Dom Burch is a former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Walmart UK (Asda).
As marketeers we love giving the things we do badges of honour don't we?
Labeling them up for ease of use, whilst helping put a commercial value on them no doubt.
We like nothing more than putting everything into neat and tidy boxes.
By doing so of course we can then claim to our clients we are thinking outside of said box.
We spend inordinate amounts of our time trying to spot emerging trends, so we can then make wild predictions about their imminent rise, before creating entire frameworks and models to codify our often unsubstantiated theories.
Ideally all good marketing models start with the same letter of the alphabet, or spell out a handy acronym, or are a clever play on words.
By the way, it may sound like I'm turning my nose up at all this stuff, I'm not. I'm as guilty as the next marketeer.
I recently adapted my LEI model to LEAP.
Listen, engage, influence was OK, but listen, engage, appreciate, persuade felt more accurate, and let's be honest 'leap' sounds better than 'lei'.
My current bugbear though is the overuse of 'content marketing' which, in my humble view, risks becoming the new, or not so new, snake oil of our industry.
What does it even mean for goodness sake? If I could be bothered to ask, I would contact the Content Marketing Institute. But I can't.
Now, before this turns into a pointless grumpy rant, I want to direct you to an interesting piece on Harvard Business Review that got me thinking.
Entitled 'Branding in the Age of Social Media', the author Douglas Holt explores the vexing challenge facing brands in the age of Facebook and YouTube.
He makes the point that once audiences could start to opt out of ads, it became harder for brands to buy fame.
Hence, I suppose the rise in content marketing.
In old speak this simply meant if you can't make them watch your ads, why not try to be part of the programming instead. That way they can't avoid you. And the more 'native' the better. If you're really good at it they won't even notice you're there.
Hang on. Aren't we trying to make them notice our brand?
Anyway, Holt fairly successfully argues that a decade ago most companies were heralding the arrival of the new golden age of branding.
He says the thinking went like this: "Social media would allow your company to leapfrog traditional media and forge relationships directly with customers. If you told them great stories and connected with them in real time, your brand would become a hub for a community of consumers."
Sounds familiar. But he goes on to say that in spite of businesses investing billions pursuing this vision few brands have generated meaningful consumer interest online.
In fact, he argues, social media seems to have made brands even less significant.
Shit. What went wrong?
Holt says brands have only ever succeeded when they have broken through into culture, and that branding as a marketing discipline is merely "a set of techniques designed to generate cultural relevance".
"Digital technologies have not only created potent new social networks but also dramatically altered how culture works."
He goes on to chart the rise of crowd-culture, and although his case studies in my view don't really support the theory, I do think he's onto something.
He argues in order to brand effectively using social media, companies should target crowd-cultures.
"Today, in pursuit of relevance, most brands chase after trends. But this is a commodity approach to branding: Hundreds of companies are doing exactly the same thing with the same generic list of trends. It’s no wonder consumers don’t pay attention."
So what to make of it all?
We all get that the rise in influencers in recent years has presented a new opportunity for brands.
We understand we can now rent their audiences in order to create content that ultimately helps sell our wares, but how do creative agencies translate that into meaningful action?
As ever, the comments below this thought provoking HBR piece are vworth a read.
This one in particular struck a chord. It is attributed to Cirqus 6. I've tried to establish who that actually is in the real world so I could give them full credit, but failed.
Anyway, it's a very long response that deserves to be read in full, but I've grabbed a few chunks of it here for your ease:
"I think there are a few simple yet brutally frank truths that need to embraced. Fact is, branded content works. The problem for most large agencies however is that the crowd-culture is more creative, produces better content faster, taps into a global subcultural zeitgeist much better (because it is a part of that zeitgeist) and is completely unfettered by the norms and practices of traditional advertising....
"With the democratization of creativity and connectivity enabled by social media, the creative output caused by these responses to social situations is more authentic and therefore, results in more immediate and natural resonance...
"Large brands however, aren't designed to produce massive creative output in order to find a few successful hits; in fact they're designed to achieve the exact opposite - make creative hits as efficiently and quickly and cost effectively as possible...
"Brands need to, in the old parlance of the street, get over themselves. Take percentages of their massive budgets to support those who do create great content. If bloggers blog for the love of it yet influence the opinions of millions of people worldwide, reach out to bloggers and find simple ways to collaborate.
"What's painfully obvious now is that much of the in house creative from large brands and large agencies simply cannot compete any more with a globally connected structure of creatives. The open market has co-opted the conversation and brands need to find a way to maintain relevance in that conversation lest consumers more rapidly embrace what's now a nascent but growing phenomenon; creating for themselves, the products and services they desire, bypassing those created for them."
I literally couldn't have said it any better. A cop out perhaps, but there you go.
I'll leave the last words to Holt though. In his view companies need to shift their focus away from the platforms themselves and toward the real locus of digital power— crowd-cultures.
In my mind to do so requires a significant shift on the part of the marketing industry.
We're going to have to accept we are no longer the sole originator for the big creative idea.
In fact the 'ta da' moment we all revel in producing for our clients may have gone forever.
On that cheery note, I'm off to devise a new content marketing strategy for this blog.
Follow Dom on Twitter @domburch
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