media | Feb 8, 2023 |
The new rule of brand publishing: Don’t mention the brand

Scott Hudson was dealing with a peculiar editing challenge. The founder and CEO of Seattle design brand Henrybuilt was putting together an in-house publication and had hired a writer to pen a history of the system kitchen. The problem was that the writer, understandably, had included several references to Henrybuilt. Hudson was worried it came across as chintzy, so he began the odd process of cutting his company out of an article that had been written to market his company.

“We took some of it out, and it still felt bad. We took even more of it out, and it still felt bad,” he recalls. “Finally, there was just this one reference, but we realized that that’s just the thing that makes the whole thing feel like bullshit. All it took was that one little link.”

Hudson never published the systems kitchen article. But this week, Henrybuilt is unveiling a monthly digital publication, Untapped, edited by design journalist Tiffany Jow. The debut issue, focused on the theme of “Are things moving fast enough?,” has a stylish function-as-form look and a cerebral vibe, with articles like “The Radical Potential of ‘Prime Objects’” and “A Conversation About Generalists, Velocity, and the Source of Innovation.” What it does not contain is a single reference—or link—to a Henrybuilt product.

In that, Untapped is not entirely alone. In recent years, the push for brand publications to draw a line between brand and publication seems to have grown stronger. Witness outward-looking titles like The Current by Urban Electric or Schumacher’s Frederic, which covers competitive brands and sells ads. Even RH is doing it: On a recent earnings call, chairman and CEO Gary Friedman announced that he had hired former Architectural Digest editor in chief Margaret Russell to launch RH Media, a platform that “will position the brand as an authority in the industry … not [by] speaking about ourselves, [but by] speaking about the people who are really shaping the world of architecture and design.”

Why the editorial independence arms race? Mostly, it’s the increasing sophistication of consumers, who, pummeled with #content all day long, can tell when they’re being pandered to. The drive to separate brand from publication is so powerful that the issue has evidently become slightly charged; representatives from RH, Urban Electric and Schumacher all declined to speak for this article.

In a recent edition of her publishing newsletter Toolkits, industry observer Shareen Pathak pointed out that, increasingly, brands are calculating that it’s impossible to do content marketing and brand publishing at the same time, writing: “Execs say they’re more likely to produce engaging content if they don’t have to worry about product marketing.” That’s especially the case with the affluent, educated demographic most high-end home brands are trying to court. As Hudson himself found out, all it takes is one little shill to make the whole endeavor feel cheap, and cheap is the one thing a luxury brand can’t afford to be.

On the supply side, brands looking for editors and journalists to make their publications will find plenty of takers. As the traditional design media has been squeezed by a pullback in ad spending, editorial budgets have been cut, and writers are under more pressure to deliver for advertisers. That particular set of business physics has led to an ironic outcome: Editors in search of greater independence are leaving behind traditional media outlets to work for a brand.

“Print publications can’t survive on just print ads anymore, so everyone is experimenting and trying to figure that out in different ways. It was really impacting how I worked as an editor in terms of what got published and what my role was,” says Jow, the former design editor of Surface. “Within our industry I want to highlight people who are contributing to architecture and design in positive ways, especially those who can’t afford to hire a PR person to get a press release in my inbox. When Henrybuilt offered the opportunity to lead a publication along those lines … it’s a privileged position to be in.”

There’s another, more personal element to the rise of independent brand media: Some executives just want to do it. Hudson—who has worked in publishing—fits the bill. “I think we had this craving that we needed more substantial and thoughtful writing on the ideas behind our work—it’s a problem in our little industry,” he says. “If you look back in the 1960s and ’70s, there was incredible writing on architecture and design. … Now everything is so ad-driven, and journalism is fighting for survival. I think substantial coverage of the ideas behind what we do is important.”

Untapped, with its intellectual tenor and minimalist aesthetic—it feels very much like the digital incarnation of a long-lost 1960s design journal—seems to reflect Hudson’s original inspiration. The choice to avoid covering Henrybuilt, even in a roundabout way, also feels like it comes partially from Hudson’s own asceticism.

“We looked at the history of brand publications, and recent publications, that do what we’re doing—not really talking about the company,” he says. “We actually only found one [Foscarini’s Inventario] that really does it. People say they’re not writing about their products, but they’re talking about their clients. If we write about the architects that use our stuff, that’s cheating.”

However, Hudson insists that Untapped is not an intellectual exercise for its own sake, but a way to engage with Henrybuilt’s core clients: architects and well-educated homeowners who are clued into the world of design. “This isn’t light reading, necessarily, and there will be a relatively small readership,” he says. “But a lot of our clients are in the tech industry, and they’re pretty interested in the kinds of things we’ll be writing about.” In that, Untapped is designed to not only scratch a publishing itch, but to satisfy a marketing goal and position Henrybuilt (along with its sister companies Space Theory and Symbolic Frameworks) as the thinking person’s kitchen brand.

There are risks to ventures like Untapped. Just as it’s difficult to make sponcon feel compelling, it’s hard to make truly engaging media that ruffles no feathers whatsoever. Hudson says that the first piece of feedback Henrybuilt received about the publication was from someone who said they were “disappointed” in the brand for being too focused on diversity and inclusion in highlighting Black artists and designers. “It was a strange reaction to have and take the time to write an email about,” says Hudson. “But I’m confident this is the right thing to do, and we have several articles planned [that focus on Black creatives].”

That flavor of criticism may be easy to brush off, but as the publication explores what independence looks like, it will be interesting to see if it can attract and engage an audience without irking any Henrybuilt customers or commercial partners. In Untapped’s first issue, architecture critic Kate Wagner writes about a brief outage of the ubiquitous modeling software Autodesk and what it says about the hyper-speed, digitized practice of architecture. Publishing that kind of piece—with its implicit criticism of Autodesk and broader critique of architectural culture—is notably bold for a branded publication. But it’s harder to imagine Untapped putting out another of Wagner’s recent articles, a take-no-prisoners jeremiad against the vapid fluffiness of single family “house porn” found in magazines like Architectural Digest.

Jow says the focus of Untapped is on problem-solving, not provocation. “Do we want to provoke? In a way, yes,” she says. “But ultimately, there’s this other goal of coming up with ideas through looking backward. What’s the best of the past we can learn from?”

The bigger challenge may simply be that it’s hard to tell how well initiatives like Untapped really work. In an era defined by increasingly specific data points, independent publishing resists clear metrics. You can track page views and social followings, but without shoppable links pointing back to the mothership, executives are left to guess at whether engagement is actually leading to sales.

The first year of Untapped will cost Henrybuilt somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000, money that was largely carved out of the brand’s advertising and events budgets. When Hudson initially proposed the idea, there was some internal pushback within the company. “It was a bit of a leap,” he says. “The marketing people said, ‘You can’t just publish content—it has to have a call to action.’”

That exact dynamic is why brand publications have often sputtered out at large, data-obsessed companies that sell low-cost products at scale. Casper, Dollar Shave Club, Shopify, Airbnb—among many others—have all experimented with independent publishing initiatives only to quickly cancel or spin them off. When the rest of your business is run on numbers, it’s difficult to justify an initiative with a murky ROI.

High-end design—already a murky place—may in fact be the perfect environment for such publications to thrive. Here, brand prestige means a lot, and there are few one-click e-commerce purchases anyway, so metrics-driven content marketing is rarely a fit. Moreover, the low-volume, high-value transactions that define the industry make the math behind brand publishing more palatable. An individual sale for Henrybuilt can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If Untapped paves the way for just one per year, the publication will have justified its existence.

“I could spend a few hundred thousand dollars on advertising that would evaporate within days or even seconds, but if we write an article in Untapped it becomes a long-term asset, it’s searchable, and those ideas can be linked to the commercial success of Henrybuilt,” says Hudson. “If people are connecting with it, if our clients reach out to me about it, we’ll know it’s working.”

Homepage photo: An illustration from the debut issue of Untapped | Sam Pease

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