How to stop content marketing killing your brand

Companies invest a lot of time and money in the look, feel and values of their brands. Fast-growing editorial content must reflect these values or risk doing untold damage to corporate reputations

All the world’s best-known brands have invested millions of dollars in associating themselves with a set of values, a viewpoint and a vision. Such values are now features of our everyday lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Just as I know where I am with my grandmother, I think I know where I am with Nike, with Red Bull, with McDonald’s, even with Goldman Sachs.

We see these values and visions in display and television advertising, in the companies’ speeches, on their delivery vans, in their office lobbies. They are an integral part of marketing – created and propagated to motivate internal and external audiences to engage positively with the company and grow its business.

This is no small achievement. And a crucial part of the effort is consistency of message: the logos, colour schemes, the feel of the advertising and website design, the mission statements and, of course, the pious declarations of – God preserve us – what’s in a particular company’s “DNA”.

A new danger to the brand

Can the same be said of consistency in content marketing? This is still a new discipline to most and the volume of branded content is multiplying fast. Companies can now reach their audiences directly and regularly online, using their own platforms. But the content they create must go beyond traditional advertising, product material and brochures, or their audiences will not read, like and share.

In effect, companies are making digital publications that are updated frequently with fresh articles, photography, infographics, video, podcasts and so on. But is enough time being devoted to ensure consistency between brand values and new editorial-led content? If not, surely the whole purpose is being jeopardised.

Take Pepsi’s ill-conceived foray into social issues with Kendall Jenner or Wendy’s recent big meme trouble. Your approach must cover social media too, as Vogue found after linking a notorious murder to a fashion revival trend. What can we learn from these mistakes?

Making editorially-savvy content means first, of course, using top-notch journalists (and designers and videographers) to tell engaging stories, but it also means stepping back and thinking before you act: is this material going to align with our top-level marketing proposition and company values? How do I ensure those values are represented in the process where editors commission writers and broadcasters?

Five minutes of commissioning attention

At FirstWord, we’ve been working with some of our clients to ensure that the content operation is not betraying the display advertising, the product brochures and the look and feel of the website.

The first step is to work out what stories (not just words, but videos, pictures, graphics and audio) you are going to produce. If your company is about excitement, about innovation, about new frontiers of technology, then look for stories that portray that, or champion the work of others in those areas, linking back to what you think about them, or similar work of your own. Take five minutes to think about the feeling and mood you are trying to create with a piece of content as much as the details of the subject matter.

Saft is a French battery maker with little business writing about African wildlife conservation, you might think. But if the piece is about radio collars, powered by Saft products, that are protecting elephants from poachers, then game on.

Intesa Sanpaolo is Italy’s largest retail bank and a few years ago would not have been the first voice you would seek for a podcast on environmental best practice. But it has a burgeoning reputation for interest in the “circular economy” and a keen nose for promoting the funding of environmental schemes. The podcast fits the bank’s values perfectly.

There’s no need to drive yourself crazy: just five minutes of well-directed attention up front – What angle are we taking? What headline links back to our values? What is our viewpoint? – means that your editors will commission writers correctly and edit the stories with your values in mind.

It’s not about making sure your advertising slogans and mission statements appear in all your editorially-led content. It’s about the treatment, and understanding that your values are springboards for story ideas, a lens through which you can write the headline and rest of the story.

One easy rule to follow: you must not leave the reader unable to answer the question “Why is that story on this company’s website?” If expertise and pioneering innovation are your calling cards, then make sure you get a feel for that pioneering spirit into the headline and first three paragraphs. You’ll find that automatically ties your content back to mission statements and advertising slogans, but – from an editorial perspective – without turning off the reader.

How news brands do it

One mistake to be avoided at all costs is to tie brand to a story in such an overt way that the quality of the storytelling suffers. If the output is covered in mission statements and brand logos, trademark signs, press-release puffery and eccentric brand-mandated capitalisations (ProUnblock-U-BEND™), the content will not be engaging. That is, after all, why journalists rather than Mad Men are being hired to produce this stuff in the first place.

To see how storytelling can be aligned with brand values, consider how news brands do it.

If you have a favourite newspaper or magazine, what is it that brings you back time and again? Hopefully the writing and imagery are sparkling and you are drawn to the subjects that the publication tends to cover. Possibly you trust your favourite reporters and columnists too.

There will be something else, though: you may not easily be able to spell it out, but you probably like the publication’s identity. The best news brands have a set way of presenting their material that chimes indelibly with their character.

Think of all those unbylined articles in The Economist, seamlessly melding into a coherent style of narrative, analysis and world view. You wouldn’t expect coverage of the latest tearful departure from Love Island here, unless it is part of a cultural analysis of the UK in the 21st century.

The Daily Mail’s website is another place with a very strong identity – not necessarily to everyone’s liking, but unmistakeable and with tens of millions of happy readers. Analysis of Japanese pensions wouldn’t please too many of those readers, unless it’s part of a report on how Brits are all going to run out of money in their old age.

It’s not just story selection. Editors choose and produce the material that first fits with what the audience wants but brings something else on top: a feeling that the article, or columnist, belongs in that publication. A Radio 1 DJ would sound out of place on Radio 2, even playing the same songs and saying the same things. ITN’s News at Ten often has opinionated introductions to its stories that would never sound normal on the BBC in the rival 10pm bulletin.

Consistency in story selection, style of presentation, choice of words and so on all help to promote reader loyalty and an indefinable sense of belonging. It’s also hard work and builds slowly over time, with people new at those publications learning from experienced hands about what stories the readers want, what angle is most important for that readership, how stories are then edited and how they should look on the printed or web page, or how they fit into a TV or radio bulletin.

In the end, a publication’s identity shines through clearly without the need to scream “Buy me”. And that is the look and feel that company content programmes should be trying to cultivate as they reach out to their audiences daily.

A task for marketers and editors together

This, therefore, is a multidisciplinary task for marketers and editors to work on together.

There should be discussion beforehand between marketing teams and editorial experts to make sure that brand values are reflected in the families of stories that are chosen and the areas that companies should explore in their content programmes.

Proper commissioning of content creators follows – making clear to them how each story ties back to the company’s priorities and messaging. Once a story, infographic or video comes in, it will need careful editing to reflect all the agreed guidelines. It will ensure that readers are not left scratching their heads and asking why a piece about the reptilian brain is on a shipping company’s otherwise interesting website.

Then on top of all that comes the look and feel. A style guide to content production need not be long, but if you are producing articles and videos that are editorially-led then consistency in language, headlines and feel is as important as colour schemes and the size of your logo.

But remember: a great story is still a great story

Goldman Sachs has recently been interviewing an NBA superstar about teamwork and tech investing. Pirelli here is writing about space exploration and the mass influx of corporate capital to make a new era of space travel possible.

The first, of course, mentions investing and the second is about pioneering endeavour and innovation, which are definitely part of Pirelli’s brand image. But they’re a couple of steps removed from Wall Street or driving fast cars.

Provided the piece is not going to get you into deep controversy, there’s no need to kill yourself on the justification: if you really like it, then the chances are your readers will too. Sometimes, a great story is just that. So if opportunity strikes, go for it.