‘Traditional Marketing Is Broken,’ Declares Richard Edelman

In Chicago last Thursday, the head of the world’s largest PR firm declared that the marketing industry has its business backward. Speaking to an audience of academics and brand marketing executives at De Paul University, Richard Edelman, who runs the eponymous agency as president and CEO, stated that much of the marketing we’ve grown up with “is a short-term and broken model.”

The marketing industry has been rocked the last few years by the massive rise of commercial brands acting as publishers. Whereas brands like General Electric and American Express historically could only reach customers through advertisements next to content people sought in newspapers and television, they can now create their own stories that readers find and share in their news feeds on social media websites. (This, of course, is not news to anyone who’s reading this story on LinkedIn.)

(Disclosure: American Express is a Contently client.)

However, the communications approach brands have been using as publishers is still often anachronistic. “It’s always been marketing first and communications as a servant,” Edelman said. “I see the emergence of a new paradigm, which is ‘communications marketing’ instead of ‘marketing communications.'”

The difference, he says, has to do with priorities. In a media environment where control over who sees content is actually up to readers—not editors or advertisers—companies who wish to build relationships with potential customers must now do so on readers’ terms. That means communicating meaningfully before selling to them. It means sharing useful and entertaining information as a primary objective, with the understanding that relationships and sales will eventually flow if done appropriately.

The early adopters in the marketing community understand this well. It’s why Red Bull makes snowboarding movies and drops skydivers from space to entertain its audience. It’s why Blackrock creates in-depth education to help people understand investing. And it’s why creative and media and PR and social agencies (and publishers like The New York Times and Forbes) now sell “sponsored content” and content marketing solutions.

Social media has changed our expectations around what we see and don’t see on the Internet, and that’s forcing the hands of some brands—the ones with a lot to lose—to behave more in the interest of the crowd. Interestingly, that mindset (and pressure) is influencing beyond simply what brands broadcast from their Twitter accounts. Edelman uses Starbucks as an example: The company recently announced that it’s going to subsidize its employees’ college tuition, in part as an effort to help its workers feel connected to the brand and to care about its customers more to the point that they share the brand’s story and ethos with strangers who buy lattes.

You’re not just selling coffee,” Edelman said. “You’re selling a relationship.”

The key to “communications marketing,” Edelman said, is “substantive storytelling.” Purveying interesting and surprising stories instead of ads. To work, he said, brands must publish content that is:

1) “Rational and built for consumption.” (Useful to the reader.)

2) “Emotional and built for sharing.” (Of human interest.)

3) “Supported by data and insight.” (Factually sound.)

These sound a lot like things a journalist would say. But when Edelman then declared that those in the PR industry must now consider themselves “guardians of truth,” I was taken aback. It’s a dramatic statement coming from the head of an industry that’s thought by most people to be paid to spin facts. However, knowing that the social media crowd is quick to point out and amplify improprieties, PR firms seem to be grabbing onto the idea of storytelling and relationship-building through radically transparent publishing more fully than almost anyone. (I suspect that this is largely due to the fact that Edelman and firms like Weber Shandwick’s Mediaco have been hiring editors from traditional media with strong journalism backgrounds to run branded content.)

Though I think that brand publishing should not be overly compared to journalism, the infusion of a journalistic mindset—or communicating instead of selling—into marketing is a great thing. After all, the number one priority of journalism is to seek the truth and not betray readers. Marketing, historically, hasn’t had much incentive to rank such ideals above the bottom line.

“We’re going to change the mindset of marketers,” Edelman says. It’s a lofty idea. But if we can collectively manage it, it just might make the Internet—in which the 5.7 trillion ads served per year get ignored by 99.9 percent of us—a little more interesting.

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