CNN’s Sunita Rajan on nation branding, shifting content tides and integrity

Marketing sits with CNN’s Sunita Rajan to discuss the changing world of content marketing, journalistic integrity and why nation branding is so much more than just tourism.

In the bustle of Advertising Week’s Sydney event this year, Marketing had the pleasure of spending an hour with Sunita Rajan, senior vice president of advertising and sales at CNN.

With more than three decades of experience in marketing and media sales, Rajan now leads CNN’s advertising sales function across the Asia Pacific. CNN, she says, sees Australia as a ‘tier one market’ in digital growth and disruption; despite a common sentiment from Australian marketers and marketing bodies that Australia lags in these areas, Rajan is sure. “They are! There’s evidence to prove that.”

Rajan also speaks about the concept of nation branding, manipulating elements of a nation’s perception – those that are subject to manipulation, anyway – to convey its character in the most authentic and favourable manner possible. 

“A nation brand is more than the veneer of a tourism brand,” Rajan asserts. “Yes it started off as working with countries looking to promote their destination from a tourism perspective. But it’s gone well beyond that.”

Today, CNN works with a variety of nations to best convey their suitability for foreign direct investment, commercial viability and other invitations of development – telling a nation’s story employing the same channels and techniques CNN has honed in telling brand stories for more than a decade.

Marketing learns more about nation branding, Australia’s place in the international digital race, growth in content marketing, how publishers reconcile competing interests from partner brands and much more.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Marketing: Why do you think Australia leads in digital growth and disruption?

Sunita Rajan CNN 150 BWSunita Rajan, senior vice president of advertising and sales, CNN: Yes, there is evidence to prove that. Even in our business, which is international news, Australia is what we call a tier one market. It’s an important market for two reasons, one is the adoption of digital technology and the digital ecosystem, and the second is – from a news perspective – we’ve seen Australians extremely interested not just in global and international news, but actually US politics and news about the US economy.

In that sense, this is an important market for us, but we’ve also seen the profile of advertising shift where digital has become much more front and centre. That has been enabled by a lot of publishers and partners as well, focusing on this market, developing product that’s tailored for this market, having localised versions and demographics of the population. You’ve got a much younger population, a Millennial population who are digital natives and who’ve adopted both mobile and social very quickly and effectively.

We look at markets that are data-driven markets; markets that are traditional markets, where you have perhaps linear TV being quite big for brands and advertisers; and then hybrid markets, which is a combination of being data-centric as well as having traditional forms of advertising communication.

But Australia sits very clearly in that first cluster, which is a data-driven market. It is in the company of the US, Canada, UK – all very typical markets where you see digital, data and direct-to-consumer being very important mediums and platforms.

What is nation branding?

As a news brand, a well-known global content and media company and an organisation that is at the forefront of the biggest news stories, we have an audience that is extremely attractive both in terms of scale as well as profile. And we have a high proportion of C-level executives, influencers, policymakers and business decision makers. These are audiences that are attractive to countries and companies within that country because they want to be able to shift perception and to be able to attract investment, trade, partnerships and travellers into the country.

When we think about nation branding, yes it started off as working with countries looking to promote their destination from a tourism perspective. But it’s gone well beyond that. When I think about Asia and the region that I represent, and the conversations that we have across the geography, we’ve seen economies, governments and countries that are well-poised to actually take their brand message on a global stage. 

Look at Vietnam, one of the fastest growing economies in South-East Asia – massive potential with the population being young, being a wide community that is not just a cheap labour force for the manufacturing sector. They actually have the knowledge base and the intelligence to be working with companies outside of Vietnam. Whether that’s from a research and development perspective, whether that’s from a manufacturing perspective. 

These economies have recognised that in order to survive, it’s more than just the domestic population and their consumption that’ll make a difference. So they have got to look out, they have got to be able to project their image and what they stand for and what’s unique about them.

That has to be across a wide variety of stakeholders, not just tourism. The tourism economy is responsible for two out of 10 jobs in the world – that’s not a well-known fact. Anything that a destination does to promote travel to its country – it also provides for people’s livelihoods, jobs, keeps airlines in business – it’s significantly important.

But we’re working with more than just tourism boards, we work with governments to attract foreign direct investment and we help shape their message. 

A recent example is we’ve been working with Thailand for the past two years because it has a very large corridor called the Eastern Economic Corridor. That has a bunch of provinces which are being developed by the government for companies to come and put boots on the ground and set up manufacturing, subsidiary companies or operating companies. 

The message, if you like, is really about why Thailand is ready for countries in the Western world or other parts of Asia to set up a base there. That’s really about attracting foreign direct investment into Thailand over a long period of time. 

So what does investment in Thailand look like? We were able to help shape that message, which goes beyond just the stats, facts and figures about subsidies, land and free working Visas etc. This is about why Thailand is unique as compared to other markets.

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What does the process look like when a nation engages CNN to work on its brand?

Our rule, really, is to help brands, including country brands, tell their story. Tell their story in different formats and in different ways. We do that by working with our colleagues in editorial who produce 3800 hours of feature programming, where we turn the spotlight on a country. 

We’ve done it in Japan for a few years now, where we talk about the culture, the lifestyle, the food, the people, the indigenous traits and cultural traditions that people need to know about. So it’s presenting the texture and flavour of what the country has to offer.

On the commercial side, we help with branded content – which can be on digital, social, television – where we create a brand film. We write digital articles for clients, we populate the content on social or on their own platforms. We work like a content and media partner. We also have a consultancy in-house which has the expertise and has been working for the last 12 years on nation branding. 

We work with countries not just during ‘happy times’, if you like, too. When they’re looking to promote their brand globally, but also when they reach times of crisis or disaster. We help them with shaping their messaging. 

Not just from a ‘first response’ point of view, but actually, ‘how do you re-engage, rejuvenate and get the world to take notice and come back?’ It starts with the traveller, but then it moves on to business and moves on to other forms in which money comes back into the country. We can help them with that story.

Branded content and client storytelling is an interesting space at the moment – there are certain brands that choose not to engage and there certain brands that are whole-heartedly adopting it. How do you see this medium evolving?

Today, more than 60% of the campaigns we carry on CNN – across all of our platforms – touch our brand studio. Our brand studio is called CNN Create, it’s our in-house agency carrying the full set of capabilities from technical expertise and execution expertise. That’s everything from writing, filming, production, web development to site development. Create works hand in glove with the sales team. 

Scale and reach is nothing if you can’t get the right content in front of that audience, because they’ll turn off and go elsewhere. They come to you for your journalism, they come to you for your purpose. But they also have other passions and interests, and therefore they consume other content, whether that’s sport, travel or business. 

To be able to shape a brand story, or a brand message, by immersing the audience with that story in a stylish and sophisticated way, but also be conscious of the fact that it’s not pure play advertising, it’s a brand story that you have to tell in the context, in the flow, of how the audience is consuming the content – and this is purely digital. You have to be careful as to how you shape that story. We’ve seen a huge uptake and increase in the way brands across Asia – and some of the brands we have in Australia – are adopting branded content. 

Why are more brands choosing to experiment with branded content as opposed to more traditional advertising channels?

From our perspective, because we have scale on TV and digital and social – particularly digital – we see the value in brands engaging with us in telling their story and attaching content to the audiences that we can deliver. That’s why brands want to work with you, they come to you through your audiences.

You’ve got automated ways of trading now, and we do, but that’s a very small percentage of our business.

If we can help them by saying ‘this is what we know CNN audiences care about – they care about style, they care about fashion, they care about being a first-mover, being technology adopters; they care about sustainability, they care about the girl, child and woman – if you can help educate brands on some of the themes and the content that our audiences are consuming organically, and they have an associated interest with some of those themes, brands want to tell stories in that context. 

We’ve seen that works. We’ve had a higher spontaneous ad awareness for the brand, we’ve had a higher recall for the campaign, we’ve had engagement hat tricks that we deliver for the money that brands spend with us so we are accountable. It does work, and we’re seeing more of that.

You can sell traditional advertising in a traditional way, and there are still clients who buy that – straight-forward TV campaigns, straight-forward share-of-voice digital campaigns. But increasingly we’re seeing more and more clients wanting to participate in the conversation. That doesn’t mean having a Facebook page. It means actually being able to articulate what your brand stands for and what your purpose is – because brands and marketers recognise that consumers are very discerning and also quite dismissive. 

If consumers don’t relate to a brand, it’s much harder to be able to push product off the shelf. They come to premium publishers like CNN because we have a trusted environment and a capacity to infuse authentic storytelling – because that’s what we do with our journalism – and we have scale. If you’re looking at a very niche audience and you have a particular message that you want to communicate, we have the tools. There are others that have it as well; what differentiates us is the content being tailored to the audience. You don’t get the content without the audience in the branded content space. We’re not a content factory without media being attached to it.

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Assumably there are instances where coverage on the news side of CNN conflicts with the interests of partners on the commercial side of CNN – how do you reconcile this?

That’s integrity, really, integrity of the brand. We’ve been around for four decades, and the vision and the spirit in which Ted Turner (founder of CNN) set up the business as Cable News Network prevails and continues to date – which is about telling the story and going where the story is. That is not just in politics, current affairs or disaster and crisis stories, it’s in the stories about businesses and brands, it’s in the stories about technology.

Yes, our news journalists at CNN will continue to tell the story – good, bad and ugly. We provide a balanced view, because we don’t have an opinion.

When advertisers come to us, they recognise that there is church and state. There’s a very clear line between the two. They wouldn’t come to us if we were going to dilute both their message or our audience profile by providing content that is not authentic. When we do branded content, yes, brands have their share of voice and we talk about their brand story, but we author it, we edit it and we have to make sure that it lives up to what the CNN audiences expect. 

We have to drive engagement, which is what we promise, but we and the clients are also mindful of the fact that the news is the news. There are things that we have to talk about, whether it’s on an industry topic or particular area – the CNN news team will continue to do that. I have no control over that.

The mature advertisers and profile of clients that we deal with recognise that, there’s no expectation.

Quickfire

A brand doing it right?

Apple. Style and consumer insights into what we don’t yet know we want.

A brand doing it wrong?

Oh, tough one. That would fall into the space of some personal brands, and I won’t name names, but personal brands can get it wrong sometimes.

Is there a trend in content marketing that you would like to see addressed or improved upon?

I’d love for more CEOs to be around for more than two years, because when you embark on a journey of telling a brand story you would like it to see continuity and evolution. Quite often we see that brands pivot as people change, and that becomes much more challenging for a publisher and a partner to be able to evidence, grow and build upon what was a great idea that worked.

What could CNN be doing better?

News for Millennial and Gen Z audiences who will be the decision makers of tomorrow.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career, what would be the piece of advice you would give yourself?

To be an early adopter of the power of technology and what technology can do to improve not just your job but the way in which you understand your customers. You didn’t have that as much three decades ago. You had utility technology, and even that was not that popular or well used.

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Image credit:Jason Leung

Josh Loh
BY Josh Loh ON 11 October 2019
Josh Loh is assistant editor at MarketingMag.com.au