Earlier this week George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis Police Department. By now, you’ve seen the video. You’ve probably also seen the aftermath–here in Minneapolis and in spots across the country.
Enough is enough. We need real change. Now.
My family lives 16 blocks from where Floyd was murdered. We visit a restaurant just a few blocks from there often. We bike by there often. This is our city. And, it’s burning this week. I am keenly aware of the larger issue here, but today I’d like to talk about brands’ response to this issue because there’s a lot to talk about there, too.
For the last couple years, we’ve all heard about the trend that brands need to start taking stands on social issues like this. We’ve seen Patagonia take on the President of the United States around the environment and public lands. We’ve seen Ben & Jerry’s champion the Black Lives Matter movement (again this week, in fact).
And, we’ve seen numerous reports from vendors and agencies like Edelman telling us 1 in every 2 customers is a “belief-driven buyer.” And, of those buyers, 65% will not buy from a brand because they stayed silent on an issue it had an obligation to address.
Those are some powerful stats, and we’ve all kinda had this nagging thought in the back of our heads: Is that really true? Will people completely ditch brands who don’t stand up for big issues like racism and systemic killing of black men by police forces?
I guess we’re about to find out.
So far, I haven’t seen a lot of brands taking a big stand on this issue.
Locally here in Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota issued a statement saying it will be scaling back its use of the Minneapolis PD for events and functions. That’s a big step. However, curiously, the U of M didn’t share this statement on any of their primary social channels.
Best Buy wrote this blog post about the events. It’s not exactly taking a big stand, but they do address the issue.
The Twin Cities YMCA (disclosure: I am a member), shared this tweet on Thursday. Definitely taking a stance, and definitely sharing ways to move the ball forward. Well done, YMCA.
— YMCA Twin Cities (@YMCATwinCities) May 28, 2020
The Minnesota Vikings released this statement on Wed., and while it takes a stand, it’s not a very hard one. And, as statements go, it feels pretty cold and sterile in a time that needs quite the opposite.
And, there is this official statement from Children’s Hospitals & Clinics in Minnesota along with area CEOs.
I have to say, one of the best stands I’ve seen taken by a brand is the one taken by a local restaurant, Guavas Cuban Cafe. The cafe will no longer serve the Minneapolis Police Department. Ladies and gentlemen, THAT is a stand. And, I applaud Gauvas for it.
But, many of the biggest and most visible brands have been eerily silent.
In fact, many of the biggest brands seem to be posting in a “business as usual” cadence this week, which seems very odd considering what’s going on in here in Minneapolis (and, in other spots across the country).
I’m not saying all Fortune 500 brands need to weigh in. But, given the research we’ve all been bombarded with the last couple years about “belief-driven buyers”, and the fact that this a pretty big cultural event and tragedy, it feels very weird, and bordering on tone-deaf for these companies not to address the elephant in the room.
Curious: What do YOU think? Especially for those of you who live in Minnesota. Should brands be taking a stand on this very tough, very complex issue? Why have so many stayed silent during this terrible time? I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.
In case you missed it, John Krasinksi’s popular “Some Good News” was sold to VIACOM-CBS last week.
It’s not all that surprising. According to an AdAge article, SGN generated 55.3M views on Facebook alone since its inception–outranking Stephen Colbert and Seth Myers of late-night fame. It only trailed Noah, Fallon and Corden, but Krasinksi had only produced 15 videos on Facebook vs. Noah’s 297!
And, that’s just one platform! His YouTube numbers were similarly impressive. His first episode had 17M views while most hovered around 12M. Also, some context: Trevor Noah’s Daily Show currently has 7.45M subscribers–with a full team of talent and production behind him. Krasinksi’s show already has 2.58M with zero support, and only eight episodes in.
Point being: SGN has been a WILDLY popular show to say the least. And, that got me wondering: Why couldn’t brands replicate the success of Krasinksi’s show? After all, he’s an amateur when it comes to content marketing (and hosting talk shows) and he produced a show for eight weeks that was bought by one of the biggest media companies in the world!
But, before you go writing that “4 tips brands can learn from Some Good News” post, Krasinski had some huge advantages over brands. Advantages he exploited to the fullest:
1: The celebrity super network
Krasinski called in some favors. And, then he called in a few more. All through his celeb network. I mean, The Office reunion show alone is proof! He had Brad Pitt as a weatherman. He had Billie Eilish sing at prom (my favorite ep–see below). This was part of the intrigue of the show–which celeb was going to show up this week! I’m not sure brands have this kind of pull. Sure, they could leverage some of the celebrities and influencers they partner with, but that would cost them dearly. In this case, I’m guessing Krasinksi merely made a few phone calls and paid zero dollars for these appearances. BIG difference. Advantage Krasinksi.
2: Krasinksi is a pretty likeable guy
And his Hollywood star seems to be rising (his Jack Ryan seems to be a hit; only a matter of time until he’s “leading man” criteria). He’s also one of the stars of one of the biggest cult sitcoms of all-time (The Office reunion show was pretty solid–see below). That counts for a lot. And, doesn’t he just have that “I’d love to hang out with that guy”-kinda vibe? I think that’s a big part of what made the show successful–he appeals to a LOT of people. Now, brands could HIRE a guy like Krasinksi to host their branded shows. But, that would come at a big cost. Again, advantage Krasinksi.
3: Authenticity (and the boot-strapped nature of the program) rang true
I mean, he had a hand-drawn sign as his backdrop! He had a hand-drawn “I Love Dad” card in the background. He said the following in ep 1, which remains my favorite: “If it’s not clear already, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing!”. The authenticity factor was off the charts. Now, a big part of that is he’s stuck at home producing this show on a shoestring. But, the other part of it was charming. And, almost comically under-produced. Brands, historically, do not like to go this route. Even now, during a pandemic! They want produced. They want buttoned up. They want polished. Under-produced and boot-strapped is not something brands do. At all, really. Adavantage: Krasinski.
4: The power of curation
One thing brands seem to really struggle with when it comes to brand journalism or content marketing is curation. They just don’t want to do it for whatever reason. They seem to think it holds no value, when quite the opposite is true. Curation holds tremendous power–especially in this current era of information overload. Krasinski is not really producing much new content on his show. Oh sure, he produced the Hamilton sing-along. And, the Billie Eilish prom song, I guess. But, for the most part, he’s curating “some good news.” (like he does in this episode below, curating recent COVID news from around the US). Plain and simple. Will brands do this now that Krasinski has shown them the error of their ways? My prediction: Doubtful. Advantage: Krasinksi.
As you can see, Krasinski had a lot of advantages over brands when it comes to producing content marketing–and he leveraged those to the hilt. Now, could brands pull this same kind of thing off? Sure. But, will they? That’s a completely different question. And, I think based on the basic analysis above, the answer is probably “no.”
Last Saturday, there was a wonderful article in the Variety section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune about groups of kids who had started neighborhood newspapers during the pandemic. I can’t tell you how much I loved that article–for a couple reasons.
First, we need more local journalism–whether it’s professional or not. People want to learn more about their communities! And second, school newspapers are in my blood. I led an underground high school “newspaper” (which my now brother-in-law started–imagine that!) when I was 17. I then worked at my college newspaper as both a reporter, covering the women’s basketball team, and as an ad rep.
I believe both of those experiences shaped me and led me to starting this blog.
And there’s a lot I learned from running that underground newspaper that I put into practice now, even to this today, on this blog.
First, let’s talk about this underground student newspaper, because it’s an interesting story. Like I said, my brother-in-law started it his senior year at Woodbury High School (if memory serves) and handed it over to my friend and me. It was called–wait for it–The Weekly Geekly.
The way we ran the Geekly, it was much more NY Post than NY Times, but we had a lot of fun with it. The Geekly was full of student profiles, gossip columns and “hardcore” news.
But mostly, it was a blast to produce.
My friend and I ran it out of his basement. Creating it on a word processor and literally copying and pasting articles into the layout. We took submissions. We wrote articles ourselves (sometimes under anonymous bylines–hey, I didn’t say it was the most ethical publication!). But mostly, we had a ton of fun putting it together.
Fast forward to today and my brother-in-law works in media at Hubbard Broadcasting. My friend leads one of the most successful shows in the country as a producer at NPR in Chicago. And, I fell into a career of writing, social media and blogging.
I’d say the Weekly Geekly made an impression on us all!
And, I took a lot of learnings from that year-plus working on the Geekly.
The power of personal profiles
If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I love the personal profiles. Early on, I labeled these my “Rock Star” series. And, after 10 years, I’ve now profiled over 90 different PR, marketing and social media professionals across the U.S. (but, largely, here in Minneapolis). But really, this all started when I was 17 with the Weekly Geekly and our “Geek of the Week” profile!
Desire/ability to do it all
When my friend and I ran the Weekly Geekly, we did it all. We wrote many of the stories. We did the editing of submitted stories. We did the layout. The printing. The distributing. ALL OF IT. There was no admin. No intern. There was just us. So, we did it. This blog is very similar. Over the last 10+ years, I’ve written north of 1,300 blog posts. 98% of those were written entirely by me. No research assistant. No intern. No admin. All me. Again, that ability, and want, to do it all started back with the Geekly.
Desire/ability to dream up new editorial ideas
I don’t remember having “editorial meetings” with the Geekly, but I’m sure my friend and I went through the process (even if that meant kicking around ideas at the lunch table at school). Whatever you call it, we definitely brainstormed and dreamt up new ideas for columns and stories each month. That was the best part! And, in starting and running this blog, it’s been much the same experience. Dreaming up new topics, new content series, new kinds of posts–that’s been the most fun! Have they all worked out? Hell no! I once started a series that showcased different PR folks’ office environments. Yeah, that went nowhere. I also started a MN Blog Awards series years ago that went strong for a few years, then kinda peetered out. Some ideas flourish. Many fail. But the fun is in the ideation. That also started with the Weekly Geekly.
The power of the network
The Weekly Geekly was only as good as the submissions we got. Since we didn’t have a team of reporters, we relied on the student body, and our friends, for submissions. And that network delivered. But, part of that was because my friend and I had a fairly wide group of friends. Neither of us were the kind of guys who had a small, focused group of friends. Instead, we knew a lot of people–but none of them all that well. In my adult life, I’ve had a similar experience. I have maybe 2-3 guys I would consider really good friends. And, then I know a lot of other people–but only at a pretty basic level. This wide, shallow friend group has its pros and cons. But, when it comes to blogging, it’s a big pro. It gives me the ability to reach out to any number of people for: interviews, input on posts, opinions, feedback. With the Geekly, it helped build our newspaper. For my blog, it’s helped build richer, more meaningful, community-focused content.
The term “brand journalism” is a bit of a lightning rod term in the social media marketing business.
For some, it conjures up imagery of “advertorials” and “sponsored content.”
And, over the years, there have certainly been a fair share of corporate failures when it comes to brand journalism. Many starts and stops. There have been some wins–I wrote about the University of St. Thomas’ efforts around the annual Tommie/Johnnie game a couple years ago.
But, for the most part, brand journalism wins have been tough to come by.
During the pandemic, however, two new companies have emerged as powerful players in the brand journalism category. And, the names of these two companies might surprise you:
Salesforce and Johnson & Johnson.
Let’s start with Salesforce. Sure, they’re a relatively trendy company based in San Francisco. And sure, their DreamForce conference is one of the more talked-about events each year. But, they haven’t exactly been well-known for groundbreaking social media marketing or content marketing in the past.
During the pandemic, Salesforce started a new brand journalism initiative called “Leading Through Change.” According to Salesforce, this is a “series for senior executives, small business leaders, and those in between.” In the series they hope to “share content that’s universally helpful regardless of your role in the organization, as well as guidance specific to CEOs, CMOs, CIOs, CROs, VPs of Commerce, service leaders, and for vertical industries.”
The series started on March 16, just as states started shutting things down. Since then, SF has produced more than 100 episodes of the series. Some are straight blog posts from SF leaders. Others are interviews with titans of industry and business leaders like Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, who was interviewed by SF CEO, Marc Benioff, just last week.
SF is producing these episodes regularly, too. Like DAILY. Sometimes twice a day. And, they’re getting smarter about how they share and merchandise them. The most recent video interview with Johnson was shared via Twitter in a “live show” format (surprisingly, SF didn’t share the video on LinkedIn though).
And, they’re getting guests. In addition to the recent Johnson interview, they’ve talked to Arianna Huffington, Lars Ulrich and Surgeon General, Jerome Adams.
What I like about this brand journalism effort is that it delivers on its goals–and its goals make sense.
According to SF, the series aims “to provide thought leadership, tips, and resources from Salesforce and our community of Trailblazers to help business leaders manage through crisis; and to provide a forum for community and conversation with peers.”
They’re merely leveraging the broad SF network to pull in interesting and thoughtful people who have valuable advice to share during a very unusual time in our economic history. And, they seem to be doing a decent job of creating that forum for conversation, too.
I’d keep your eyes on this effort in the months ahead–I’m sure Kevin Johnson will not be the last high-profile executive they talk to.
Johnson & Johnson isn’t the kind of company you think of when you talk about innovative brand journalism efforts.
But, their new “Road to the Vaccine” content series is pure brilliance.
Hosted by long-time broadcast journalist, Lisa Ling, the video series focuses on the myriad of issues surrounding, you guessed it, the road to developing a vaccine for COVID-19.
Now, the video episodes are a little long. Most run around 50 minutes. But, in each episode are thoughtful, in-depth interviews with J&J employees, health care professionals and external thought leaders, scientists and academics.
The brilliance of J&J’s brand journalism efforts here isn’t the fact that they hired a trained and well-known journalist to host the show (good idea). It’s not the fact that the show tackles a topic on EVERYONE’S mind right now (also smart). It’s about how J&J is promoting and merchandising the show.
For example, for each feature-length, 50-minute show, J&J typically will “chop up” that show into smaller, more consumable “sound bites” they can also promote on each social network. On Facebook J&J created five different “mini-shows” out of the full-length feature show on May 12. Here’s the first one featuring Nicole Lincoln, RN:
The next featured Dr. Macaya Douoguih, Clinical Development and Medical Affairs, Vaccines, The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, in a minute-plus video.
Then, they shared a short clip of the interview with Thrive Globa’s Arianna Huffington:
And finally, they shared this short interview with Rebecca Love, President, SONSIEL:
That’s four short clips plus the long, feature-length show. And again, they’re doing this on other platforms, too.
What about the way J&J promotes each show? They almost do this like a major network would! For each episode they produce they promote it no less than three times. For this most recent episode that went live yesterday (Tues., May 19), they first promoted it the week before with this post where Ling teases the show with a 20-second video.
Then, they promote it again a couple days later with a simple text post.
Then, they promote it again the day-of an hour before the show.
Finally, they promote it one last time with a real-time countdown to the show on Tues.
That’s some serious promotion. And, it seems smart. Not sure if it’s working, but the full shows are getting some good views on LinkedIn. The last show on May 12 had almost 60,000 views and 3,000+ likes and 2,000+ comments. And, that’s just one channel! They’re doing the same thing over on Facebook and Twitter.
Overall, it’s nothing all that groundbreaking, but it’s executed VERY well. And, there’s a lot to be said for rock-solid execution in today’s content marketing environment.
So, there you have it, two great brand journalism case studies during the COVID age. I’ve got my eyes peeled for others as this outbreak evolves this summer.
This quote from Michael Jordan in the popular “Last Dance” documentary says it all about MJ’s attitude during his championship runs in the 90s:
“My mentality was to go out and win at any cost. If you don’t want to live that regimen or mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside of me, ’cause I’m gonna ridicule you until you get on the same level as me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s gonna be hell for you.”
Episodes 7 and 8 from this past weekend were especially great because they really got at the heart of who Michael Jordan was: a winner. But, also: An asshole.
That’s not me saying that. That’s his TEAMMATES saying that.
“Let’s not get it wrong, he was an a**hole, he was a jerk, he crossed the line numerous times,” says Will Perdue, Jordan’s teammate during the late 90s runs.
And, there were many other teammates who said the same thing.
So, that got me thinking about leadership in the PR and comms industries. There’s long been a belief–if you want to get to the top of the mountain in our industry, you have to be a bit of a jerk.
I’ve seen it multiple times in my career stops. CMOs. Owners. Senior vice presidents. There are definitely some really difficult people in our industry.
But, they were also pretty successful people. They had high-ranking and paying jobs. They had been in the field for years. They managed budgets in the tens of millions of dollars.
Sounds pretty similar to Mr. Jordan, doesn’t it?
But, here’s the question for 2020: Does that rule still hold true today?
I’m not so sure.
Like I said, earlier in my career, I saw my fair share of people in leadership exhibiting Jordan-esque behavior. But, in the last 10 years as a solo, more often than not, I’ve seen a bit more of the opposite.
Leaders with high emotional IQs.
Leaders displaying empathy for team members.
And, leaders leading with ethics and values vs. an iron fist.
As usual, it’s a gray area. We see both, right? But, I feel like things have changed since the late 1990s. It’s a different climate now. Just think about Jordan himself and the current NBA climate.
Would his leadership style have even survived today? Players like Jordan simply don’t exist in the modern NBA. Think about someone like Jimmy Butler–who’s the closest comparison I can think of. He’s had a difficult time finding a landing spot. And he doesn’t have the best reputation as a teammate. Oh, and he hasn’t won an NBA title (not even close, in fact).
On the flip side, LeBron James has emerged as the new brand of NBA champion. One that’s friends with his foes. One that’s loved by many. One that leads a different way.
Or, what about Steph Curry? Another softer personality. Another player who leads by example. Another leadership style much different than Jordan’s of the 90s.
A new kind of leader has emerged in professional basketball since Jordan’s time. And, I think a new kind of leader has emerged in PR/comms, too.
One that’s more empathetic–but strong.
One that’s more based in values–not intimidation.
And one that’s more relationship-driven–not win-at-all-costs-driven.
Jordan has a quote in episode 7 that I thought was interesting: “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price.” His inference: Winning and leading have major drawbacks. Maybe Jordan thought he couldn’t be friends with his teammates. Maybe he felt isolated as the team leader. Maybe he felt like he had to play a certain role.
But, that mentality has changed the last 20+ years in the NBA. Leadership has evolved. Leadership styles have changed.
Let’s hope they continue to change and evolve in the PR/comms world, too.