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.


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


Oasis #springasmile digital campaign gets people doing good deeds
Coca-Cola: 'Don't approach bloggers with a fait accompli'
Tesco CMO Matt Atkinson: 'It is so important not to stereotype mothers'
McDonald's gives Ronald a new look ahead of global 'Fun times' social media push
In pictures: BrewDog opens first craft beer shop BottleDog for 'beer aficionados'
Facebook ad revenue leaps $1bn as it invests in targeting
Malteser or Maltesers? Mars takes Hershey trademark dispute to court
Apple Q2 profits top $10bn as iPhone sales soar
Lynx tells men not to leave love to fate
HBO captures awkwardness of watching sex scenes with parents
Primark to open first US stores with Boston chosen as flagship location
Marketing spend on the up but a reality check is needed before celebrating
Top 10 ads of the week: Jackpotjoy and BT Broadband fend off Kevin Bacon
Lidl beats Tesco to 10m Facebook fans
Center Parcs ad banned for encouraging parents to take kids out of school
Coca-Cola, Cadbury and Amazon named top brands for targeting youth market
Leaked document shows Nokia to be rebranded as Microsoft Mobile
Nike lays-off hardware staff in move that casts doubt on future of FuelBand
Greenpeace says save the bees or humans will die
What brands need to know about changes to VAT and online downloads in 2015
Jimmy Savile victims urged to claim compensation in new ad campaign
UKIP launches biggest  ad campaign and stirs up 'racist' accusations
Apple boss Tim Cook provides voiceover on ad touting firm's renewed green commitments
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
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers