Brand Journalism: A Field Day for Web Marketers

Have you heard the buzz about “brand journalism”? The term was coined by McDonald’s chief Global marketing officer, Larry Light. Light recently announced Mickey D’s would no longer pursue a singular brand message. Instead, the global giant will tailor its brand communications to niche markets and adapt them to media in which they appear.

“Identifying one brand position, communicating it in a repetitive manner is old-fashioned, out of date, out of touch,” Light says. “Simplistic marketing is marketing suicide.”

Why brand journalism? Because journalism involves telling many facets of a story to diverse groups of people. Face it, gigantic international conglomerates such as McDonald’s have diverse audiences to reach. That’s why the current campaign, “i’m lovin’ it” lends itself well to diversified marketing. McDonald’s can demonstrate how many different target audiences “love” the product in a variety of ways.

The whole idea of blowing up the single brand so it reappears as many different subbrand messages doesn’t sit well with everyone. Laura Riess states, “The notion that McDonald’s should abandon the positioning philosophy and instead adopt a brand journalism approach is lunacy.”

Seth Godin says, “Yay for Larry for realizing that monolithic marketing is broken.” However, Godin reminds us tweaking the message isn’t nearly as important as tweaking the product, currently under fire due to reports on a national obesity epidemic and the film, “Super Size Me.” Godin goes so far as to suggest McDonald’s ditch its cookie-cutter stores and develop outlets that better reflect and support their communities.

The potential of brand journalism has merit, especially in terms of Web site content development. Several columns ago, I said a singular branding message “needs a little give.” I suggested marketers reach out to multiple audiences and use their Web sites to create messages that may appeal to a variety of audiences. I didn’t have a term for what I was proposing then, but brand journalism isn’t bad.

What would I do if McDonald’s let me change its site to reflect its new brand journalism concept? A few ideas:

  • Market to parents. In keeping with Godin’s observations, changing the message has far less effect than changing the menu. The biggest statement that can be made is improving the nutritional content of the kids’ menu. (Show me a parent who hasn’t capitulated once, at least, and purchased a Happy Meal for her progeny.) Next, develop pages on nutritional education, meal planning, and a locator of McDonald’s with play areas (for working off the low-fat fries). A guide to planning birthday parties at McDonald’s makes sense, too, as many celebrations often end up there anyway.
  • Highlight McDonald’s restaurants that are community landmarks, or that exhibit differentiation. Did you know there’s a McDonalds right next to President Clinton’s office on West 125th Street in New York? Given our past president’s fondness for the product, wouldn’t it be interesting to provide updates on Clinton sightings or interview employees who served him? Certainly, other McDonald’s restaurants have their own stories to tell. I’m told a ’50s-themed, rock-and-roll McDonald’s in Chicago is getting an overhaul. Employees could write snippets, “What you’d never guess about our restaurant!”
  • Translate the U.S. site. Yes, you can go to McDonald’s Spain site and read information in Spanish, but the U.S. site should be bilingual, too. Take a cue from other U.S. sites that made the transition from English to Spanish as simple as pressing a button.
  • Explain why people are “lovin’ it.” Use testimonials from a diverse group of people who “love” McDonald’s products. Show why McDonald’s is a favorite for a variety of demographics (seniors, working and/or single parents, teens, etc.).

The Web is a marketer’s dream. Unlike TV, you have far more than 30 seconds to communicate a message. Unlike print, you have much more real estate than a few inches in which to relate to the consumer. You have an infinite number of pages, which means you can target as many different audiences as you can think of. For marketers, that’s a truly beautiful thing. Take advantage of the opportunities!

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