The other day I happened to call up a friend who had moved out of town recently. Having worked as a journalist for some time, he decided to try his hand at marketing. Given that such transitions are unlikely, our conversation soon shifted to how well the move was working for him. He explained that things were going quite good and then made a sweeping statement, “For all intents and purposes, there’s not much difference left between journalists and marketers.” After spending eight years swearing by my editorial integrity, his views sounded offending. After all, if marketing was the ‘state’ then editorial had always been the ‘church’. After expressing utter disregard for his naiveness through an uncomfortably long pause, I decided to hang up. This friend on the other side got a drift of my sentiment and ended our little phone call by asking me to visit mrporter.com and comparing its content with that of GQ – a well known monthly men’s publication about fashion, style and culture.
Although I didn’t take him seriously, I kept thinking about what he said. Finally I relented and typed in www.mrporter.com into my web browser. For the uninitiated, MR PORTER is an online retailer of leading designer men’s clothing and sells everything ranging from Alexander McQueen pocket squares to Saint Laurent tuxedos. I was immediately greeted by what the folks at this niche retailer call MR PORTER’s weekly journal – a matrix grid of stories on style, grooming, and tutorials – placed on a neatly designed minimalistic website. The UI (user interface) of the portal was interesting enough for me to navigate through a few stories. Here I came across content that I’d always wanted to read about. The website guided me on how to sport the quintessential blue blazer for a variety of occasions through an immaculately crafted video. I even got to figure out how my misjudgment with measurements always left something imperfect in my suits no matter how much I shelled out for them. I then opened gq.com in another window and attempted to read the same content. Since this was a five decade old publication, my expectations were high. After a tormenting navigational session of around 45 minutes, the website threw up an article on ‘How to get the perfect suit’ which told me a lot about how the likes of Daniel Craig suit up but nothing much on what I could do to ensure that I got my money’s worth.
And now it made complete sense. A purely commercial entity, with the sole intent of selling me its products, had managed to create better value through content than what I had come to expect from a pure play unbiased publication. This fascinated me and then a strange thing happened. I could see journalistic principles being applied to a variety of industries to create branded content. Content that enriches; content that educates; and content that goes viral. In fact, apparel major United Colors of Benetton has been using a combination of editors, journalists, designers and photographers to create COLORS – a quarterly magazine published in six editions addressing contemporary issues through a single theme and international perspective. While the unstated goal of this magazine is to get more people to buy UCB products (its readership profile is crafted based on the buyer persona of existing and prospective UCB customers), it has come to command a great following through an uncompromising focus on stories that impact the world. People who buy UCB apparels know that the magazine is associated with the brand. But they don’t care.
In another instance, IBM recently collaborated with Ogilvy & Mather to create a short video with the objective of showcasing the impact that IBM research was having on computing to the general public. The result was the world’s smallest stop-motion film verified by Guinness World Records. Titled “A boy and his atom”, this 1 minute 34 second clip shows a boy made from atoms (literally) playing with his atom. The movie was created by arranging thousands of atoms under a scanning tunneling microscope and magnifying them a 100 million times to tell the story. This branded piece of content went viral and already has 3.6 million YouTube hits.
The fact is that marketers are now embracing a new form of advertising by getting people with journalism backgrounds on board. These journalists turned marketers bring to the table an authority and infectious narrative which makes branded content genuine, useful and engaging. And brands that still doubt the efficacy of this new age marketing are unknowingly dabbling with danger. After all, the purest form of branded content is journalism itself. Think about it, an editor at The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t be all psyched about closely investigating the business practices of Rupert Murdoch.