • And much more

These might cover one or more of the three main types of news, which Mariagrazia Villa defines as brand news, industry news and current news.

Content can be: brand news, aimed at increasing brand awareness by talking about the company’s products and services, people, history and activities; industry news, used to enhance a company’s reputation in the industry by highlighting its contribution and even that of other firms; or current news, designed to promote a brand as a news source on specific themes, regardless of whether they’re related to the brand’s business DNA, but which the brand is interested in (corporate social activism).”

This gives us a good idea of the many ways that we can reach customers along their journey. While there’s no magic formula that guarantees successful content, there are some rules of thumb that will make it more likely.

  • Tell a story: stories make what a brand has to say interesting. Research conducted by the American Press Institute shows that the way in which a topic is talked about is more important than the topic itself and that the best stories are the most comprehensive and have verified sources.
  • Have an opinion: if you want people to interact with your content, you have to have an opinion. Taking a position on an issue is part of your brand’s personality. And once they see your position, the reader will find their own (Geoffrey Keating, former Senior Editor at Intercom).
  • Be sincere: people will find it hard to trust a brand if it isn’t honest and transparent in its communication. An example? Publishing something with sponsored content… without making this clear up front.
  • Call the experts: when you’re tackling subjects outside your area of expertise, it’s a good idea to consult specialists who can lend weight and depth to what you’re saying.

Watch your budget.

  • If you’re on a tight budget, the best solution might be mobile brand journalism: this is involves reporting using social media (preferably those most used by your target audience) and offering live streams of events, visual content and the odd in-depth article.
  • If you have more money to spend, you might want to consider making a podcast. This medium lets you dive deeper into themes and hold the undivided attention of listeners as they immerse themselves in the story. Ideally, you want to look at a subject from an interesting angle and build an entire season around it.

The brand journalism skills your business needs

Do you need to be a journalist to tell a compelling brand story?

Although ideal, this isn’t essential. Creating a good piece of brand journalism requires taking journalism skills and techniques and applying them to content marketing. Amongst other things, this means having an outstanding awareness of the space the brand competes in, knowing your brand’s identity inside out, and being able to work with the different professionals, be they inside or outside the company, who staff the content newsroom.

As Mariagrazia Villa explains.

A corporate reporter must have hard skills in two areas: news reporting and corporate communications. Clearly, their role is that of a journalist, but they also need to be familiar with ideas such as content marketing and brand reputation management. They need to be versatile and good at problem solving. They have to rely on so-called soft skills, those skills that no school, training course or work experience can give them because they’re part of their personality. No soft skills, no party.”

Five textbook case studies in brand journalism

Let’s look closer at the approach taken by companies that have been practising brand journalism for a while. Hopefully, you’ll come away with some useful insights for your business.

  • Coca-Cola: the soft-drink giant was one of the first firms to experiment with brand journalism through Coca-Cola Journey, a more “advanced” version of its corporate website. The idea was to move away from a being simply a repository of information about the brand and its products towards a web magazine featuring stories that didn’t explicitly mention the brand, but tackled themes associated with the brand, like sustainability and inclusion.
  • Airbnb: the platform that connects hosts with travellers looking for somewhere to stay has always presented travel as a lifestyle experience, which explains the decision to start its own magazine, Airbnb Mag, on Medium in 2018. The magazine was later turned into a blog on the Airbnb website called Local Lens, in which readers can explore destinations through the eyes of the people living in them. Here, brand journalism brings travellers added value by allowing them to hear voices from local communities.
  • Gruppo Unipol: can a major European financial institution do brand journalism? With Changes, Gruppo Unipol’s corporate magazine, the answer is yes. Here you’ll find tons of useful content for understanding the present and future, written by experts and opinion leaders from Italy and around the world. The journey from risk management to wider society is much shorter than you think 😉
  • The Parmesan Cheese Consortium: Scaglie (which means “shavings” in Italian) is a brand journalism project that produces articles, videos and podcasts about Parmesan cheese and the wider world of food and farming.
  • GranitiFiandre: with Floornature, porcelain tile manufacturer GranitiFiandre wanted to establish itself as a thought leader in architecture and design. The result is a digital magazine put together by a team of journalists, storytellers and architects who look at the world we live in through the lens of design.