Casper, a mattress company, has a very unique value proposition for its customers that includes a headache-free purchasing process, a 100-night trial… and investigative reporting by award-winning journalists. Did you have to do a double-take on that last part? You’re not daydreaming—Casper is the latest company to make the transition from consumer brand to full-fledged media company.
After weeks of industry buzz, Casper launched Van Winkle’s on June 9 with the goal of covering the culture of sleep. The digital magazine features stories on everything from sleep deprivation to what it’s like spending a night at Florida’s new Legoland Hotel. Science, Health, Travel, Culture—all are covered by the largely unbranded magazine.
“While Casper launched Van Winkle’s as an independent venture, smarter brands in general realize that their products are just enablers to a lifestyle,” Luke Sherwin, co-founder and chief creative officer at Casper, told The Content Strategist. “Great brands don’t just ride shifts in culture, they contribute to them.”
While branded magazines aren’t a new phenomenon, the trend is proving increasingly popular among companies eager to connect with their customers and differentiate themselves from competitors. For decades, brands have relied on third-party publishers to supply a platform through which to engage with consumers. Now, brands are flipping this model on its head.
“Because of technological enablement, we’re in an unprecedented period in history where brands can rival ‘legitimate’ media publications,” said Rebecca Lieb, VP of content marketing for analytics and integrated marketing company Teradata Applications. “Brands are asking, ‘Why should we buy media if we can create our own?'”
From Marriott to Coca-Cola, brands play publisher
Those brands devoting themselves to publishing projects are doing so with gusto. Airbnb’s Pineapple print magazine is more than 120 pages long and distributed by the company’s global hosts as well as bookstores and newsstands. Uber’s Momentum magazine, intended for Uber’s “driver-partners,” is packed with interviews, health tips, and city-specific events. Net-a-Porter’s Porter magazine, introduced last year, comes with both print and digital editions that, when coupled with a mobile app, give readers the ability to purchase what they see right on the page.
With brand magazines, it’s quality that’s king. For Van Winkle’s, Casper snagged Elizabeth Spiers, former editor in chief of The New York Observer and founding editor of Gawker, along with veteran journalist and editor Jeff Koyen, and a staff of writers sourced from magazines like Maxim. When Marriott International was gearing up to launch its online travel magazine, Marriott Traveler, the company wooed a senior editor from Variety and popular travel vlogger Sonia Gil.
“There’s a name, a byline, and that makes [the stories] more legit,” David Beebe, Marriott’s vice president of global creative and content marketing, told us at the time of the publication’s launch in March.
(Full disclosure: Marriott Traveler was created in partnership with Contently.)
Quantity matters as well. When you’re competing with traditional publications for consumer eyeballs, a steady flow of content is a must. Marriott has already rolled out different editorial verticals for New Orleans, Chicago, and Orlando on Marriott Traveler, and has plans to go global. In addition to its deeper investigative pieces, Casper is adding content like how-tos, op-eds, and slideshows to Van Winkle’s daily publishing output.
“Large brands like GE and IBM are publishing more content per week now than TIME magazine did in its heyday,” Lieb added.
As editor of Coca-Cola’s Journey, the digital magazine that replaced the brand’s corporate site in 2012, Jay Moye publishes a dozen original stories per week that range from short blog posts to video projects to 2,000-word longform pieces. About 60 percent of Journey’s content has a connection to the company or brand. The rest—pieces on music, style, innovation, careers, and sports—aligns with the company’s values.
Moye said that Journey tells the stories consumers don’t get from Coke’s traditional marketing and PR projects. He works closely with both Coca-Cola’s marketing team and its heritage communications group, comprised of historians and archivists, to build on the brand’s 129-year history.
“There’s value in storytelling,” Moye said, noting that Journey is a longer-lead magazine rather than a real-time content marketing shop. “Coke is a brand that’s rooted in optimism and happiness and stands for many great things, so we can cast a pretty wide editorial net.”
(Editor’s note: As of 2017, Coca-Cola’s Journey is a fully-functioning global content operation.)
Value beyond a sale
When Red Bull launched Austria-based Red Bull Media House in 2007, it became one of the first brands to create multiple channels all capable of engaging its target audience in an ongoing conversation. Now, it works with a global network of correspondents in some 160 countries and develops online media, print, TV, mobile, music, games, and movies—its newest film, STREIF — One Hell of a Ride, will be released internationally this year.
“Companies like Red Bull rarely change their product but instead invest in shifting lifestyles,” Casper’s Sherwin said of the brands’s success. “Content is just one way to do that.”
Red Bull is one of a handful of companies effectively monetizing branded content. Apart from distribution—last year Red Bull TV became Apple TV’s first branded content channel—Red Bull uses event and film sponsorships and online video advertising to generate revenue.
Another brand making monetization work is Marriott, which licenses The Navigator Live TV series internationally. Marriott Traveler magazine features native ad space that, while currently being used to promote Marriott hotel brands, will eventually be sold to third-party advertisers. “Our content becomes valuable to other distributors, mainly international but also U.S.-based, because it isn’t produced as an advertisement,” Beebe said. “It goes back to storytelling and understanding what that means.”
Even before monetization becomes a widespread concern, brands experimenting with magazines must determine how to gauge their return on investment. In a recent report on content marketing performance from the Altimeter Group, 67 percent of marketers named measurement as a top priority for 2015.
“Marketers have been desperate to prove content marketing success by looking only at the number of widgets sold,” Lieb, a former analyst with the company who contributed to the report, said. “There are so many other metrics and KPIs with real business and dollar value.”
Elena Sukacheva, global managing director of content solutions with The Economist, agrees wholeheartedly. “If ROI is measured by leads generated and sales conversions, then marketers are missing the point,” she said. “Owned properties create a relationship with the brand, and probably should be measured by longer-term metrics such as brand perception, brand identity, and increased loyalty.”
Brewing up branded content success
Any brand can morph into a media company—in theory. Take a close look at those finding success, however, and you’ll notice some common threads. Red Bull’s magazine, The Red Bulletin, focuses on adventure, energy, and adrenaline, while Airbnb’s Pineapple is synonymous with a love of culture and community, but both exhibit a laser focus.
“Companies really need to look for that unifying brand idea,” Lieb explained. “What do we stand for?”
Meanwhile, Van Winkle’s tone is unapologetically frank (“We call bullshit on homeopathic sleep remedies,” Koyen writes in his inaugural post). This distinctive voice promises to serve the brand well.
But even brands with a strong voice aren’t guaranteed success. Back in 1999, Starbucks launched a quarterly publication called Joe Magazine in affiliation with Time Inc. The idea was to spark conversations between Starbucks customers. The project was shuttered after three issues. Starbucks Coffee founder and CEO Howard Schultz has been quoted as saying he keeps Joe on display in his office, “so everyone can see the magazine and realize we … should have the courage to keep pushing by not embracing the status quo.”
Case in point: Earlier this year, Starbucks partnered with former Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new production company to back a series of TV and film documentaries on social issues that resonates with the brand. Original companion content is being published to the Starbucks collection on Medium, where consumers can find “inspiring stories that nurture the human spirit.” It isn’t Joe 2.0, but it’s close.
Consumer attitudes toward branded content are continuing to evolve and become more sophisticated. American Express’s OPEN Forum has been building a small business community and supplying it with original utility content since 2006, but when it launched a site redesign in 2013 as many members joined in five weeks as they had in the previous five years. And The New York Times‘ T Brand Studio found that its native content was outperforming some of the publication’s editorial content.
(Full disclosure: American Express, GE, and Coca-Cola are also Contently clients.)
“This is part of the proof point that audiences will engage with great content regardless of its provenance, provided they have a sense of where it’s coming from,” Michael Zimbalist, SVP of advertising products and research & development at the Times, said.
“Advertising isn’t going to go away,” Lieb added, “but smart companies are (investing) across owned, paid, and earned media. Brands really are media companies. And content is our product.”