How many times have you heard (or used) the words ‘Red Bull’ when describing content marketing to someone unfamiliar with the term? For me, it’s several times a week – and judging by a brief conversation I recently had with Robin Bonn at Seven Digital (who added Dove to the list), I’m not the only one. It seems that, to the content marketing world, Red Bull is what Oreo became to social marketers, and I’ve heard rumours that dunking in the dark gets a bit repetitive after a while, too.
Granted, content-driven companies don’t come much bigger than Red Bull or Dove, but there are so many other wonderful examples, and it’s a shame that we tend to rely on the same ones so heavily. More importantly, there are older examples, many of which put a pin in the myth that this is an industry born of this millennium. I think that’s important. The rapid proliferation of digital content marketing makes it seem young and lawless, and subsequently clients are wary of buying into it.
The rapid proliferation of digital content marketing makes the industry seem young and lawless, and subsequently clients are wary of buying into it
Interestingly, I’ve found that using these older examples to explain content marketing to clients often results in a pleasing ‘light bulb moment’ – a recognition of what you’re suggesting they get involved in, and a realisation that it’s something they’re already familiar with.
The aim of this article is really to get a little conversation going – a kind of ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’. I’d love to hear about the examples that other marketers use to help clients understand what it is that you do, and which examples seem to have a positive effect. Here are a couple of classics to get the conversation going.
The Michelin Guide and content marketing
There can be few more perfect examples of content marketing at work than the Michelin Guide. In a recent post, I described content marketing strategy as ‘[helping the client] to work out where they share interests with their audience – what their audience is likely to be comfortable with and what they can make good use of,’ which is precisely what André and Édouard Michelin did back in 1900 when they knocked out 35,000 copies of their inaugural guide in order to sell car tyres.
In truth, for the first couple of decades the guide didn’t do much restaurant reviewing at all. It’s a myth that the brothers recognised the link between French drivers and their willingness to drive to restaurants immediately, but their decision to cover all things automotive rather than just their own product was prescient enough.
A truly international manufacturer-turned-publisher, in many ways the Michelins were the Red Bull of their day
For the first 26 years, the guides covered motoring advice, breakdown know-how, worthwhile hotels and restaurants, and maps showing the location of petrol stations. By the end of the first decade alone, they had expanded their reach to cover 14 different countries and regions in two different languages. A truly international manufacturer-turned-publisher, in many ways they were the Red Bull of their day.
It wasn’t until 1926 that the guide started awarding its famed stars, by which point they’d moved heavily into restaurant reviewing (having realised that the restaurants section was proving popular, they effectively changed their content strategy). It’s this version of the Michelin Guide that is best known, and subsequently easiest to hold up as a quick-to-grasp example of pure content marketing.
By the 1950s, Michelin – an automotive company – were rightly celebrated for publishing authoritative foodie books, safe in the knowledge that driving to these off-the-beaten-track restaurants would need maps and recommendations as much as it’d require rubber tyres.
David Sarnoff, RCA and content marketing
Emerging at a similar time to the Michelin brothers, David Sarnoff was a key player in the rise of broadcast radio. As an enthusiast of the nascent industry in the 1910s, Sarnoff had a dubious start, falsely claiming to have manned the telegraph for three days straight as rescue ships searched for survivors of the Titanic. His claim to being a content marketing pioneer (not that he ever made one) may have a little more substance to it.
The scene on which he made such a powerful impression is explained by the author Bill Bryson in his book, One Summer: America 1927:
‘Two things were by no means assured in 1920. Radio at the time was an exciting novelty, but a radio set was also a costly investment and people weren’t at all sure that it was worth the outlay, particularly if the only available programming was provided by a local bank or insurance broker or poultry farm. Companies that made radios didn’t care what people listened to, or whether they listened at all, once the radios were bought.’
Until Sarnoff came along, the idea that a single broadcaster could hold the attention of more than one listener seems to have escaped almost everyone involved
Sarnoff, now gainfully employed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), had already realised that giving people a reason to purchase the products might make them more desirable. Much like the Michelin brothers, he saw that the item itself held only limited fascination. It seems almost incomprehensible now, but until Sarnoff came along, the idea that a single broadcaster could hold the attention of more than one listener seems to have escaped almost everyone involved.
He became known within RCA as a drafter of excitable memos – largely ignored by his superiors until April 1921, when he managed to arrange a radio broadcast of a heavyweight bout between boxers Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. 300,000 people tuned in to hear a rough and ready commentary – the first of its kind, of course – and Sarnoff’s reputation was secure.
Within half a year, radio sales had boomed, and the man that eventually became known as ‘the General’ began an upward trajectory that ultimately saw him achieve the presidency of RCA, while simultaneously playing a central role in the development of television. Not bad for a man whose career began on such a dubious note.
Examples of pre-digital brands that put the audience’s interests before the product are surprisingly common. If you can, get iProspect’s Nick Wilsdon to wax lyrical on the 1895 Sears Roebuck catalogue and its self test guide for ‘old sight, near sight and astigmatism’ (let’s just say it’s far more riveting than it sounds). Do feel free to drop your own examples in the comments section below the line. If nothing else, it would be good to have a repository of stories that can demonstrate the age and maturity of content marketing – an industry that is a lot older than most people assume.
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