In a world of media bias, the Wall Street Journal seeks objectivity

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The Wall Street Journal's VP of marketing and sales explained how the brand found its positioning during the 2016 presidential election.

Ever heard of Marmite? For Americans who don't know the British brand, it's a yeast-based spread with such a polarizing taste that it markets a "love it or hate it" message. But for Karl Wells, VP of sales and marketing for the Wall Street Journal, it's more than just a condiment; it's also a good comparison for Americans' divided sentiments towards President Donald Trump.

"What if President Trump is a bit like Marmite?" he asked the audience at last week's 2017 Brand Finance Global Forum in New York.

This political split also exists within media. Consider the following 2016 study by research firm Pew Research: Of the more than 4,000 US adults surveyed, 40 percent of the people who say they voted for Trump in the general election listed Fox News as their "main source" for campaign news; only 3 percent of Hillary Clinton voters said the same. Eighteen percent of Clinton voters cited CNN as their main campaign news source followed by MSNBC (9 percent), Facebook (8 percent) and local TV (8 percent). 

As for the Wall Street Journal's audience, Wells said it's fairly split. Another Pew Research analysis found that 36 percent of its readers are conservative, 32 percent are liberal, and 32 percent fall somewhere in the middle. And while these readers might not share political views, they do share a business focus.

Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, believes that it's the brand's duty to not be oppositional, Wells said. So, during the 2016 presidential election, the brand decided to focus on "the story, not the spectacle," Wells noted, and promote this message of being an objective, credible news source in its marketing. 

Striving to meet objectives with objectivity
There are a few ways the Wall Street Journal drove this message. The first is through its content and storytelling. Although the Wall Street Journal produces about 200 pieces of content every day, Wells said, it only promotes about 150 articles a week. The media brand relies on first-party data to segment its subscribers, he added, and send them content that pertains to their interests.

It also used ads to address consumers' distrust in media. According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, less than half (47 percent) of the general population trusts media. The Wall Street Journal ran ads that focused on objectivity, including ones that read "insights, not soundbites" and "The world reacts. We analyze."

In addition, the brand relied on "live storytelling," Wells said, and hosted conferences across the country to talk about how each administration would impact different areas of business.

Producing newsworthy results
Wells said that the Wall Street Journal experienced a "Trump bump" around election day. According to its publisher Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal's uniques on that Tuesday and Wednesday generated its highest volume since February 2014, and its orders and new subscribers had increased 160 percent over that two-day period, compared to the average. 

"November became the biggest selling month in the history of the Wall Street Journal," Wells said.

Marketing an evolving story
The media brand hasn't stopped marketing its message now that the election is over. Last month, it launched a new campaign called "The Face of Real News." The campaign features a series of short videos that shine the spotlight on the Wall Street Journal's staff, including investigative reporter John Carreyrou and opinion columnist Peggy Noonan.

But is the Wall Street Journal living up to its objective marketing claims? It depends on whom you ask. The New York Times and CNN have characterized the media brand as being more conservative, and Vox said the Wall Street Journal's post-election opinion pieces have been heading in a "pro-Trump direction." However, the Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial piece titled "A President's Credibility," which examined the "damage Mr. Trump is doing to his presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials, and other falsehoods." At the end of the article, the Wall Street Journal writes that Americans may even consider him a "fake president" if he doesn't start to show "more respect for the truth."

Wells also knows that the Wall Street Journal isn't immune to criticism, including Trump's opinions (as the following 2016 tweet shows).

Taking away a few lessons
So, what can marketers learn from the Wall Street Journal? First is the importance of knowing one's audience, which Wells said helped the Wall Street Journal find its right positioning and market a message that reflected its product. Also, he encouraged marketers to prepare to react to the unexpected. As he put it, "You never know when the president of the United States is going to tweet about your brand."