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Brands, journalists, truth

Why marketers should be wary of the current trend towards ‘brand journalism’
Commentators from Media Week to Forbes have vied in their frothiness to decree this the buzz-term of the year
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

It was the answer that Jeremy Paxman is purported to have given when asked what runs through his mind during his Newsnight interviews: “Why is this bastard lying to me?”

Lately, Paxman has taken care to attribute the phrase to its originator, Louis Heren, a former Times deputy editor, who coined it three decades back for the memoirs of his 50-year career.

That temporal distance serves to underscore the hankering for truth that lies deep in the journalistic soul. Journalists may come in many stripes, but scepticism is never far from the surface.

It’s something to be borne in mind by any marketer seduced by the fashionable notion of ‘brand journalism’. Commentators from Media Week to Forbes have vied in their frothiness to decree this the buzz-term of the year, “the nexus of chatter about advertising, PR and digital media.”

The idea is simple enough: that marketers use the techniques of journalism to create brand-related content, making it credible and interesting, so that people will want to consume and share it. After all, so the reasoning goes, all brands can become media-owners now.

Marketers, beware. What gives this concept its catchiness is that it is an oxymoron. ‘Brand’ implies a duty to present a commercial offer in the best possible light. ‘Journalism’, conversely, embraces the duty to shed light in murky corners.

Proponents of brand journalism seek to defuse this tension by pointing out that both disciplines involve storytelling – which is about as shallow as analysis gets.

Brand stories are fact-fiction hybrids that elide awkward sub-plots to give shape, momentum and drama to the corporate line. The journalistic lust is for the story behind the story, that ungainly amalgam of accident, avarice, hubris and intrigue, also known as ‘the truth’.

If we are to take brand journalism seriously, perhaps Paxman is the journalistic model to keep in mind: informed, insightful, mischievous, never dull, but merciless on obfuscation, evasion and cant.

Marketers who fancy themselves as brand journalists would thus have a tough trick to pull off: that of asking “Why is this bastard lying to me?” while eyeballing themselves in the mirror.

It would be like the Robert De Niro “You talking to me?” scene in Taxi Driver: “Still using sweatshops?” “Why aren’t your raw ingredients fairly traded?” “When will your pricing be transparent?” “How much corporate tax did you pay last year?” “Your founder: Nazi sympathiser, right?”

Brand journalism is either a great idea or a silly conceit, depending on our preparedness to embrace what really lies behind those two simple words.

The presence of the true journalistic spirit beneath the corporate carapace would be a force for good. Supply chains would become cleaner, labelling clearer, pricing fairer and ingredients better – because the certainty of exposure from within would force brand owners to clean up their act.

In this age of corporate scandal, mis-selling and low consumer trust, that is something all marketers could do with. What we can well do without is a fanciful term for ‘PR’. That would be just another way of lying to ourselves.