Who's your brand's editor-in-chief?

In the first on a new series on creating an in-house newsroom to craft impactful stories, we look at one of the key roles, essential to all publishing.

The writing was on the wall a decade ago. It was 2011, and – back then – if a retailer wasn’t generating a non-stop flow of customised content, the message was ‘publish or perish’.  This was the year that Macy’s started their blog The Edit and Coca-Cola announced a new marketing strategy of ‘content excellence’ (basically, branded content in social media) and launched a digital magazine ‘Coca-Cola Journey’ (which failed).

Since then, the shift towards brand publishing has been ubiquitous: banks, pensions, charities, insurers, airlines, tourist boards, hotels, restaurants, government departments… Just about every sector of the economy creates content. Hell, even MI5 has a new Instagram account with “interactive content”, including Q&As with intelligence officers (actually, I’d highly recommend it).

By now, most companies have staffed up for content creation with teams of digital and social writers, editors and managers. The savvier brands might even have sub-editors. But how good is your content? Is there any quality control? After all, how much real interest is in the content that brands churn out? Surely, very few people want it in their feed and most view it as clutter?

In media companies, the value of the editor-in-chief can’t really be understated: they’re basically proxy for the audience. I remember a particularly bad day on The Independent; I was about to leave for the night, when the editor-in-chief told me to write the skyline (the bit on the front page that tells the reader about other stories in the paper to tempt them inside).

It was my first time doing this particular job and the editor-in-chief seriously must have made me rewrite it about 20 times, getting more irate as he kept reiterating the question in shouty capitals, “BUT WHY WOULD THIS MAKE ME BUY THE PAPER?” In the end, he told me to lead with some feature we had about birds. His rationale? The RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity with 1.1 million members, and — if they all bought the paper — it would be a good day. I’m not sure it worked. But, on the plus side, I got to go home.

But arguably for a brand’s content to be successful, it needs its own editor-in-chief.

As an editor-in-chief, in a nutshell, your role is to create captivating narrative for your audience: to tell the stories you want to tell in a way that makes your audience feel warm inside, interested and wanting to know more. And that applies whether you are the editor-in-chief for a newspaper or a brand.

1. Let data inform you, not lead you

In newspapers and magazines, focus groups are the bane of every editor’s life. Or was it just me? I found them soul-destroying. The last one I went to was for British Airways’ High Life magazine. Along with my very talented team, we poured our hearts and souls into each issue. Needless to say the focus group was a disaster. Brian from Eastbourne was of the opinion that he would much rather have an inflight version of Heat next time he flew. Someone else piped up, “What about doing an inflight mens’ magazine?” Both completely fair points (content is usually subjective after all), but luckily on this occasion we were backed up by another set of data that said British Airways’ customers expected the airline to talk about travel. So, no inflight Heat then.

Data will never tell you the whole picture, and no brand ever has one image of their audience. As my favourite insight and strategy expert, Chris Rayment, says, “Data tells you the what, but not the why. So it’s very good for understanding who people are and their actions, but not good for interpreting the reasons behind those actions. Data alone does not provide the full story. You need research to fill in the gaps.”

I’d argue, as an editor-in-chief, you also need excellent instincts and passion. If a brand talks about what it is passionate about, and what it believes in – and if it talks about that passion with a sense of authority – its beliefs will reach an audience. While data and analytics can help to develop an audience, they can't give you heart and soul. Your audience, readers and customers will find you because of your vision. Some of the most successful cover stories we did at High Life magazine involved astronauts. British Airways aren’t Virgin, and aren’t interested in sending its customers to space — but, with their totally unique perspective on the world, astronauts were some of the most inspiring travellers we ever interviewed.

2. Be consistent

To start a conversation, a brand has to have something worth saying in the first place, and as a brand editor-in-chief, you’ll need to start with a few questions:

What does your brand stand for?

What message do you want to get across?

How do you stay true to your values?

Would your brand ever be disruptive and confound values?

And if yes, when would it be important to do so?

Once you know the answers to the above, it’s then important to understand how all the content you are overseeing fits into the larger narrative of the company. Most brands have a website, mail shots, social channels, possibly a YouTube Channel and maybe even a print title. But the real art lies in “building an editorially-driven content universe” — or to put another way, be consistent. Your customers will want a consistent brand experience regardless of platform.

3. How are you going to say it?

Audiences know the difference between sparky, engaging editorial writing and bland or hard sell content. Editorial wins every time. To create good editorial, first you need a tone of voice. This is the style used to communicate with the audience, in terms of the words you choose to use, the brand personality you convey, and emotional tone. What do you actually want your words to do for your brand?

Your brand tone of voice might be chatty and friendly (like Oatly); or maybe straightforward, clear and approachable (like Starling); or inspirational and exhorting (like Nike); or quintessentially British (Burberry); or authority and knowledgeable without being stuffy (London’s National Gallery). The list is endless.

Also, it’s worth noting that most of the brands known for tone of voice didn’t start with a ten-step process. They had one good writer from the off, and their style quickly set the brand’s tone.

‘Dreamed, created, sacrificed, conquered’ — a collaborative tone of voice for Dropbox’s celebration of small businesses that launched during the pandemic (such as Forthwrite)

4. What’s the idea?

A clear mission statement and great writing will only get you so far. You also need a fantastic stream of stories that will work across the daily social posts, your website through to hopefully generating PR for channels beyond your brand. The editor-in-chief needs to make sure their brand content punches above its weight, with great contributors and exclusives – making your brand’s content a must-read, not might-read. You need great ideas, brilliantly executed. The content needs to be as good as the brand.

For each idea, plot out everything you want to include — even if it is a soundbite. And every time, you sign off a piece of content, know what commercial objectives it will be ticking.

But don’t forget about the bigger picture – and how your brand can contribute. Rather than just being about flogging stuff, brand publishing is a huge opportunity to give something you believe in a platform. And genuine passion and authenticity deepens the affection people feel for brands.

5. Exercise restraint

As editor-in-chief, you should know what to write when and importantly, when to stop. If you’ve stayed in a CitizenM room, where everything from a cushion to doormat is an excuse for a slogan, you’ll know where I’m coming from. And, on the same note, don’t waste time creating pointless brand hashtags that no one is going to use.

6. Make the 'Wrong' Choice

If you know your brand inside out, you can do things that are counterintuitive and out of keeping with your usual style. Sometimes it’s good to break the rules, especially to keep the brand culturally relevant and if you want to lead, not follow. But don’t just break the rules for the sake of it: be authentic and genuine, choose your potential controversies wisely, create something original that has meaning and make your brand part of the conversation of the day. Make an impact in the world. As when Yorkshire Tea told the critics of Black Lives Matter ‘don’t buy our tea’. #Solidaritea

7. Stay Open

Any brand editor-in-chief needs to be involved and immersed. Not just with what’s going on in the world, but with the brand, and most importantly the content team. In turn, your team needs to have brilliant contacts and similarly be immersed in the things they are passionate about. And be open, available and inclusive. When I run brainstorms, everyone is invited – I want all the team to be included, and you never know where a good idea will come from.

8. Makes mistakes (they're inevitable) — and learn from them

Sometimes you have ideas that just don't work. When you are creating any content, there is always a chance it might not work out. Safe is bland — and while no brand wants to go viral in a bad way, don't be frightened of making mistakes. If you don’t stray too far from your core values, you shouldn’t go too far wrong. If you do make a mistake, own it, apologise and move forward. And failing that? I know a great crisis communications expert.

At Forthwrite we teach courses on how brands can best communicate from creating a brand tone of voice to sessions on how to create stories. We wage war on corporatese to create a way of writing that’s fast, focussed, lucid and compelling.

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