How Big Brands Move to Brand Journalism

by Dan Blacharski

Wha’tDigital marketing innovation has gone through a series of rapid changes over the past decade, as search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, digital advertising and other tactics have dramatically changed shape.

In the grocery trade in particular, marketing has gone from a focus on in-store promotions and print newspaper circulars, to digital innovations such as smart shelves, online rewards and most recently, brand journalism. Last month, grocery giant Kroger joined the brand journalism bandwagon with its new site KrogerStories.com, a tool for direct engagement and relationship building that offers “stories about Kroger’s great people, innovative projects, and the ideas that are changing the way we eat, drink, and think about food.”

You won’t learn about the latest sale on ground beef on KrogerStories, but you may learn something about sustainable produce or energy efficiency, or enjoy a human interest story about Kroger’s longest-serving associate who retired after 63 years with the company.

The stories aren’t meant to sell corn flakes. They are meant to inform, entertain and engage in much the same way that articles on any mainstream media site accomplish the same goal. Naturally, there is a brand message, but it is subtle. True to the nature and mission of brand journalism, the articles stand on their own regardless of brand affiliation, and the long-form pieces are well-written. Created by a combination of freelancers and Kroger associates, the articles adhere to journalistic standards, and the site obviously has a level of editorial oversight, copyediting and normal vetting that any mainstream journalistic media site would have.

“We believe customers, associates and other stakeholders are increasingly making decisions about where to shop, where to work, and who shares their values based on how well they understand the ways a company makes a difference for their people, communities and the planet,” said Jessica Adelman, Kroger’s group vice president of corporate affairs. “And in this equation, we believe that stories – credible, authentic, human stories – matter more than perhaps anything else.”

Marketing innovation moves beyond SEO

Easy and less informative tactics like SEO, backlink building and bulk content marketing are becoming obsolete, especially as search engines continue to become more sophisticated and can no longer be gamed. Even content marketing, only recently touted as a must-have for any marketer, has seen a dramatic about-face as the often thinly written content generated in bulk gets demoted by Google.

Content marketers often live by the “content is king” trope, but mistakenly take that to mean volume of content rather than quality – and simply generating hundreds of articles with thin content, written by non-professionals and placed on blogs nobody reads, does more harm to the brand than any value that might be derived from the resulting backlinks.

“Content marketing by itself does not represent any type of innovation, and most implementations of it are driven by obvious metrics like backlinks and domain authority, rather than the value the content delivers to actual readers,” said Jason Williams, CEO of Loan Cheetah. “Brand journalism, on the other hand, represents true innovation by blending journalistic quality with a focus on engagement and loyalty.”

Consumers respond less to ads

Consumers – especially millennials – respond less to ads, and ad blockers are slowly killing the digital ad market. Retailers have had to pivot and innovate to accommodate the shift, and the Kroger example illustrates the tip of this trend.

Traditional advertising, and even digital marketing through banner ads, is morphing – and to some degree, has run its course, with brand journalism or native advertising representing the next wave of education-based marketing. Hannah Ash, a marketing communications specialist with IT visualization provider Graphical Networks, said, “Advertisements, as we know it, are dead. Education is not only the ‘new,’ but the only way to connect with consumers in the digital world. Educate your customers, don’t sell to them.”

Matt Levin, CEO of Donut Media, which creates native content for major car brands like Nissan and Ford, commented on the pervasive nature of digital marketing and native advertising, noting, “We’ve seen a strong push over the last few years towards native advertising, as millennials continue to ignore or devalue anything that looks and smells like overt advertising. Over the coming year as more players enter the native advertising market we will see companies differentiating not just by reach, but by the quality of the work and the authenticity of their integrations.”

The gold standard of advertising has changed. Whereas in the past, a memorable television ad was the goal, and a perfect example was the Coca-Cola “Hilltop” advertisement with the song, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad, which not only sold a lot of soft drinks, it captured the zeitgeist of the period and is still remembered decades later. The gold standard of tomorrow, however, won’t involve a goal of creating an award-winning television ad, but instead, creating an ongoing and well-read media outlet. In the television series “Mad Men,” fictional creative director Don Draper famously said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Today, the goal isn’t to change the conversation, the goal is to own the conversation. That can’t be done with a television ad, and cutting-edge marketers are now realizing the power of owning the conversation with a new focus on brand journalism.

image credit: meylah.com

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Dan-Blacharsk-small-150x150Dan Blacharski is senior contributing analyst at Compass Intelligence, a market acceleration research and consulting firm; and the founder and senior PR counsel at Ugly Dog Media, a thought leadership, and public relations consultancy. Follow @Dan_Blacharski

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