The only magic of content is that it makes your brand disappear

Brands are built in the public eye, not behind the curtains. This is why the best-known brands in the world spend billions of dollars on advertising in mass media. The moment they decide to spend those billions on content alone, it will be curtains for them.

Content marketing is not what an astonishing number of marketing gurus make it out to be: the next big thing in brand building if not its very future. Advertising is as good as dead seems to be the general opinion. Because it is about sending messages and – stop the presses – here’s the news: no one today wants to receive messages he or she cannot respond to.

And, ladies and gentlemen, here is why: today’s consumers want to interact. Yes, they do, they want to have a conversation with a brand. They want brands to get into a really meaningful dialogue with them. So many interesting topics to talk about, after all.

Like “Why is the lid on your pot of marmalade always screwed on so tight?” Or the riveting, burning question that is keeping fast-food lovers awake at night: “Do the salad leaves on your hamburger come from a local farmer?”

I won’t deny there is a semblance of value in feasting your customers on content featuring tidbits about your brand and your products. If you have the billions of dollars to keep that up for the next 50 years or so, it might even grow your brand trust some 0.05%.

That is to say, the brand trust of the customers you’d have left.

The world’s your stage

Content marketing is now presented as the inevitable, modern-day, best way to attract, connect and interact with a well-defined target audience. The internet has changed everything about the way consumers look at brands and buy their products. So, brands need to shift their advertising budget to content and focus on their online presence.

Interestingly enough, there is no proof that this is so. If anything, there is more proof that great, inventive advertising works even better today than it ever has before. Nike’s Kaepernick TV ad was a TV ad, not just a piece of YouTube or website content.

It became content because of the value of the message and the fame and authority of the Nike brand. It touched a nerve in the public mind and off it went, flying around the world in a zillion tweets (content), millions of news media websites (content) and endless online comments (content).

In the good old, mass media TV audience days, the same commercial would have probably done the same but slower. If there is anything praiseworthy about the effect of content, it is that it brings great advertising to more people in less time.

Brands establish themselves best by showing themselves on the biggest stages in the world. There is hardly any modern-day brand that will make its way to the top by content alone. Even in small markets like the Netherlands or Belgium, you’ll still only be seen as a serious brand after having appeared on TV with a commercial.

No matter if your brand or your product has been doing really well on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, collecting a lovely following. The brand will still be a niche brand, an interesting brand but still an unknown brand. A brand that may profit from mouth-to-mouth endorsement because of people picking it up in their timeline, but progress will still be painfully slow. The minute that brand gets on TV with a commercial, even a bad one, it will make the leap onto the stage where big brands are born.

Lost in space

Content is not just content. It is a monster that is continuously growing more heads with more mouths to feed. For instance, what sorts of content have we got here: custom publishing and media, customer media and publishing, member and private media, branded content, branded journalism, custom content, branded media – to name a few.

To feed them all, we have come up with something called content marketing. This is a downright ridiculous name – you market brands and products, you don’t market content. It says a lot about the uncritical way the marketing industry has taken to this new phenomenon. Somehow, somewhere, it was coined by those quirky, creative website builders who got together with some clever media guys and started convincing advertisers to pour money into all sorts of really cool online pop-up, roll-out, slide-in dynamic stuff.

When all this started to take off – many advertisers will never admit it – this whole new take on communication instruments dazzled them not a little. That’s how traditional advertising agencies, even the most creative ones on the planet, suddenly saw large chunks of their best clients’ budgets taken away from them to be spent by “creative content makers” and “creative producers,” all wired inside startup lofts with beanbags, veggie pizzas and ping-pong tables. How many billions of dollars have been thrown away on online banners and other clickbait over the past decade or so is hard to imagine, but it must be an amount with which you could feed all the world’s poor twice over.

Now, introducing a product, communicating a web shop sale, selling concert tickets: I can understand why you’d want to choose online content and online advertising. Everybody and their mum is online, and online delivers all you’d want for great activation or promotional campaigns: the alluring quick fix of something nice, fun or useful is just a click away. After all, even now that we are used to it, going online can feel like being a five-year-old kid entering the greatest toy store on the planet. Where to begin? And going to this one first, two seconds later you hop off to hop on this other tempting carousel to have a go round.

Online there is so much to see, so many places to go and to stray away from. People leave websites faster than they switch TV channels; I don’t have any scientific proof for this bold statement, but I’m confident that it will stand up to scrutiny in daily practice. That element alone prompts me to add that content is not made to push brands forward in a big way. Content won’t build your brand any further than an ad in a local newspaper would. The majority of online content is really like trying to pick a stock to invest in by throwing darts at The Wall Street Journal stock quotes page. The worst of it is that content seems easy to produce, and better yet, so cheap. Alas, it is not so....

Feeding the beast

We’re talking about a beast that needs to be fed constantly. You need deep pockets to get its food freshly created and produced, and on a far more regular basis than for plain and simple advertising. Just because online media buying differs from traditional media buying doesn’t mean it is cheap. And although many advertisers seem to think that online video is cheaper to produce because of the word “video” it turns out that it is not. You will still need to hire people to come up with the ideas for it. You will still need to hire production teams to film it. You will still need serious executional and media budgets to come up with the goods that fit your brand.

More than that: you still need to do something special to get your brand noticed in the way your brand identity deserves. Because there is no escaping the dire truth about content: it works best when you create such great offline content that it will in turn create online content. That has become the trick behind the true magic of content.

Red Bull is one example of a brand that has gone to extreme lengths to express its extremely energetic identity through incredible content. It is one of the few brands that actually produces content, and even I find it hard to overlook its merit. The live stream of Felix Baumgartner jumping from the edge of space to land on earth by parachute was followed with bated breath by billions of people around the planet. The Red Bull Formula 1 team makes sure a great many loyal racing fans are served up riveting online coverage, inside stories, social media trending hashtags and other fun creative content from Red Bull week after week for a better part of the year. Red Bull has a whole calendar filled with new, self-created extreme sports that generates attention and excitement around the brand.

There’s hardly a brand in the world that does content so well and so consistently as it does. At Red Bull they have understood that content will only serve to strengthen the brand if you keep feeding the beast with the tastiest stuff you can think of and then turn that out in great quantities, time and time again.

The question is: could your brand afford that too? My guess is that 99% of the brands in the world would not be able to afford it. Only the biggest and bravest brands can approach that level of content presence. And here we’re back where we started: those are exactly the brands that got big by spending their money either on great advertising or if not on a hell of a lot of mediocre advertising over a long period of time. And they still do.

A lot of effort to reach not a lot of people

Advertising is and feels visible to a lot of people at the same time. If you’re on the couch watching a commercial break during a sports match, you actually know you’re one of tens of millions doing the same thing. If you’re on a website seeing the next “This is how our hamburgers are made” piece of content popping up, it is much more of a private experience. Somehow you don’t feel part of an experience you can share around the watercooler with your colleagues the next day. “Hey guys, how about that banner, huh?”

Content is just not capable of generating shared excitement for brands and that is its Achilles heel. People buy brands because those brands say something about those people to other people who know exactly what they are saying. Brands need to be built in the public domain of mass media. If they are being built by way of content alone, they won’t reach that stage of awareness – let alone fame – that makes them valuable enough for people to buy, to wear, to show off. Brands built by content alone will always be obscure brands, because unless the brands’ owners are be willing to spend megafortunes, they will never, ever become serious brands.

Content, as an instrument of brand building, is one of the most overrated mistakes of marketing mankind. It is so vast and so diverse a media type that brands run the risk of dissolving their carefully tuned look and feel, tone of voice and brand personality. Content makes your communication go, quite literally, all over the place. Even a reasonably well-established brand with a reasonable budget will find it hard to keep the overall picture of the brand intact.

Already a few years back, in one of my books I suggested that it would be a sensible thing for major brands to appoint a chief storytelling officer to keep track of every single communication effort in order to protect the brand’s vulnerable look and feel. Just picture the incredible amount of communication that gets turned out for brands that operate worldwide and you’ll have an idea how hard it will be to keep its personality in line anywhere, anytime. No matter how carefully it is attended to regionally or locally, the fleeting character of content – literally everything can be content – makes it easy for some of it to incidentally say something the brand should never have said that way, or never have said at all.

Feel free to use content to tell tales, sell stuff and start stories that in time will reveal more of the why, how and what of your brand. But for seriously aspiring brands, the magic will always be happening in advertising and mass media, as indiscriminate as the audiences may be. The moment they see you pulling a beautiful rabbit out of a hat and applaud you, you’ll know straight away that advertising has done the trick.

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group

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