Helen Edwards: Brands, journalists and the truth about "brand journalism"

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

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.

Helen has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. She is a former PPA business columnist of the year.

Discussion

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now

Latest

John Lewis walks consumers through its history to celebrate 150 years of business
Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message
Lynx unleashes £9m 'Peace invasion' campaign
Social Brands 100 Youth: Pizza Hut most social youth brand in UK
Cheryl Cole is wild and arresting in new L'Oreal work
Morrisons told not to show alcohol ads during YouTube nursery rhymes
O2 head of brand Shadi Halliwell departs after 23 years at company in restructure
Tesco hit by further sales decline as it turns to digital Clubcard and social network
Branding guru Wally Olins dies aged 83
Duracell short film captures epic Transatlantic voyage
Ash runs Tinder experiment to show smokers are less desirable to opposite sex
British Airways teams up with Gerry Cottle Jnr for summer of rooftop film screenings
Arklu says 'girls can be superheroes too' with doll design competition
Coke enters squash market with Oasis Mighty Drops
Virgin Galactic signs up Land Rover as space flight sponsor
Motorola marketer Andrew Morley departs as Google gears up for sale to Lenovo
US Airways apologises after tweeting obscene image at a customer