Brands as Publishers - A Beyond Best Practice Guide
FIVE SUCCESSFUL RECIPES
FOR BRAND STORYTELLING
IN THE AGE OF THE SPLINTERNET
A best practice guide for brands
that want to put content, audiences
and stories first
‘Brands as Publishers’ has become a fashionable term for the recent
trend of content marketing. An Econsultancy study in 2012 found
that 73% of digital marketers agreed that “brands are becoming
publishers” and 64% agreed that content marketing “is becoming its
own discipline”. Coca-Cola has even changed its website to
become a content-led platform (which we will examine later).
Fast forward to 2013 and content marketing
is still at the top of the agenda. Why?
 : http://econsultancy.com/uk/reports/content-marketing-survey-report
The first reason is the developing
relationship between brands and consumers
on social media.
One of the lessons of social media is that brands
hell-bent on pushing product are not as welcome in
our personal timelines as those who can add some
value to our lives. Many brands have now passed
the stage of cautious experimentation. They're
seeking more strategic approaches to brand
storytelling than simply pushing out cute animal
pictures on a Friday and hoping for Likes.
Brands have rediscovered that they can be
storytellers. And the social web is a brilliant
medium for this, allowing them to be sympathetic
to audience needs and expectations. Adding value
to products and services via compelling social
stories and narratives is where the action is.
The Rising Challenge
of the ‘Splinternet’
The second reason is the challenge posed by
what Forrester calls the ‘Splinternet’.
Technology is blurring the lines between product,
product experience and marketing. First there was
the web, then there was Facebook. Then came
iPhones and Instagram. Now there’s near field
People are searching, choosing and sharing
differently - and their interpretation of a brand is
changing. Ideas, emotions and memories are being
created in new ways across all of these different
moments in life.
This is tough to manage. The rate of technology
innovation and the growing number of touchpoints
it provides is outstripping the pace at which brands
can tell, re-tell and effectively enrich their stories.
“Companies today face the challenge of meeting
customer expectations across an explosion of digital
touchpoints [the “Splinternet”]. To do this, they need to
design and develop unified experiences that cross
multiple digital channels - websites, mobile websites,
applications for smartphones and tablets, social media,
in-store displays, and so on.”
The answer for many leading brands - including
Beyond client Virgin (see Page 22 for more details)
- is to apply content-first thinking to their
organizational make-up. This includes re-wiring
their internal marketing and communications
teams into multi-skilled 'publishing hubs' that take
a newsroom approach to day-to-day
Design Agency Overview,
Europe 2013 (June 2013)
communication, by breaking down the walls that
currently sit between their PR, web, social and
The result - when executed well - is a new
breed of brand publishing platforms and
We wanted to gain a better understanding of the
current state of brand publishing and to see if there
was a way we could define ‘best practice’. That
meant examining the publishing habits of world
leading brands and then comparing their
performance against a set criteria.
When we started the project we were faced with
two dilemmas. Every type and size of business can
do content marketing - with completely different
budgetary parameters and market needs.
Secondly, there are so many brand properties
online that could potentially be defined as ‘content
marketing’ that we had to find a way of clearly
delineating what would be in and out of the report.
So we decided to focus on the 30 most valuable
global brands as measured by Interbrand. By doing
so, we felt we’d create an ‘apples to apples’
comparison - as a collective, this peer group has
large marketing budgets, is publicly traded (and
therefore subject to market scrutiny), and will be
broadly known by you, our readership. These
companies also possess some of the best B2C and
B2B marketers in the world - so we’re confident
they provide good, bad and ugly examples of brand
publishing that we can all learn from.
“The media landscape has changed and
brands now have to engage consumers
in meaningful conversations with
“Reciprocal altruism works: If you give
something away and are authentically not
expecting something in return, you end up
getting much more back in return.”
Brad Jakeman President,
Scott Roen American Express'
VP of Digital Marketing
and Innovation and
publisher of Amex’s
Open Forum site
in the Age of
So, why would a brand want to become
In a world governed by the dynamics of social
media and a splintering of digital touchpoints, it’s
all about controlling the brand story.
Ownership of branded publishing platforms - and
development of internal content and editorial
processes to support them - provides control.
From an internal perspective, the move to
becoming a publisher forces brands to place a
greater emphasis on quality control, creative
content planning and better teamwork and
execution. From an external perspective, the goal
is to ensure that brand content won’t get lost,
shunted aside, placed next to inappropriate
content, buried in a timeline, or earmarked
Better ownership of
and properties also enables
the brand to converse more directly
with its audience, with greater influence.
Conversation can be two-way and
participatory - and the best corporate publishing
strategies do exactly that - but, when the
processes and platforms are more strongly owned,
those conversations are better controlled by
Some brand publishing strategies are paid for and
revenue generating. Some are more overtly linked
to product sales and promotions. Some are straight
SEO plays. All of them - when executed well generate brand awareness, and all of them have a
great content, publishing and engagement strategy
at their core
“Our focus is on storytelling. You can still find
investors information or job postings easily,
but we’re putting the core of Coca-Cola – our
brands and their connection to our consumers
– front and centre.”
Ashley Brown Director of Digital
The Coca-Cola Company
The Growing ‘Brands as Publishers’ Movement
Our research showed us that a third of top tier
brands have now moved into publishing territory.
Here are the top line trend results:
33% of the world’s top brands (as measured by
Interbrand) have now created some form of
content publishing hub.
20% of those brand publishers have used them
to replace their main corporate domain.
Three brands now have more than one
publishing platform: IBM, GE and Intel.
The following section provides an overview of best
practices gleaned from their publishing habits.
from the World’s
Best Practices #1:
Platform Matters: Choose the Right One
Our research demonstrated three significant types of brand publishing platform,
each delivering a variety of core brand storytelling benefits.
Take your pick...
1: The Core Branding .com
A platform for telling ‘core brand’ stories.
The Corporate Branding .com is the main brand site,
powered by a set of brand-level publishing
principles. More than just a blog, it enables the
brand to create, curate, and commission content
that gives the audience something more than
straight information on product or service offerings
- typically drawn and integrated from the wider
Example: Pepsi Pulse - a socially co-created and
curated publishing platform for promoting stories
in and around the Pepsi brand.
2: The ‘Halo’ Hub
A content marketing hub for building supporting
brand ‘halo’ narratives.
The Content Marketing Hub is a brand-owned
platform that delivers content around a central
theme related to the brand’s product or service
offering. As such, the content strategy tends to be
focussed on one key topic area. Content tends to be
curated, crowdsourced or commissioned.
Content marketing hubs usually sit on their own
domain, away from the corporate domain.
Example: Intel IQ - a magazine-style platform
that tells the story of how technology is enriching
the lives of everyday people, told through third
party, thought leadership narratives of influencers
and opinion formers.
3: The Destination
A sponsored platform for telling brand
Sponsored Destinations are produced in
partnership between a brand and a publishing
partner or an affiliate brand. They contain very little,
if any, content that relates directly to the brand’s
products or services. Sponsored Destinations are
predominantly used to build out the backstory of a
brand’s corporate persona or values. Content is
usually produced by the affiliate partner, or other
third parties. They usually sit on their own domain.
Example: The Creators Project - an Intel and
Vice Magazine partnership to celebrate
innovations in the world of art via the creative
applications of technology.
Best Practices #2:
Tactics Matter: Build it and They Might Not Come
Build it and they may not come:
the over-riding goals for the brand as
publisher are traffic acquisition, story sharing
Of those brands analyzed, three best practice
principles prevailed to stimulate traffic, sharing and
engagement with content:
Pictures Paint a Thousand Words
High performing brands delivered a high
proportion of visually arresting, shorter form
rich media content, such as image-based story
albums and video which is easy to ‘graze’ on
and share with friends directly from the page.
Stand for Something
Top brands delivered a consistent editorial
mandate - setting a clear direction for all
content, including tone of voice, a high quality
threshold and distinct content style.
Blended is Better
These organisations tended to produce a
seamless blend of brand-produced and user
generated (crowdsourced) stories - leading to
a balanced editorial mix of brand-agenda
content and content that showcases creative
consumer contributions to the storyline
(‘hero’ stories sourced from platforms like
Instagram and Twitter).
These three best practices provide the immutable
laws of a great brand content strategy:
Strong editorial mandate
Among the brands that were
analyzed, those that execute
well across all three categories
outperform the market by a
factor of over sixty in terms of
Best Practices #3:
Community Matters: a Lot!
Regardless of industry sector - B2C or B2B content authorship strategies are mixed.
61% of brand publisher platforms analyzed
contain only brand-owned content. This includes
half of all Branding .coms and 100% of all
Blended Brand and
31% combine both brand-owned content and
curated user-generated content from the social
web. This includes half of all Branding .coms and
over a third of all Content Marketing ‘Halo’ Hubs.
Only 8% of properties contain curated,
user generated content only. This includes
(obviously) zero Branding .coms and zero
Sponsored Destinations. Curation-only sites
are the sole preserve of ‘Halo’ Content
At this point in time, it’s surprising to note that the
majority of brands that have committed to the
brand as publisher route are driven by a solely
brand-owned and published content agenda. As
previous data demonstrates, those that pursue a
blended brand/curated approach to storytelling
outperform the market significantly.
Best Practices #4:
Logo Matters: How Should the Brand Feature?
How strongly the brand features on the
publishing property is largely a question of
type of site.
Overall, 38% of brand publisher platforms
have a high brand prominence - where brand or
logo is featured prominently in the site mast
head with associated brand colour schemes
50% of Content Marketing ‘Halo’ Hubs have a
medium brand prominence - where brand or
logo is off set and/or site is ‘brought to you by...’
Low to No Logo
66% of Sponsored Destinations have very low
brand prominence, where the look and feel of
the site takes precedence over branding.
Brand prominence matters for all brand
publishing platforms. But while it’s obviously
essential to have high brand prominence on
corporate Branding .coms, Sponsored
Destinations are far more effective as neutral
storytelling devices, where the brand takes a
total backseat and maintains a low profile.
Content Marketing ‘Halo’ Hubs take a more
blended approach, with the brand offset to
Best Practices #5:
How Much Content is Being Produced?
We also looked at the average posting
frequency of content for those sites analyzed.
Here’s the breakdown:
Content Marketing ‘Halo’ Hubs create an
average of 4.6 posts per day.
Sponsored Destinations generate
2.2 posts per day.
Posting frequency changes depending on the type
of brand publishing platform. Content Marketing
‘Halo’ Hubs tend to publish more frequently due to
the numerous sources that they draw from including content curated from the social web.
Sponsored Destinations have a lower publishing
frequency. This is largely due to the style of content
that they produce: brand or property owned,
non-curated, and longer form content assets, which
are not necessarily time dependent (i.e. not tied to
a news agenda) and allow for a longer gestation
and publishing period.
Please note, content frequency is in no way
an indicator of quality or performance.
Virgin’s Data Led Content Strategy
Virgin wanted to re-imagine the modern day .com.
It wanted Virgin.com to become a site that united the
company’s diverse offerings and its heritage, by producing
content that resonated with its audience.
“The key thing for us was
realising that the best content
Digital Content and
We spent three months listening to what everyone was
saying and not saying about Virgin online. This research
gave Virgin the data it needed to build its content
strategy around the brand and what its audience wanted.
As well as designing and building the new Virgin.com, we
also developed piece of technology called The Kinetic
Engine, that powers the site. The KE learns user behaviour
and surfaces relevant content to allow for a deeper, more
Since the re-imagined Virgin.com launched, there’s been
a 105% uplift in time on site, and a reduction in bounce
rate by 15%. The number of page views increased per visit
Head over to the Beyond site to see the full interview with Virgin’s Bob Fear:
“Using Beyond’s research, we
wanted to clearly define our
content strategy and identify
the types of story we wanted
to be telling people.”
Digital Content and
We didn’t just analyze brand publishing platforms,
we also rated them on both a qualitative and
Which were the most successful and why?
To start out, we looked at which key factors made a
great brand publishing property (find out more
about these in ‘The Scores’ section on pages 26, 27
We found two broad categories emerged out of
these factors - brand value and audience value.
These categories cover exactly what you would
think: how does a particular site help to meet the
goals of a brand and to what extent does it meet
the needs of its audience?
Each site was analyzed by Beyond experts from a
wide range of digital disciplines, including user
experience, content strategy and design.
Next we had to choose the brands to analyze. There
are a lot of brand platforms out there, from the
brilliant to the questionable, so we had to narrow it
down. We’ve settled on 13 active publishing sites
from Interbrand’s league of top 100 global brands,
with a mixture from our three main publishing
platform categories (Branding .com, Content
Marketing ‘Halo’ Hub and Sponsored Destination).
Here are the sites that made it through to our final analysis:
Content Marketing ‘Halo’ Hubs:
The Scores: Audience value
When you evaluate, you need to ask the right
questions. So we looked at everything that goes
into building a great brand content experience.
Then we refined these factors down into a list that
could help us to identify the quality and the
character of each property: navigation, UX, search
and the quality and performance of the last 20
pieces of content posted on each domain.
How easy is it for people to get the information they
need? From 1 (complex or confusing navigation) to
5 (quick and intuitive navigation).
How optimized is the site for mobile
phones and tablet use?
From 1 (not at all) to 5 (responsive site,
Suitability of Content Formats
Are the content formats used relevant for the
audience? Technical audiences prefer in-depth,
informative content, while young consumers prefer
something visual and quick to scan. From 1
(uninformative and irrelevant to core audience) to 5
(useful and appealing to core audience).
Relevance to the Audience
Is the design up to scratch or is it dated? Is it
aesthetically pleasing? From 1 (outdated and
complex) to 5 (modern and clean).
Is the information useful or
interesting to the audience? From 1 (a
‘paint by numbers’ approach to content) to 5
(genuinely useful, insightful and/or interesting).
Does the content offer something new compared to
other brands, or could it be confused with content
from a peer brand? From 1 (similar content and
themes to peer brands) to 5 (very distinct from
other brands - and therefore of higher value).
Does the amount of content published match the
expectations and needs of the core audience? From
1 (too infrequent) to 5 (too frequent).
Tone of Voice
Does the tone of voice reflect the brand in a fresh
and interesting way? From 1 (generic tone of voice)
to 5 (distinct and fresh).
How visible is the site in search engine results?
How much traffic does that visibility drive and are
they seen ‘beyond brand’ via non-branded search
terms? From 1 (not visible/only on brand terms/no
traffic) to 5 (visible/via non-brand and brand
Does the platform increase the audience’s knowledge of the brand story? From 1 (does nothing to
inform reader of the brand) to 5 (does a good job of
informing the brand story).
In Line With Business Goals
Is content helping to achieve a business objective?
From 1 (no apparent fit with business objectives) to
5 (clear fit with business objectives).
Does content help to build or reinforce the brand’s
identity and values? From 1 (does not communicate
the brand identity and values in any way) to
5 (very clearly communicates the brand identity
Brand by Brand
What has our scoring
told us about each brand?
Pepsi Pulse - www.pepsi.com
Lots of easy to consume content and attractive design,
although very cluttered. This is a site well-suited to a
young, interested (and easily distracted) audience. In line
with the habits of young consumers, it’s better on mobile
than it is on desktop. It's lacking in original content and
information about the brand, but these are small failings
on a site that is otherwise very suited to purpose. There’s a
healthy balance between traffic being driven via on-brand
and non-brand search keywords - almost a like for like
38/45 13/15 51/60
“I like the split scroll approach,
but it’s clearly aimed primarily
at tablet - they may have
excluded desktop too much in
IQ by Intel - www.iq.intel.com
This is a platform that knows its audience. Sleek,
modern, easy to navigate and great on mobile devices
of every ilk. With an informed young tech-savvy
audience in mind, Intel has produced a platform that
supplies useful and interesting tech news in an
intelligent and engaging way. Could lose some of the
lighter content and provide a broader range of formats,
but these are small issues.
audience value: brand value:
37/40 14/15 51/55
*NB: Search data not available for this site as it
is a subdomain of the brand’s main dotcom.
Coca-Cola Journey - www.coca-colacompany.com
Coca-Cola’s brand positioning is very different to
Pepsi’s - but the execution is just as good. Aimed
at a young, informed audience, it provides both
entertaining and branded content. And it
succeeds in communicating the brand character
and addressing many of the common criticisms
leveled against the company. The site isn’t
effective at reaching beyond its existing fan base
though, with a 9:1 ratio of branded to non-branded
keywords driving traffic to the site.
33/45 15/15 48/60
“Brands that are concerned about fully
committing to publishing should take
note of what Coca-Cola has done. It
produces entertaining content that
gives the audience what it wants,
without diluting the brand message.”
Head of Content,
Amex OpenForum - www.openforum.com
With a brilliant design and story writers who know how to
engage their audience, this site is only let down by a
relative lack of variety in content. The standard post
format is attractive and simple, but posts don't often move
much outside of this template. This leads to quite a lot of
unbroken text in content that is clearly meant to be quick
to consume and easily shareable. That said, when it gets it
right, it really gets it right - as with a lot of the ‘Women in
Business’ section, which seems to have struck a chord
with the audience.
35/45 14/15 49/60
mb! - www.mb.mercedes-benz.com
This Sponsored Site from Mercedes-Benz does well to
position the brand as promoter of high-brow culture and
sophistication. Generally the site has good content for its
audience and is easy to use, although it does not perform
well on Android. The content is nicely presented, but would
benefit from more variation in formats,
with more visual content.
audience value: brand value:
34/40 12/15 46/55
*NB: Search data not available
for this site as it is a subdomain.
Omnivoracious - www.omnivoracious.com
This is a great effort from Amazon to implicitly promote
both its traditional book and Kindle products. But,
although the content is fairly strong, the design and
functionality lets it down. There is a lot of original content
and good writing for a literate audience, including audio
and written interviews with famous and emerging authors.
But the presentation of this content often lacks inspiration
and the design looks like an out-of-the-box blog.
25/45 12/15 37/60
“Brand to non-brand traffic sits
at a ratio of 4:3. The site
manages to pull in relevant
traffic without relying on the
Amazon brand too much.”
Head of Search,
Txchnologist - www.txchnologist.com
Txchnologist is well-positioned for a general tech
audience, with high quality, interesting content. But
confusing navigation and a sub-standard mobile site limit
its potential connection with its audience. The lack of
branded content on this site means the majority of search
traffic is via non-branded keywords.
“GE's thought-leadership publishing platform hits a lot
Stronger brand positioning would
of the right notes. The content predominantly puts the
benefit GE by aligning it more with
audience's needs above brand and product messaging,
giving it a strong editorial impact.”
34/45 10/15 44/60
Head of Content,
The Creators Project - www.thecreatorsproject.vice.com
audience value: brand value:
The Creators Project hits the nail on the head when it
comes to content. The site is easy to use, beautifully
designed and the content is engaging and targeted
perfectly at the audience. The connection to the brand
could be somewhat stronger, although this is again partly
to do with the fact that it is a
“This site has a clean, clear, blog-style template, with clean
branding that follows through with font and color. That
said, it lacks a little soul and feels very cold and clinical *NB: Search data not available for
which, for a celebration of art and technology, doesn't
this site as it is a subdomain of
come across well.”
the brand’s main dotcom.
36/40 12/15 48/55
Industrial Internet - www.ge.com
One of two GE properties on this list, Industrial Internet
serves to promote the brand directly through an
informative content marketing program. This has been
achieved well, with intelligent and engaging content
that informs the reader about the brand and its broader
benefits to society and industry. It addresses general
topics of interest to a scientifically- and
socially-minded audience, presenting this information
in unique ways. While this hub contains great content,
37/45 15/15 52/60
its visibility in search is limited because very little
content is stored within the site section (it directs
traffic to external destinations).
Internet Evolution - www.internetevolution.com
Internet Evolution, from IBM, contains a lot of information
that’s relevant to its technical IT audience. However, the
cluttered presentation makes finding and understanding
information difficult. The content is positioned well and
contains good topics, but often lacks originality in terms
of both the information it conveys and its presentation.
The branding is fairly strong in the content, but the site
overall is a little lacking on brand character for a Content
24/45 11/15 35/60
“There's good branding in the
header, but navigation is lost in
the noise. There's way too much
crammed onto one page - it
needs more of a guided flow.”
IKEA Family Live - www.ikeafamilylivemagazine.com
IKEA has targeted its audience extremely
effectively with this website. The link to the brand
and its products is strong, the presentation is stylish
and modern, and navigation is easy and intuitive.
The brand comes across as an authority on interior
design, telling stories simply with highly visual
content - perfect for its magazine format.
In regards to search, IKEA fails due to the majority
of its organic traffic being drawn via branded
keywords - a missed opportunity to garner traffic
from related topics and themes.
38/45 15/15 53/60
“Style-wise it's very clean. It's a
little cluttered in some of the
timeline templates, but it
translates well across devices.”
SAP Blogs - www.blog.sap.com
SAP Blogs is a simple hub - but the navigation is not
consistent, causing problems for anyone trying to get
a view on multiple blogs. Although presentation and
content topics varies between each blog that is
featured, it is generally quite formulaic content that
does not push the boundaries in terms of format or
information. It does, however, provide the user with a
good location to find out key information about the
brand and some of its products and services.
audience value: brand value:
23/40 13/15 36/55
*NB: Search data not available for this site as it
is a subdomain of the brand’s main dotcom.
Midsize Insider - www.midsizeinsider.com
Midsize Insider has a clear, simple design and is easy to
navigate. That said, the design of both the content and
site is largely unadventurous and does not provide a lot of
extra value for the audience. The branding is fairly strong,
although it lacks visual cues to associate it with IBM. The
content is fairly consistent though and
“Midsize Insider doesn't quite get the balance
topics are relevant, but presentation and
right where content is concerned. Pushing
originality could be improved. From a
products and brand messaging comes before the
search perspective, visibility and traffic
audience's needs, making it seem more
via non-branded search terms is generally
advertorial than editorial.”
27/45 12/15 39/60
Head of Content,
Beyond analysts surveyed the Top 30 brands from
Interbrand, and measured the extent to which top
brands have built corporate domains, content hubs,
and sponsored sites based on the
‘Brands as Publishers’ trend.
These analysts then assessed and compared the
features and characteristics of the brands’ various
platforms. To qualify as a platform for the project,
the site was required to associate the brand with
consumer trends and thought leadership beyond
their products, and to build an audience with
ongoing publication. Microsites and content hubs
with limited campaign runs were not included.
Best practices were identified based on
Engagement metrics were calculated based on the
total shares on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for
each platform’s top 25 pages as identified by Moz.
For our search analysis on keywords and traffic,
SEMRush was used for site discovery and search
volumes; this was then combined with a model
based on five published papers on click through
rates to calculate traffic to sites from these
Creative digital agency Beyond is part of the Next 15
group of companies. Since its formation in August 2010,
Beyond has grown rapidly off the back of its deep social
data analytics and digital creative capabilities to
become a $10 million agency, employing 100 people in
offices in San Francisco, New York, London and Brighton.
Beyond delivers award-winning digital campaign work
for four out of five of the world's top brands - including
Facebook, Google and YouTube.
Beyond’s Insight and Analytics team are experts at
mining social data using a combination of technology
and human analysts to work with brands such as Visa,
Virgin, 3, Sprint, Cisco to develop both product and
customer insights, content and digital strategies as well
as measure the impact of campaigns online.
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