How to Make a Small Brand Look Big

By Steve McKee

Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of, now owns the Washington Post. Many observers are pontificating about whether Bezos intends to influence the paper’s editorial positions. Much more relevant to those of us in business is his apparent interest in bringing Amazon’s highly sophisticated targeting and CRM techniques to the delivery of news content. His convergence of marketing with journalism could change the news business forever.

Bezos’s acquisition is the latest example of how much more difficult it is to draw lines clearly between entertainment, advertising, and journalism. When Tom Cruise or Jennifer Garner make an appearance on the Tonight Show, for example, most of us tend to think of it as entertainment. The truth is, it’s a clever form of advertising (the guests always seem to have a new movie coming out—oh, and they happen to have brought a clip with them).

Similarly, when ABC broadcasts its news from a ground-floor studio on Times Square, most people would call that journalism. But the glass walls through which passersby can gawk (not to mention the gargantuan video board on the side of the building featuring its celebrity journalists) betray that it’s just as much a branding strategy for ABC.

And then there’s American Idol. Sure, Coca-Cola (KO) and Ford (F) have their product placements in the show, but everyone knows those are paid endorsements. What most people don’t realize is that the American Idol entertainment juggernaut is a multi-episode commercial designed to get America to fall progressively in love with Candice Glover (or Carrie Underwood, or Phil Phillips) so that by the time the winners are crowned they’ll be assured of gold records and sold-out concerts. The fact that viewers are happy to play along doesn’t mean American Idol (and programs like it) aren’t, in effect, highly sophisticated ads.

Some of us may wring our hands about convergence, while others may think it’s no big deal. But when it comes to branding your business, it’s a very big deal indeed—especially for companies with fewer resources. The sooner you recognize the lines between entertainment, advertising, and journalism are blurring, the sooner you can use that understanding to your benefit. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, and it need not take a lot of time. All it takes is a little imagination.

There are more cable channels, more radio channels, more magazines, and infinitely more websites, blogs, and other online avenues than any of us could have imagined a decade or two ago. And they’re all competing for valuable content. Newsrooms are shrinking even as their task of finding relevant, compelling, and unique stories is getting harder. But the news business abhors a vacuum as much as nature does. That presents a window of opportunity for a captivating story—especially one with pictures. The fact that a brand may be behind it is increasingly OK.

Remember when the Mini Cooper was first relaunched in the U.S.? The brand piggybacked a Mini on top of a Chevy Suburban, underneath which was the banner, “What are you doing for fun this weekend?” The stunt, which in auto marketing terms cost next to nothing to pull off, generated a brand-building image that was picked up by newspapers, television stations, and websites around the world.

Mini pulled a similar stunt around Christmastime in Amsterdam a couple years ago, leaving a handful of giant, empty cardboard boxes, ripped open with tissue paper and ribbons spilling over the sides, on corner trash piles. The boxes sat in torn wrapping paper and had a UPC code and an image of the Mini Cooper on the side, as if the car came in a box like any other toy to delight those who found one under the tree on Christmas morning. It was a charming photo (and video) opp, and it was seen all over the world—despite the boxes being staged in only 12 locations.

Two simple stunts. Two huge successes. Both leveraging the trend toward convergence. It’s something any brand can pull off, no matter how big or small. The key is to understand clearly whom you’re trying to reach and develop not just ads but entertaining and/or newsworthy content they’ll appreciate. If you’re Red Bull, it might be sponsoring a world record-setting parachute jump. For Dove soap, it might be creating a viral video demonstrating how women tend to believe they’re less attractive than they really are. And if you’re a family business that makes, say, duck calls, it may be creating a reality show.

Branding is no longer strictly about buying ads—it’s more opportunistic than that. The famous brands of the future will be those that understand that success is about becoming beloved through a combination of strategies—appealing advertising, to be sure, but also relevant news and compelling entertainment. In a world of convergence, we’re all media moguls now.

Originally published on Bloomberg Businessweek

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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