Brand journalism, as a concept, hasn’t exactly had a great run.
Casper’s vaunted “Van Winkles” brand journalism effort lasted just more than a year.
Verizon shuttered its foray into brand journalism (Sugarstring) after JUST ONE MONTH!
There’s a long line brand journalism fails.
But, on that rare occasion, brand journalism can flourish.
Coca-Cola has been running its Coke Journeys site for quite a while now. GE has managed GE Reports as long as I can remember. Red Bull has been a pioneer in brand journalism since the beginning. But, those are companies with pretty damn deep pockets. What about midsized companies? Heck, what about other large companies that don’t happen to be in the Fortune 100?
My prediction: REI is about to show us all how it’s done.
Earlier in October, REI unveiled its new brand journalism effort: Uncommon Path.
This is a quarterly, hard copy publication for its members, employees and prospective customers.
And, it’s a beauty.
I picked one up at my local REI recently–it cost me $4.95 (Dear REI: Why aren’t these free for members?).
That said, I’m sure Uncommon Path isn’t coming cheap. Looking at the masthead, I counted 40+ people involved in the production of this publication. Wow.
But, it is a work of art. Of course, that’s just a piece of the puzzle here. The bigger strategy behind this makes a lot of sense. You only have to read the initial letter from the editors to see what I’m talking about:
“Uncommon Path chronicles the experiences, events and ideas that shape the relationship between people and life outside. We’ll explore issues that face our environment and the challenge of our generation: climate change. Our stories aren’t limited to trails and peaks. They take us to parks and urban places closer to home. And yes, we dig into the best gear to help you get out there–wherever there is for you. No matter where you come from, what you look like, or what you knew before, everyone’s welcome outside. This is your invitation to take the path less traveled.”
What do you see in that short message that’s on point with REI’s overall strategy?
1 – Connection point to #OptOutside.
It’s right there at the start. This whole publication will cement that stance that REI has taken through it’s Black Friday to get people to “opt outside” and explore the great outdoors. And good timing with Black Friday right around the corner.
2 – Aligning its political stance.
More pointedly, taking on climate change. This is on point with trends that say more people want companies (and their leaders) to take the lead on political issues. It’s on trend with surveys that say people buy from companies who live by a mission and attempt to make a difference. No bigger difference to make right now than to help stop climate change!
3 – Attracting a more diverse customer base.
Look at that last sentence–“No matter where you come from, what you look like, or what you knew before, everyone is welcome outside.” That’s essentially a political statement! But, it’s also confirming a larger strategy by REI: to “play to their power base” of what I can only assume are very left-leaning customers and grow a more diverse customer base within that. So smart.
What do I see in this first issue that impresses me so much? That makes me believe this will survive and be a key cog in REI’s marketing efforts for years to come? Three big things stand out upon initial review:
1 – It’s legitimately interesting!
The world’s first back-packing drag queen? That’s interesting! And, it was hardly the only piece in the magazine that intrigued me. It was full of journalistic-quality stories that I would find in my Minneapolis Star Tribune.
2 – World-class original photography
And I’m hardly exaggerating. They even have a section devoted to it!
This stands out so much because what do many other brands use when it comes to photography needs on their web site or in online content? You guessed it–stock photography. Going all in on world-class, original photography is a big move. But, it gets your attention. And it pulls you in.
3 – Subtle, but effective, product placements
With an Instagram-like style, the first issue included a number of mild editorial stories like this one below. This specific story, about the gear you’ll need start climbing, features a number of products you can, of course, buy in REI stores. The features don’t beat you over the head with the products–they do tell a story. But, in the end, they are, essentially, advertisements. Subtle advertisements. But, advertisements, nonetheless.
Earlier this month, the Arthur Page Society unveiled some new research around the changing nature of the CCO position. Essentially, the takeaway was that the CCO role is expanding to include a variety of different disciplines it wasn’t managing just a few years ago.
One of those areas is “CommTech.”
And, so far, CCOs could use a bit more help in this area.
John Iwata, Page Leadership Chair says: “CCOs are furthest ahead with culture and brand and need growth ahead for commtech and use of digital and data.” According to the Page article, Commtech is the greatest source of today’s CCOs angst, meaning “this is going to require investment in knowledge, skills, tools and talent to really build out a new kind of operations for the CCO,” Iwata says.
I’m not surprised.
The big challenge here is that CCOs often play at the 10,000-foot level–and they should. They’re dealing with planning and budgeting. Issues management. Managing expectations with senior execs. That sort of thing.
Deciding on which tech tools to use as a team isn’t typically in their wheelhouse. When you add on the dizzying array of tech tools available to today’s communicator, you start to understand why CCOs are struggling in this area (the people using these tools every day have a hard time keeping up–how’s a senior-executive supposed to do it?).
The big area of opportunity right now is optimization. Because many firms have already secured tools. They’ve signed contracts. They’re locked in. They just need to figure out how to optimize and best work with what they have.
I’ve had a front-row seat to this theater the last 10 years as the number of tools in the “commtech” space has exploded. I’ve sat in on demos. I’ve consulted clients on the best tools to purchase. And, I’ve used a fair amount of these tools in my day-to-day work, too.
So, I have some advice to CCO-types (and anyone who’s dealing with this issue) when it comes to HOW to optimize your existing technology solutions:
Audit your comm tech stack every two years
Even a simple audit that might take a team member a day is well worth the time. Need change. Organizational priorities change. Heck, even the tools themselves change! And, it’s all change that occurs at a very fast speed. So, auditing your stack every two years feels about right given the pace we’re moving at now.
Don’t be afraid to cut bait
You just moved to a new social media management tool, but it’s not giving you the features and benefits the vendor promised when you did the demo. The prudent advice would be to give it some time. Provide feedback and see if things change. But, I wouldn’t wait too long. Again, speed matters. If your tech vendors aren’t moving fast enough when you provide constructive feedback, that might be a signal to cut your losses and go back to your previous vendor.
Give your junior members a seat at the table
After all, they’re the ones using the tools day-in and day-out, right? They know the most about these tools. They’re the experts in the actual tools! So, let them be a part of the decision-making process! In fact, I would argue you should probably give them a fairly big voice in the decision-making process given they’re on the front lines with the tools every day. Side benefit of adopting this approach: by giving these junior folks a seat at the decision-making table, you’re also empowering them, which should aid with retention efforts!
Resist the urge to over-buy
Many companies have big tech stacks right now for this very reason. Their solution to every problem is purchasing technology. That’s usually a recipe for disaster. Technology can be a problem-solver, but only when you have thought through all the angles. Do you have the staff to manage the tech? How does the tech play with your existing tech? Do you really need the tech? It’s that last question I would shout the loudest in meetings. So many times, I see companies buying tech to solve a problem they can usually solve all on their own. Case in point: Influencer marketing tech. One of the biggest selling points, the vendors will tell you, of this tech is its ability to identify new and exciting influencers for your brand. But, that’s rarely true. And, the human brain is better at this task than a computer–at least right now. Yes, it might take a bit more time. But, you’ll also see better results.
In case you missed it, Panera had a kerfuffle on its hands a couple weeks ago. PR Daily recapped the crisis nicely here. TLDR: a Panera employee took to TikTok to shoot a video titled “How Panera prepares mac & cheese.” Let’s just say, it wasn’t the most flattering video for Panera. The video showed how employees make the mac & cheese (boil a packet in water, essentially) with the employee poking fun at the process.
The company promptly cut ties with the employee and came out with a statement that expanded on their food prep. According to one CNN article, a Panera spokesperson said: “Mac and cheese is made off-site with our proprietary recipe developed by our chefs and using our sourced ingredients that meet our standards for our clean menu offerings.” Of course, the spokesperson also said they cannot comment on personnel matters.
As of Nov. 14 (today), the TikTok had 1.1 million likes, 1,100+ comments, and more than 81,000 shares.
So, the discussion, as teed up by the PR Daily folks has been this: did Panera respond appropriately given the initial message was on the newest and hottest social media channel?
Some (like PR Daily) say no. They missed an opportunity to engage the TikTok user–who, may be a big consumer of Panera’s food. Instead, those people suggest Panera jump into TikTok head-first and give viewers a look behind-the-scenes, inside the test kitchen, perhaps? To show what their food prep really looks like. Or, maybe it would behoove Panera to just have more fun with a moment that generated a ton of exposure for Panera among a younger audience?
Others (raises hand!) might say they handled it appropriately. Panera had a spokesperson who talked about delivering a consistent experience. They talked about values. They delivered the message in a traditional format (statement, outreach, etc.). And, they didn’t say much about the employee because they are legally obligated not to.
This an interesting case study in crisis comms in the modern age. Really, because of the fired employee. Once that happened, Panera was kinda stuck. They can’t say much (anything) about that once it happens. Not according to law. Now, that doesn’t mean they can’t talk about other things, but it does mean, typically, most companies will kinda shut down and hope the whole thing goes away.
PR Daily talks about how Panera should have “leaned in to the TikTok format.” They go on to say “There was an opportunity to engage the wider internet, to be part of the inside joke and share a message about Panera’s values, not to mention its support for young employees.”
I don’t see how any larger company would do something like this. You just fired an employee. It’s spreading across the internet at break-neck speed. The last thing you’re going to want to do is lean into a platform you’re not even using!
When legal starts getting involved, things start getting locked down. I’m sure that happened with Panera here given they let an employee go. And, I’m sure it’s a big part of why they did what they did.
Long way of saying, I’m not sure Panera did a ton wrong here. What do you think?
Last week, I came upon this post on PR Daily detailing research that laid out employees top 10 career regrets. It was full of what I thought were some pretty interesting factoids about regrets in the career progression. And, given the nature of the topic, it’s something that’s not often discussed. After all, who wants to talk about how they screwed up in their career? It’s not exactly on par with personal branding best practices.
But, as I reviewed the stats, here were a few I found particularly interesting:
- 30% more women than men said they regret working in a field where they don’t make enough money. I think that’s odd, since it’s typically men who are more focused on money as a driver. Then again, sadly, it’s men that usually hold more of the power positions in PR (even in 2019). Here’s to hoping that changes soon!
- 20% more men than women said they regret not maintaining their network. That’s interesting to me–are women more voracious networkers than men?
- The second-highest career risk for both genders was “negotiating a higher salary”. This is actually kind of surprising to me since every time a workplace/career study comes out, money or salary is rarely in the top 3 drivers of happiness and/or success.
- 36% more men than women said they regret not starting their own business. Interesting since most of the solos and business owners I see in the Twin Cities are women. In fact, I can only think of a handful of male solos (Mike Walsh, Ryan Davenport, and Aaron Zaslofsky come to mind).
- Lastly, just 2% said they had no regrets at all about their career.
So, clearly, EVERYONE has career regrets. And, I’m no exception.
Over the course of my 25+ years in this industry, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Not all have been “regrets”, per se. Some were just flat-out mistakes!
But, if I think about my big career regrets, three big ones come to mind:
Leaving for perceived greener pastures too early
My absolute favorite job back when I was working for other people was my time at RSM McGladrey (it’s called RSM now). I started as a comms specialist and by the time I left, five years later, I was a PR manager. I was working PR for our new sponsorship with the PGA of America. I worked the PGA-freaking-Championship at Medinah (got to meet Zach Johnson and Chris DiMarco). I was essentially working my dream job. Then one day a recruiter came calling. Seduced me with a bit more money and a cool agency job. It felt great to be “wanted.” I never had that experience before. And, it was too much to overcome. I accepted a job with a small agency in town. And, after nine months, I left that job. I left for perceived “greener pastures” much too early. Huge mistake. And one I truly regret to this day.
Not working for an agency and/or traveling in my early 20s
I distinctly remember sitting in a computer lab at Winona State University my senior year looking for jobs and seeing a few in the Vancouver area that looked interesting. I was intrigued. Vancouver seemed awesome! I had always been drawn to the PNW (turns out, I was right–I’ve visited Seattle and Portland a few times since then and LOVE it!). It seemed like a fun potential adventure. But, I never took the leap. Instead, I moved home and took an internship with a shopping center retailer. Turned out to be OK, but it was no Vancouver. Another related regret: Not trying hard to work for an agency in my 20s. Sure, it was harder to get those agency jobs, but I didn’t feel like I tried too hard. I wish I would have tried harder.
Not having a more narrow focus early in my career
My strategy early in my career was simple: Try a bunch of different jobs to see what sticks. You see, I didn’t know what I really wanted to do with my careers in comms/marketing when I was 23. So, my approach was to test a variety of things, see what I liked, and then delve into that more. Somewhat sound approach, but looking back on it now, I would have done things much differently. I actually would have done the opposite. I would have pinpointed one niche and gone for that. Tried it for a good while to see how it worked. But, that’s not what I did. And I regret it. It led to a smattering of jobs I really didn’t care about that much. It led to me almost getting fired–twice. My 20s weren’t great from a career perspective, as a result.
Not Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.
Not General Motors’ Mary Barra (who has 1.2M LinkedIn followers, btw)
Not even American Family’s Jack Salzwedel (although he is great–I wrote about him first in 2015).
Nope, Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx is the best CEO on LinkedIn.
And I’m not sure it’s close.
Want proof? Let’s look at the analytics. She doesn’t have the largest “following” on LinkedIn (378,000+), but Sara’s last ten posts averaged:
- 67,451 likes
- 2,055 comments
For reference, Mary Barra (remember she has 1.2 MILLION followers) averaged the following in her last 10 posts:
- 1,469 likes
- 61 comments
That’s a staggering difference. And sure, one is the CEO of a huge company and has 1.2M followers and the other is the CEO of a much smaller, more nimble enterprise and has 378,000+ followers. But those are wildly different engagement numbers.
Next, look at the KIND of content she posts. For example, Sara routinely participates in a huge LinkedIn hash tag trend: #MotivationMondays. But, she does it with a twist–by sharing a selfie with a different coffee mug each week. Sometimes she talks about compassion. Other times she talks about leadership. Recently, she talked about empowering women.
It feels authentic. It feels real. It’s free or corporate jargon. And, more importantly, it feels like she wrote it.
Now, contrast that to Mary’s recent posts, where just half of her last 10 have featured a pic and/or video that included Mary. The other half were either a branded graphic of some sort or a link image to a blog post or other GM online entity. Not that it’s the worst representation. It’s just not nearly as personal and warm as Sara.
So, Sara Blakely is the best CEO on LinkedIn. Confirmed.
If that is, indeed, true, we could all learn a thing or two about how she does it. I see four big best practices we could all put to use with our executive partners:
Write like a PERSON, not an executive
The number-one thing that sticks out to me about Sara’s posts? She writes like a human being–not a robotic corporate executive. See the example below of Sara’s post celebrating her 19th anniversary of Spanx. Within that note, you see her talking like a real person would talk on LinkedIn. She uses emojis to signify sarcasm. She uses everyday references like “AKA” (and, actually, using all caps makes it that much more human). And, I don’t see one mention of “synergy”, “value-added” or “circling back.” It’s content written by a real person using real, everyday language (read: NOT MBA speak). That’s what connects with employees and prospective employees. That’s what people want from leaders. And, it’s a huge reason why she’s so likable on LinkedIn.
Don’t be afraid to be imperfect
Here’s the visual part of the post above celebrating Sara’s 19th anniversary with Spanx:
Now, this certainly isn’t the most flattering photo of Sara. Not to mention, it’s 20 years old now! It’s imperfect. But, it reflects on a memory that is very personal and important to her. And, more than that, it shows that Sara is just a person–just like you or I. Or, what about this post that shows her old apartment with boxes of Spanx stacked high. What executive do you know who would share a pic like this of one of their first, run-down apartment residences?
Imperfection like this connotes human-ness. And, not to beat this horse to death, but that’s what employees, prospective employees and people want from their leaders. I’ve never really understood execs’ desire to be perfect–in text, in photos and in videos. It just never seems “real.” I guess it comes off exactly the way execs’ intend it to–perfect. But, that’s not what people want. Not in 2019. They want real. They want authenticity. They want leaders who feel, act and write/speak like real people. The days of perfection in communication are long gone, my friends.
Embrace “impromptu creative”
Some of Sara’s most successful posts recently have come using what I would call “impromptu creative.” Case in point–this post:
It’s a simple, motivational message. The kind you see a ton of on LinkedIn. But, the visual is what makes it pop. And, it’s a visual that feels very much like “I was just having this glass of wine and I came up with this idea”. And, that very well might be true! Regardless of how they develop this “impromptu creative”, it works. Again, it gives off the feel of a leader who’s much more closely connected to the average employee than your typical Fortune 500 executive. After all, isn’t that what we’re after here? Building trust between our leaders and employees, prospective employees, customers and vendors? Isn’t that the end goal? If yes, then more imperfect content and more impromptu creative are ways to start bridging that gap. Because, for a lot of companies, that gap is pretty damn big.
Take advantage of “in the moment” content
When I’ve worked with execs on LinkedIn in the past, I talk a lot about capturing content “in the moment.” Here’s a good example of how Sara did that in a recent post:
This post captures a moment in time brilliantly. She was shopping at B&N. Noticed all these pubs featured women. She snapped a pic. And built a post around it. Now, it very well could have been a previously planned post, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? It SEEMS like an in the moment post. It SEEMS like she just got a pic of this and shared her thoughts as it happened. And again, it makes her appear more human. More “like me.” Someone who’s just shopping at B&N on a Tuesday night. People can identify with that. You know what they can’t identify with? Stock splits and share prices. Coach your execs to capture more “in the moment” content and those walls will start tumbling down.