To build brand, companies produce slick content and their own media

March 26, 2013

The Red Bulletin is a handsome Web and print magazine that practically oozes testosterone. Recent issues have featured stories on the world’s deepest free diver, human-pyramid building in Spain and a guy who rappels into volcanoes. All of it is embellished with photography worthy of Sports Illustrated.

The printed Red Bulletin reaches 3 million readers a month, according to a spokeswoman, which almost matches Sports Illustrated’s subscriber total. Not bad for a publication that’s barely five years old.

The most interesting thing about the Red Bulletin, however, may not be what it is but who publishes it. The magazine is owned and edited by Red Bull GmbH, the Austrian-based marketer of Red Bull, the ubiquitous “energy” drink. The company started the magazine to help reinforce its self-created image as a live-at-the-edge brand for the young men who guzzle its primary product.

So is the Red Bulletin marketing or journalism? The answer: both.

Dozens of companies, including Boeing, General Electric, Pepsi, American Express and Verizon Wireless, are becoming their own publishers, creating and distributing “content” — articles, videos, photos — that would be right at home in a traditional newspaper, magazine or TV program.


’The Red Bulletin,’ April 2013, cover story on Questlove. (The Red Bulletin)

American Express, for example, publishes Open Forum, a Web magazine that offers tips and advice for small businesses (“7 Things Customers Want But Won’t Tell You,” “The Number One Way to Motivate Employees,” etc.). Verizon serves up an ever-changing menu of “lifestyle” articles about mobile communications. Qualcomm, which makes processors for smartphones and tablets, produces Qualcomm Spark, a webzine on science and technology that looks and reads like a junior version of Wired magazine.

Even a deodorant, Unilever’s Degree Men, has gotten in on the action with a site called the Adrenalist that features an endless array of videos of action sports, such as rock climbing and cliff diving. The subtle message: Dangerous sports and sweat go hand in hand.

The “brand publishing” trend doesn’t just blur the line between journalism and product promotion — it all but obliterates it. There’s no overt product plugging in most of what the companies create and aggregate. But the goal is ultimately promotional. The idea is to engage would-be customers and enhance the sponsor’s image by offering useful information.

“We don’t see our jobs as being P.R. people anymore. We see our jobs as publishers,” says Torod B. Neptune, a Verizon spokesman. “Under the old [media] model, we used to pitch [story ideas] to you at The Washington Post and hoped you’d write about us. Today, we compete against you.”

Advertisers have been offering “content” for decades, of course; John Deere created the Furrow magazine in 1895 to dispense advice and information about the latest farming techniques. (The magazine is still published.) In the early days of radio and television, detergent companies created soap operas — hence the name — to reach customers, mainly women, who were at home during the day. Newspapers and magazines have long carried advertorials, those looks-like-real-news-but-isn’t ad supplements.

Brand publishing puts a digital-age spin on all that. Thanks to social media, a brand-published story like the Red Bulletin’s profile of free diver Herbert Nitsch can go viral, drawing enormous attention to its publisher — and to the publisher’s product. It can also help a company overcome “banner blindness,” the tendency of busy Web surfers to ignore display ads, says Jay Lauf, publisher of the Atlantic magazine, which has hosted Boeing’s brand-published material on its site.

“Consumers don’t care who made [the content] as long as it’s awesome,” says Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently, a company that acts as a middleman between freelance journalists and brands. “There’s an arm’s race [by brands] to create stories that are better than their competitors and even better than general-interest publications. If you tell great stories, people will do the work for you by distributing it. There’s a social media army out there.”

Making the brand the content provider flips the inherent premise of conventional advertising, points out Chris Perry, president of digital for Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm. Rather than pushing the company’s message, as advertising does, brand publishers are pushing what readers have already shown they’re interested in, says Perry, whose company is advising about 100 clients on their publishing strategies.

At the very least, brand publishing has been a boon for journalists when employment at newspapers and magazines has been falling like the cliff divers featured on TheAdrenalist.com. The rates for brand-published freelance stories vary widely, from as little as $150 for a 500-word blog post to up to $3 per word for a magazine-quality feature article, says Snow. The latter rate is comparable to what traditional magazines pay. Most writers earn between 50 cents and $2 per word for their articles, depending on the writer’s reputation and the quality of the work, Snow says.

Verizon’s mobile lifestyle Web site is produced by 75 full-time editors, writers and videographers — roughly the same number of journalists it takes to produce a mid-size daily newspaper. The operation is housed within Verizon’s headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J.

But can “brand” journalism be trusted, considering the corporate imperative behind it? Although many articles produced on corporate-run sites are solid, it may be what brand publishers don’t tell you that could be problematic.

Would a brand publisher tell readers anything negative about its product or its industry? Will Verizon, for instance, discuss rising prices, consumer complaints about service outages or the potential health hazards of smartphones on its site?

Well, actually, no, says Verizon’s Neptune.

“We want to be as relevant and authentic in our content as we can be,” he says, “but that has to be balanced against the realities of our business interests.”

So, reader beware, says Amy Mitchell, the acting director of the nonprofit Project for Excellence in Journalism. Corporate publishers need to be transparent, she says, so that people “can figure out who is producing [the information], what their interests may or may not be [and] what funding supports it.” After they know all that, readers can “decide for themselves the value they want to place on it.”

With many companies vying to disseminate journalism, or at least their version of it, it may become harder to tell where the news stops and the promotion and salesmanship begin. The brand-published information age could be a confusing one. As Perry puts it, “Everyone is a media company now.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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