Investigative Brand Journalism

Image courtesy of Guardian Labs

You’ve probably heard of brand journalism, a PR and marketing strategy that entails writing journalistic-style stories about a company. Articles read like traditional journalism rather than marketing copy, with succinct writing, attention-grabbing leads, and quotes from outside experts.

Because readers are unconvinced by conventional marketing and advertising, brand journalism has become one of the most important PR trends. As newspapers and trade journals shrink or disappear, brand or corporate journalism may at least partially be replacing traditional media.

Investigative brand journalism takes brand journalism another step further. Guardian Labs, the in-house brand studio of the Guardian, a major U.K. newspaper, recently produced the How to Solve a Murder Series, what it calls investigative brand journalism, new form of content. The true-crime investigative series was sponsored by Amazon Studios to promote Season 2 of its original drama “Bosch” which streams on Prime Instant Video.

The four-part series, which Guardian ran in March, chronicles efforts to solve the 35-year-old unsolved murder of Kari Lenander, a teenage girl, in Los Angeles in 1980.

A Level of Brand Journalism

“We decided to use a real unsolved cold case and take brand journalism to the next level by telling a good story with the editorial integrity of investigative journalism,” writes Rachel Post, branded content director at the Guardian, in a LinkedIn Pulse Post.

Guardian Labs U.S., the paper’s content marketing division in New York, launched in 2015 and now has 22 full-time employees, explained Nieman Lab. It has worked with clients such as Ben & Jerry’s, HP, and Visa. Guardian hopes branded content will provide a significant new revenue source. Other large newspapers, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, have also launched branded content divisions.

Freedom for the Story Author

Amazon set a few ground rules, such as the story had to be set in Los Angles, involve a cold case and involve a detective, but Guardian Labs had substantial leeway similar to any other investigative piece, according to Nieman Lab. Story author Jill Hillbrenner, a branded content strategist at Guardian Labs, interviewed people in Los Angeles and examined original documents when possible.

Unlike a real journalism story, Amazon Studios reviewed the completed story, although it didn’t make requests for any changes. Amazon lawyers reviewed the piece to make sure it was clear that it was branded content.  The story includes a small “Paid for by Bosch/Amazon” disclosure at the top of each page. At the bottom, there’s a disclosure with a brief plug for Amazon’s series.

“Perhaps the biggest success of “How to Solve a Murder” is what it’s done for branded content, proving that it doesn’t have to be a boring “advertorial” or thinly veiled sales pitch. When brands and media outlets team up, they can create something worth paying attention to,” comments EContent editor Theresa Cramer.

Bottom Line: Whether or not How to Solve a Mystery is a new form of marketing or simply a type branded content, it sets a high standard. Its results show that the best sponsored-content strategy may involve employing professional journalists, giving content creators wide latitude, and a church-state separation between content creators and the sponsoring brand during the story’s development.