Brand journalism put to the test: an interview with Mariagrazia Villa

Brand journalism put to the test: an interview with Mariagrazia Villa

Alberto Maestri Published on 12/8/2023

Businesses are increasingly becoming (or aspiring to become) media companies. And they’re doing this by:

  • Hiring people from the world of communication and journalism
  • Producing ever greater amounts of content that is authentic, relevant and informative (through content factories and social reporting)

In an environment defined by the content continuum, the constant production of content by anyone and everyone, how can businesses transforms themselves into media companies?

It’s a key question for the communication strategy of every business, given the resources committed and the results expected. So I wanted to  dive deeper into brand journalism with one of the most authoritative voices on the subject: Mariagrazia Villa. A cultural journalist who learnt her trade at the Barilla Group, where she edited an online brand magazine and wrote 38 books, today she lectures at the IUSVE Venice and Verona universities, as well as the University of Parma. She has also written extensively on communication, including the recent books Brand Journalist and Ethics Gym.

Happy reading! 🙂

Hello and welcome Mariagrazia. First question: what does a brand journalist do?

Hello everyone. Today, brands need to tell people why they exist (purpose), what they hope to achieve (vision), how they intend to do so (mission), what they stand for (values) and how they are different from competitors (positioning).

Brand journalists focus mainly on purpose, values and positioning, and their work consists in providing information on behalf and to the benefit of the brand, using all the means, tools and techniques of traditional journalism to talk about what’s happening around a brand. In my book, I explain how a brand journalist can talk about the brand’s world, its history and the people who are part of it, as well as the market that the company operates in. An example might be its commitment to research and development, and the values that the brand believes in, which may be an integral part of its DNA, or separate from it.

What is the difference between brand journalism and content marketing?

Brand journalism was born out of the need for companies to interact with their target audience for informative rather than marketing ends. Brand journalists have the same mindset as traditional journalists, which means that their goals are not the promotion of a product/service or commercial in nature.

What’s more, they are expected to follow the same ethical code as journalists, which means, for example, that they cannot do advertising. Content marketing, on the other hand, is a strategic marketing approach for creating and distributing high-quality, relevant and coherent content to attract and win over a clearly defined target audience with the goal of driving business.

It’s true that, in presenting a company’s products or services, content marketers should provide customers with a continuous and valuable stream of information so they are better informed and disposed towards the brand; but they don’t use the means, tools and techniques of journalism, and their goal is to drive business rather than inform. Brand journalism and content marketing do, however, overlap in one place: both aim to increase visibility, credibility and authoritativeness among customers and within the industry in order to build fruitful and lasting relationships, first, and to grow sales, second.

Is brand journalism always done in the same way? Or do styles, needs and types change based on different briefs?

Brand journalists always work in the same way: they gather, select, order, process and distribute news and information. However, style changes based on three main variables: the topic covered, the audience addressed and the channels used.

Brand journalists might tackle topics that require different approaches: talking about digital technologies isn’t the same as writing about gummy bears. Furthermore, they could be talking to experts or lay people, young people or adults, and so on. And they might use digital or analogue media:

  • The official website, if it is customer facing, and not just institutional
  • The brand magazine (whether online or print)
  • The company blog and other company-controlled media output (TV, radio)
  • Social networks
  • Branded podcasts
  • Apps for mobile devices
  • White papers and e-books, if they take a journalistic approach

Writing news items for the company website, for example, is different from posting on Instagram.

Who does brand journalism well?

Internationally, there are a number of companies that stand out.

I’m thinking of Red Bull which, today, with all its brand journalism projects, is more a media company than firm energy drink maker. Then there’s the tyre multinational Michelin which, with its long-established guidedating back to 1900, can lay claim to one of the first successful attempts at brand journalism anywhere in the world. There’s also General Electric with its GE Report, which tells stories about the world of aerospace, energy and research, or Basecamp, which produces software and applications for project management and, with its podcast Rework, explores the best ways of running a business.

Many companies, including Italian ones, are turning to brand journalism and bypassing the traditional news ecosystem.Some are even doing a better job than the mainstream media by offering greater news coverage and higher quality information.

The best Italian case studies tend to be brand magazines: for example, Aboca Live Magazine from Aboca, which focuses on ideas, facts and opinions – as well as concerns – about man’s relationship with nature. There is also Changes, the digital brand magazine from the Unipol Group, which takes a closer look at the subject of change. Finally, there is Fine Dining Lovers, a publishing project from the Sanpellegrino Group that’s aimed at people who like to eat well and try new things.

Is brand journalism just for large companies? Or is there room for SMEs too?

Brand journalism is not just for large firms: SMEs can also benefit from it. A brand journalism project doesn’t require excessive commitment in terms of content or human and financial resources.

Furthermore, for a small company, brand journalism can be even more useful in strategic terms than it is for well-known brands, which are often owned by multinationals. Thanks to brand journalism, a small business can improve both brand awareness and credibility, which is a fundamental value in any sector, including B2B.

Doing brand journalism helps the company to position itself as an authoritative source of information in its space and to become a reliable point of reference for its audience, be they consumers or buyers in the business world: communicating to inform (rather than to sell), while adhering to journalistic ethics, turns the brand into a recognised and trusted expert in its field.