By James Ledbetter
The views expressed are his own.
Last year on a drizzly Seattle morning I visited the corporate headquarters of Starbucks to talk about social media. At the time, Starbucks had about 2 million of what were then called “fans” on its Facebook page. That audience was both large and engaged enough, a company representative said, that Starbucks had recently been approached by another firm that wanted to advertise specifically on the Starbucks Facebook page. Starbucks declined the offer, but only after serious consideration. “We had to decide if we really wanted to be on that side of the publishing business,” the representative told me.
It’s a striking reminder that in the Twitter-and-tablet age, not only can anyone become a publisher, but for big consumer-facing companies, the real question is: how much of a publisher do you want to be? The question carries an added weight when you consider how many traditional publishers these days are trying to exit that business.
Non-publishers becoming publishers is not new. For twenty years, the Italian clothing retailer Benetton has put out a magazine called Colors. Richard Branson had a buzzy launch for his “Project” magazine/app last year. One of the more ambitious and technologically sophisticated efforts of recent years has been American Express’s Open Forum which — in addition to aggregating (usually small-business-related) content published elsewhere — has commissioned videos from traditional media outlets and then distributed them through a Web ad platform. (I made a few such videos at a previous job.) The advantages are obvious: unlike an ad placed in a magazine or on TV, the company gets to control how much or little integration with the content it wants to have, or even control the content altogether.
Yet even with such precedents, it’s rare to see something as sweeping as the Web site Société Perrier, which describes itself as “a global source for everything interesting in art, music, fashion, travel, nightlife and cocktail culture.” If you want to know who’s playing this weekend in Dubai, or how to get into a “secret bar” in Moscow, you can find out from this site, which is 100% produced by the company that’s sold fizzy water for more than a century (and in 1992 became part of Nestlé). At least half a dozen staff editors run the site from New York, L.A. and London, and dozens of others contribute on a freelance basis.
To hear the company tell it, Société Perrier is an urgently needed solution to an image problem. Perrier has to “recover its iconic status,” Jorge Torres, marketing group manager for premium brands at Nestle Waters, told me. “It’s a little bit old, and a little bit dusty.” The answer to that problem is usually the same — engage the younger consumer — but if everyone knew how to quench that thirst, Perrier wouldn’t be in this position today. Within the United States, the challenge is even larger, because our tastes are increasingly domestic. While the U.S. continues to be the world’s biggest market by volume for bottled water — and Nestlé the biggest player in it — U.S. sales of imported water are down 44% from their peak in 2004, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.