How CNN’s Courageous Studio Taps Print to Showcase Its Video Work

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Why would a leading maker of cross-platform branded content choose to showcase its work in a printed magazine?  When CNN’s in-house brand studio, Courageous, began distributing an oversized, high-design quarterly, we spoke with the team behind it to understand the vision and how the studio aims to bring the power of storytelling to another dimension.  Chief Creative Officer of Courageous, Otto Bell, set the stage, while Director of Design Sean Brown and Senior Designer Marites Algones, who brought the book to life beginning with the Fall 2017 inaugural issue, explained their rationale and creative approach during the interview.

Jane Cavalier:  What inspired you to create a quarterly print magazine to showcase the work of Courageous?

Otto Bell: I spend a lot of time sitting in media agency waiting rooms and noticed that many of them didn’t have anything worth reading on their coffee tables. One goal was to put a copy of this magazine on every single media agency coffee table in America. Another was to memorialize the films and videos we’ve made on behalf of our brand partners in a tangible form. The magazine also gives our design team some real estate to showcase what they’re capable of doing.

The layer on top is that this magazine contains content marketing news, proprietary research, photo essays, field reports from branded content shoots and editorial articles. It’s a nice way to celebrate our branded work, as well as what CNN Digital does best. They go to incredible corners of the world and bring back treasures.  This magazine is a way to bottle up all of this work.

Cavalier: How is this magazine an expression of your brand studio’s mission, to be “bold, relevant and courageous”?

Bell: Our aspiration is to create work that equals the quality of glossy production companies that creative agencies have historically opted to work with, and we’re doing that. We were just awarded best video publisher partner for brands in the country by Digiday. We are constantly trying to push the definition of branded content -- our recent move into live advertising and virtual reality are strong examples. We have 52 points of distribution across CNN, HLN and Great Big Story, which gives us great creative latitude.

In print, we genuinely want people to experience us the same way that they experience our work in video. We want people to be smarter when they put down the magazine then when they picked it up. It's kind of an acid test for us. That's why the magazine is anchored by really beautiful, editorial feature stories from CNN.com, alongside our branded content work.

Cavalier: Why did you choose print as the medium to showcase your work instead of digital?

Sean Brown: The magazine works to enhance and enrich what we are already doing in digital. It is something you pick up, dive deep into and read. It serves as a continuation of what we're making in motion. Print allows us to focus on moments that help us tell the story of a film in a new way. We use the magazine’s layout to control the pacing. Someone can open the print content and just get lost for a little while.

Marites Algones: Adding print allows us to create a more intimate and enriching storytelling experience because someone has the ability to touch it; it’s a physical object that’s a tangible artifact of all our inner workings and branded content.  It makes our work real on another level.

Cavalier: How does the editorial structure differ from a traditional magazine?

Brown: We reversed the traditional format. With traditional magazines, there is an ad next to editorial content. We've said, "This is Courageous content, and this is editorial" and flipped it a bit. At the same time, we're really transparent on the page about what is Courageous content and what is CNN editorial. Where we work, it's facts first. We never try to lure our audience to think this is one type of content versus another. We don't need to use gimmicks and trickery to get our branded content out there. It stands on its own two legs.

Cavalier: Can you talk about the deliberate design decisions made for the magazine?

Bell: For Courageous the magazine, form and content are innately intertwined. It is an epic book to memorialize epic work. The large size, gold foil titling, glossy logo emboss, heavy weight matte and paper stock provide a rich visual and tactile experience that has real stopping power. We needed the same standard for our print work as our industry leading video work for brands.

Algones: We're using really simple typography because content is king. It's how we structure the magazine. We like to capture the visual cadence of the stories. Also, I love to make something even more beautiful when it moves to print. All of these projects are artwork, and I see the magazine as a piece of art.

Cavalier: What do you want the reaction to be when someone reads this?

Brown: In the first issue we showcased Princess Cruises. I want people to look at that story and say, "This is about a cruise ship. Look how beautiful this work is and how uniquely they're telling the story. How can I get them to tell a story like that for my brand?" I want anyone who sees it to be amazed at these stories and surprised that they’re branded content.

Cavalier: What’s coming up next for the spring magazine?

Brown: We're working on a project at Courageous right now that's a fully interactive experience. We're hoping to make it one of our features in the next issue. It'll be interesting, because it's video and web interactive together. It will showcase our developers, development process and storytelling in a mixed media way.

Photos courtesy of Courageous

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