The cult of brand personality: When brands meet publishing

by Mark Jones

“Think like a brand, act like a publisher.” I was in a client boardroom when this quote flashed up on the screen, and everyone smiled and nodded with approval.

It’s one of content marketing’s biggest clichés, and it’s not necessarily bad – except that no one really seems to know what it means?

I nodded furiously in the meeting because I get publishing. I’m a career journalist and editor. Publishing is my first love. Publishing is that feeling you get when your story hits the front page, or your article scores enough hits to become most popular on the site. People read my article!

Publishing is also a business idea. Publisher is a well-trodden job title for an executive who runs a magazine, newspaper or online content business. Under this person toils a small army of journalists, production and sales people.

Part figurehead, part salesperson and editorial cheerleader, the publisher holds the audience in one hand and the advertiser in the other. They’re an almost Greek god-like mythical figure who alone, in their secret ambitious moments, might think they hold the media world in their hands.

Now, park that glorious idea – what about the brand?

Brands inspire us in deep emotional ways, whether or not we want to admit it, and the most powerful brands are in fact instigators of change in our increasingly digital world.

Most of us invest far more trust, and therefore loyalty in brands than we realise. Brands are symbolic repositories for nostalgia, aspirations, hopes and dreams, success, and personal identity.

Nike tells us we can Just Do It, Coca-Cola makes want to smile, BMW makes us lean back and enjoy the comfort of driving, and Apple…. Apple is practically a religion.

So what happens when you take the quote above and blend these two worlds of brands and publishing?

Well, history’s a great teacher. Michelin’s famous Guides turned a tyre maker into an enduring publisher and lifestyle judge. John Deere’s magazine The Furrow made the rural lifestyle (and green tractors) cool. Kraft’s global content marketing efforts have given it more publishing clout and consumer insights than any competitor or consumer magazine could dream about.

Meanwhile, brands like Telstra and American Express are creating connections with business leaders by launching digital content platforms designed to share compelling, useful content with a well-defined target audience, who have their own aspirations and needs.

So that’s the brand-led world of content publishing; brands know who they want to engage with, and they’re creating excellent content to do just that – engage.

Traditional media has typically reacted to this content marketing universe with a mixture of disdain, disbelief, and dismissal.

I know, because I’ve been there myself. The highest ideals in journalism include fearless independence, the love of storytelling, and the notion that it’s an invaluable contributor to a functioning democracy. Brand considerations rarely rate a mention – or so we think.

Perhaps controversially, I think the reality is far more nuanced. We can see more elements of brand publishing inside the world of traditional journalism than we might care to believe.

After all – a masthead is essentially a brand with an audience. Everyone from the publisher down to sub-editors should uphold, protect and embody the values of a magazine or newspaper brand.

When we dig into it, brand publishing and traditional media rely on the same practices: business strategy, marketing, sales, stakeholder management, building audience channels, customer service, innovation and new product development.

So, what’s the point? In my view, the media and marketing industry’s spent too many cycles arguing about the differences between brands and publishing.

As a result we’ve overlooked the one common denominator that really makes a difference; understanding your audience. I don’t care if you’re an enterprise, government, media publisher, social channel, or independent blogger with attitude, if you’re not writing for your audience you simply won’t succeed.

Readers, viewers and listeners, judge your content based on its relevance to their lives, not by analysing your publishing model.

And how will it be relevant, what will hook me in? Personality.

Personally – I want content that’s got a distinct style, flavour, a sharp angle or an unexpected spin that makes me smile. Most people think about this as a pure story idea, but if brands are publishers, it’s something brand managers need to understand.

If I’m going to read, or listen to, or watch your content, I want your brand personality to sync with mine. If you give me something that really resonates I might even share it, not because I’m endorsing your brand, but because you’re endorsing me by giving me content that matches my own personal brand.

Great brand publishers will ultimately take the best of both worlds. They will combine the emotion, creativity and colour of great brands, with the audience insight, community engagement and intelligence of great publishers.

Inform me, entertain me, and give me the real you, because if you don’t it’s just a great idea on a slide deck.

This post was originally published on AIMIA.

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