Interview for a PhD on brand journalism

INTERVIEW ANDY BULL

1.     Independence has traditionally been essential in establishing a relationship between journalists and their readers. However, after the success of fashion magazines owned by brands such as Net-a-Porter, do you think that the authorship of the content matters to create this bond with the publics? Why?

AB: It’s naïve to think that traditional publishers are independent. The Daily Mail is a brand, as is the Times, as are all other publications I have worked for.  Each of those publishing brands has an agenda, and the journalists on a title know what that agenda is and stick to it when making their news judgements: pro-Tory, pro-China, anti-teacher, anti-immigrant, as the case may be.

What is important is that the consumers of news and information are aware of the agenda behind the brand they are consuming that news and information from. With a traditional news brand, it is often hard for the average person to know what that agenda is. With a brand that is not primarily a publisher, it is often easer for the average consumer to assess what the agenda might be.

What is essential for an effective bond between brand and public is trust and transparency. One great strength of modern social media is that anyone can share their view of a brand and its products. That collective assessment of a brand – that ‘wisdom of the crowd’ – is highly effective in exposing a brand that is not being truthful and transparent.

One general point: brand journalism doesn’t work for bad brands. And it is challenging for brands who the majority love (eg McDonalds – see chapter 1 of Brand Journalism) but which a vociferous minority hate.

2.     Do you think that the fact that brands have commercial motivations behind the message affects the trustworthiness of the source?

AB: It is likely to bring a scepticism to assessments of whether it can be trusted. What brands will tend to do is encourage users to rate products. They would like to build a weight of individual, independent rating on the products they sell. Take TripAdvisor for example. Through its affiliate HolidayLettings it sells advertising space to owners of holiday accommodation. Through TripAdvisor it encourages those who use that accommodation to rate it. Some accommodation will be rated highly, some will be panned. Accommodation owners who get bad reviews might cease to advertise, but HolidayLettings accepts that as inevitable fallout from the new media world. Many other online brands – eg Tesco – ask purchasers to rate their purchase.

3.     In your opinion, is third party endorsement what inspires trust for readers? What do you think it is the USP of the traditional media?

AB: The greatest endorsement is word of mouth. Book publishers have long known that, and the results have been seen in slow-fuse best sellers such as Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong. When brands engage on Facebook and other platforms they are seeking to mobilise word of mouth recommendations in their favour – eg Like my brand.

The USP of traditional media is independence: producing content in which any opinion, assessment or analysis is untainted by commercial interest. As I say above, I think that is illusory in many cases. Wise publishers, and wise brands, seek to produce journalism/brand journalism that is untainted by commercial interests, political affiliations and so on, or which is transparent about what those interests etc are.

4.     Do you think that brands still need the support of the traditional media?

AB: Yes. Traditional media is still very powerful. Wise brands know this. For example, Oxfam has twinned with the Guardian to produce content on causes close to the hearts of both organisations (see Brand Journalism Chapter 13). The most advanced brand journalism producers, such as Red Bull, have turned the tables in two ways. One, they sell the brand journalism they create to traditional publishers and broadcasters (see brand Journalism Chapter 7). They also create such compelling content, and sponsor such newsworthy events, that traditional media has to cover them.

5. After my content analysis on fashion brands that use brand journalism, I have identified three different approaches to brand journalism: A) Different stories, one brand (Mango)     B) Different stories, multi brand (Net-a-Porter) C) Different stories, no brand (Nowness)

o Which approach do you think it is more transparent and why?

o Which approach do you think transmits more credibility and why?

o Which approach do you think that readers will pay more attention to and why?

o What are in your opinion the motivations behind each strategy?

I’m sorry, I’d need to see your research results to answer this.

5.     The examples of brand journalism shown above use a similar look & feel than traditional fashion magazines. Do you think this fact is giving them editorial credibility?

AB:  Yes, see answer immediately above. In my view, there is more a brand can do. I think the very best brand journalism is not focused on the products or services of the brand creating it. Red Bull’s content does not mention the drink it makes, Benetton’s Colors mag is not about Benetton clothes. Rather, such brands create content that is designed to appeal to the sort of people that buy its products. This is an extension of the sort of traditional customer magazine which focused on the wider lifestyle of the customer of the brand, rather than focusing on that customer’s point of financial content with the brand. So, as a personal example, I once edited HSBC Premier magazine. Premier is an HSBC account. The magazine was about wider lifestyle, not the account.

6.     In your website, you say that brand journalism is a way of presenting information that a particular audience needs, wants, values or is entertained by. Do you think that brand journalism specially works with brand fans?

AB:  Good brand journalism should work on non-fans, those who are indifferent to a brand, even those who hate it. Some brands really seek to create and nurture brand advocates. Ford does it with new car launches (See Brand Journalism Chapter 14) and Coca Cola gave its entire Facebook presence over to a couple of fans who had built a big following on the platform. But I think the average person is suspicious of such advocates. Even if they are motivated solely by a genuine love of a product I think the average person will feel they should get a life. I may be demonstrating Anglo-Saxon scepticism here, maybe Americans will be more embracing.

7.     Does the use of luxurious brands and celebrities, within the content, transfer a referent value to the publication? Does the use of such referees cultivate the ground to establish a credible source for messages?

AB:  I don’t know, but I doubt it. Celebrity endorsement sounds very old media to me.  I believe most brands would rather have the mass endorsement of many ordinary people.

8.     Do you think that transparency and credibility go together when it comes to promoting editorial content?

AB:  Yes.

10. Lucy Yeomans, Editor in Chief of Net-a-Porter, said that they are going to start including brands that are not in their portfolio to sell, and actually H&M has added Louise Vuitton pieces into their editorial platform. Do you think that brand journalism needs to incorporate other points of view, rather than just the brand, to be more efficient? If so, what are the main risks for the brand?

AB:  The best brand journalism will be identical to really good, balanced, traditional journalism. The most confident brands are prepared to take the necessary steps to creating content which fits that outline. Some brands, such as American express, have created brand journalism platforms which aggregate content from several authoritative trad journalism sources and wich, in terms of content, have many points of view, none of them necessarily that of American Express

11. Eric Schneider, a chartered accountant who founded Totem Agency and specialised in brand journalism, said in an article about brand journalism, published in October 2012, on Center for Journalism Ethics from University of Wisconsin-Madison that “in our world, our position is transparency, it is clear to the audience that they are promoting the business so there is no presumption of editorial integrity”. Do you agree with this?

AB:  I think this comment chimes with my point above, that consumers will have a clear expectation of the vested interest in a brand journalism site. However, some brands and some brand journalists aim higher than this. This from chapter 6 of my book, on ethics, makes the point:

“Most people assume standards must be lower for brand journalism, but not everyone agrees. Shane Snow is founder of Contently, an agency that brings brands seeking professionally created content and journalists together, and where they practise both traditional journalism and what they call content marketing. He says they insist on higher ethical standards for the latter

They say in their code of ethics (10): “Content marketing should seek to adhere to stricter standards of reporting than traditional journalism, due to its different legal position and increased commercial motivations. Content marketers should take care to disclose the sponsorship and intent of their work while abiding by the following practices:

  • Adhere to journalism’s core values of honesty, integrity, accountability, and responsibility
  • Acknowledge facts that may compromise the integrity of a story or opinion
  • Minimize potential harm to sources or subjects of stories
  • Expose truth as fully as possible
  • Always credit sources of content or ideas, never plagiarizing or repurposing stories or prose, whether one’s own or another’s, whether written content, photography, or other media, whether the original source is known or not.
  • Fulfill promises made to contributors and sources in the course of reporting
  • Ensure that the reader understands the source, sponsor, and intent of the content
  • Disclose all potential conflicts of interest or appearance of conflict.”

It should be stated clearly that much of what is practised under content marketing or brand journalism cannot be said to follow the principles of balance, impartiality and transparency. The same can be said for traditional journalism.

But there are examples of companies that seek to emulate the transparency of ethical traditional journalism in their brand journalism. Caitlyn Coverly, writing at the Ryerson Review of Journalism (11), interviewed Bill Calder, who took Intel into the brand journalism business. He told her the brand did so because of the dearth of good, solid technology reporting from traditional publishers. So he launched a website called (perhaps provocatively) Free Press. Coverly reports: “Its goal according to the website’s mission statement: to cover ‘technology and innovation stories that are often overlooked or warrant more context and deeper reporting.’

She goes on: “Calder insists the Free Press be transparent. He explains that all published articles are reported and produced by identified company writers and their work can be republished, edited and re-used by anyone. To address the obvious question of corporate bias, the site’s mission statement says the writers, ‘are all Intel geeks at heart, taking an editorial approach to producing stories with journalistic style and integrity, and doing it as objectively as possible while being transparent about who [they] work for.’”

He believes he has achieved this, and gives Coverly this example: “the Free Press published an article titled, ‘Caught in the Crossfire: Intel’s Investor Relations Chief’. The article provided a behind-the-scenes look at the struggles of Kevin Sellers as he explains to Intel investors why the company’s stock price continues to spiral downward while the company is making a large profit. The following day, the article appeared in its entirety on the Silicon Valley Watcher website – an independent technology news website operated by former Financial Timeswriter Tom Foremski. That in turn led to a short blurb on National Public Radio’s website, with a link directing readers to the full article on the Watcher’s website.

“’It’s still early and we are testing various things,’ says Calder. ‘But this is an interesting example of how it could work.’”

12. As brand journalism and independent magazines co-exist in the same chaotic media world, where brands are publishing and magazines are starting to sell, do you think that readers can differentiate between them both? Do you think that benefits brands somehow?

AB: I think its a very good idea for publishers to sell the products they feature. The Vogue Stylist app is a great example of this. It surprises me that more publishers don’t do this. for example, the Sunday Times Culture section could sell everything reviewed in the magazine. With the clout of the Murdoch empire you’d imagine they could have built a retailing empire that competed on price with the likes of Amazon if they had taken this step a decade ago.

Not doing so is to fail to appreciate the value of independent editorial as a driver of purchasing decisions. While Amazon can sell you things cheaply and easily, its reader reviews are generally poor and unreliable. Bringing a good purchase facility to the place where purchasing decisions are often taken – when reading a review or other editorial content – seems an obvious move to me.
Of course it’s key that there should be no commercial influence on editorial in this.