A growing number of companies are attempting to distance their brand publishing efforts from “content marketing,” in an effort to gain audience trust, attract higher quality talent, and hold on to dwindling budgets.
It’s a trend that’s accelerated in recent months as brand publishing continues to evolve quickly. Companies are increasingly making public proclamations about their editorial independence and their intent to produce legitimate journalism, as opposed to more product-focused content marketing.
When marketing firm Huge launched a new magazine in December, for example, it went out of its way to emphasize journalism as a core tenet of the initiative. “The best narratives in business journalism don’t just inform. They transform, leaving the reader inspired and better prepared for what’s ahead. This is the guiding principle behind launching Huge Moves,” the company said in a at the time. It also made a statement by hiring Jennifer Leigh Parker, a longtime journalist, to head up Huge Moves, and the inaugural issue was written entirely by professional journalists with media company cred.
Another example is Restoration Hardware, which plans to soon launch a new editorial publication under the guidance of former Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Margaret Russell. The plan there appears to be to avoid covering RH products, and to focus instead on covering architecture and design and the people and ideas shaping those industries.
It’s a strategy that Fred Nicolaus, executive editor at Business of Home said is pretty common in the luxury home space. Urban Electric, for example, produces The Current, an artsy lifestyle magazine. Untapped is an “editorially independent” publication backed by the design company Henrybuilt. It’ll launch in February to cover art, design, food and business through the lens of “people trying to make change for the better.”
Some of this is simply PR, of course. Marketing a publication as something other than ”content marketing” is perhaps more likely to draw attention and be looked upon favorably than yet another branded content initiative. But in conversations with a number of execs recently, it feels like it’s also an indication of how brand publishing is evolving.
Brand publishing execs say they’re more likely to produce engaging content if they don’t have to worry about product marketing. And for an increasing number of brand publishers, distinctions are becoming increasingly clear: Content marketing relates directly to the products or services a company offers, but brand publishing flips that on its head by making the target audience – not the product – the primary focus.
“We have an opportunity to step beyond selling a product to truly serve a community,” Stephanie Paterik, gm of editorial at the Trade Desk, told Toolkits. Paterik’s driving mission behind The Trade Desk’s growing editorial reach is to create content that she says is “audience-focused,” and designed to help audiences understand the ecosystem the company operates in.
Clear demarcation between brand publishing and content marketing can also help companies avoid the perception that their publishing initiatives are purely designed to shill products.
This week, Robinhood announced that it plans to launch an independent editorial media brand led by veteran editor Joshua Topolsky. The new brand, Sherwood, will take over Robinhood’s long-running financial newsletter, Snacks, and will cover Robinhood “where and when it makes sense, with disclosures obviously.” That’s already a marked departure from just a few months ago, when Snacks never covered Robinhood.
There’s one more benefit to distancing publishing from marketing: Editorial affords companies protections marketing doesn’t. A good example is rapper Ice Cube’s 2021 lawsuit against Robinhood Snacks for using his image in a newsletter. The rapper alleged that this implied endorsement – the case was dismissed because while Snacks was economically motivated, it was editorial, not advertising, and therefore protected.
There is also the people factor to consider. Chandra Turner, an editorial recruiter who specializes in brand publishing, said that when she’s hiring journalists for brands, she’s noticed an increasing number expect editorial independence as a given. Relatedly, candidates are also more eager to work for a company if “there is transparency to the reader or consumer,” said Turner. Editors want to work at brand publishers where there are clear lines between what is editorial, and what is advertising, she said.
There can also be other benefits. At a publication launched last year, one editorial director who asked not to be named said that they were able to escape marketing cost-cutting because “publishing” was separated out from content marketing and other similar endeavors. This person works independently and reports to the President of the company, not the head of marketing. “My budget just slipped under the radar completely,” they said.