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The Long, Creative History of Content Marketing

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John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

When you hear someone talk about content marketing, you probably conjure up thoughts of blogging. Maybe you’re even picturing filming videos for YouTube, or starting a podcast.

But what if I told you that content marketing is much older than you think it is?

What if I told you that things you never even considered as content marketing actually started as just that?

Sometimes the way to get people to buy more of your products is indirect, and not initially obvious.

But here are some brilliant examples of content marketing that existed before we were born, and some lessons we can learn.

Guinness Book of World Records

Most people don’t realize that the Guinness Book of World Records was created by the same people who make the dark Irish libation.

The book had it’s origin in 1951, when Sir Hugh Beaver, director of the Guinness Brewery was on a hunting trip in Ireland. After missing a shot at a golden plover, Beaver argued with his hunting friends over which bird was the fastest in Europe, the golden plover or the red grouse. Upon returning home, no one could find a reference book to prove Beaver’s assertion that the plover was the fastest bird on the continent.

Beaver thought to himself that numerous arguments must take place in Irish pubs on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be a great idea to produce a reference book to settle pub bets and friendly arguments while people drank their ale?

Glass of Guinness

Guinness Brewery employee Christopher Chataway put Beaver in touch with Norris and Ross McWhirter, who ran a fact-finding agency in London. A thousand copies were commissioned and given away.

By August of 1955, the book was a best seller in the UK, and debuted the following year in the United States, selling 70,000 copies that year.

Eventually, the book went on to sell over 120 million copies in 37 languages. The Guinness company has allowed franchising of small museums in various cities based on the book from 1976 until present day.

The Guinness Book of World Records succeeded as content marketing, as a complement activity to drinking Guinness in local pubs around the world. Pubs everywhere still have trivia nights, where teams compete on their knowledge of obscure facts. The book helped position the Guinness brand as a household name, even if people didn’t consciously make the connection between the ale and the book.

Michelin Guide

In 1900, when there were less than 2,500 cars in the whole country of France, André and Édouard Michelin published the first Michelin Guide. At the time, their tire company was only eleven years old, there was no organized road system in France, and people still had to buy gasoline from selected pharmacies.

The Michelin Guide originally highlighted hotels, mechanics, instructions for changing tires, and places to buy petrol. The Michelin brothers goal was to encourage motorists to go on longer journeys and help driving catch on in France. If more people took trips, they would use up their tires more quickly. Their content marketing attempted to remove any obstacles between motorists and the open road.

Red Michelin Guide

Over the next decade, Michelin would publish guides for several countries in Europe and North Africa. Operations were suspended during Word War I, and resumed after the war ceased.

Up until 1920, the Michelin Guide had been a free giveaway. But when André Michelin visited a tire shop in 1920, and saw copies of the guide propping up a workbench, he decided to start charging vendors for the guide.

His reasoning was that people value what they pay for, and he wanted Michelin to be positioned as a premium brand, not a worthless tome used to prop up a crooked bench.

Along with the pricing change, the Michelin Guide began to list hotels in Paris, and listed restaurants by specific categories. They also jettisoned the use of any advertisements in the guide. It wsa at this point, the guide began to become something unique and desirable.

In 1926, the guide began to use anonymous restaurant inspectors to review fine dining establishments, awarding a single star rating. In 1931, this was expanded to a one, two, or three star rating, still in use to this day.

Inspectors must remain anonymous, even to family, and must pass the Michelin Guide training in France. They usually have a background in the culinary trade, and many are former chefs. They are very discreet about their identities. But earning a three star rating in the Michelin Guide is the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world.

“The image of Michelin is that of a premium, high-quality brand. And some say that the Michelin Guide is the Bible of all dining guides.”

— Tony Fouladpour

For the last decade, the Michelin Guide has published guides for various American cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. There is also a separate guide for hotels and attractions. (The Red Guide is for fine dining, the Green Guide is for hotels and sightseeing).

The Michelin Guide has been a successful piece of content marketing and brand positioning for over 115 years. If something is worth driving to experience, it will be in the Michelin Guide.

Proctor & Gamble and Soap Operas

In the early 1930s, soap operas were invented for radio broadcasts on network stations. These were usually 15 minute shows, which were sponsored and produced by companies like Proctor & Gamble.

Ivory Sop Vintage

After World War II, soap operas became a staple of daytime television. Housewives were the intended audience. The stories were meant to simultaneously reflect their lives, and make them glad their lives weren’t like those of the characters. Domestic escapism at it’s finest.

Proctor & Gamble was instrumental in producing soap operas from the 1930s up until 2009. The household products company owned over 20 daytime serials over this eighty year period.

The premise is simple: assemble a target audience, and weave the product pitch into the experience.

In most soap operas, the central story arcs usually revolved around female protagonists. The serialized story format allowed housewives to feel affinity for their favorite characters, and tune back in each day to follow the plot progressions.

During commercial breaks, the sponsors would sell health, beauty, and cleaning products to the audience they had created.

The commercials were reflective of the shift in American culture. In the 1950s, many commercials positioned a woman’s beauty as her greatest asset. By the 1960s, the housewife was positioned as the expert of the home, with her work being just as difficult and valuable as that of her husband.

Due to many factors, the soap opera lost it’s prominence as an advertising force. The seemingly infinite choices of cable channels, DVRs and Tivo, and the rise of more cheaply produced reality TV all contributed to the demise of daytime serials.

But marketers adapt with the times. If TV viewers skip commercials via DVR, then companies must use their budgets in more creative ways (like product placement in movies and TV).

Imaginative content marketing isn’t a relic that belongs solely to the 20th century. There are great examples of creative content marketing in more recent years.

Red Bull and Extreme Sports

Red Bull did more than catapult to the top of an existing product category. They pretty much created the category of energy drinks, and helped solidify it as part of our lives.

Red Bull

Red Bull debuted in 1987, and by 1996, was selling 6 million cans a year. In 2006, they were selling 300 million cans a year. In 2012, Red Bull generated 6.5 billion dollars of revenue.

Since the beginning of the company’s history, they have positioned their brand alongside extreme sports and lifestyle. One of the first events Red Bull sponsored was the 1988 Dolomitenmann in Austria — a rugged marathon that combines mountain running, paragliding, kayaking and mountain biking.

Since then, the company has never looked back, and continues to sponsor events such as motocross, skateboarding, air racing, motor sports, surfing, snowbaording, BMX, and even breakdancing.

They even have a record label, Red Bull Records.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment so far was Red Bull’s sponsorship of Felix Baumgartner’s space jump.

You’ll notice that the Red Bull Stratos balloon that took Baumgartner to the edge of outer space for his skydive also bears some resemblance to a Red Bull can.

What’s the upside of all this for Red Bull?

For one, their name is attached to all these extreme events as a sponsor, which also ends up getting them tons of coverage through TV, radio, magazines, and newspapers. Getting your name in front of the exact customer base you’re trying to reach is a huge benefit.

Another benefit is they end up with thousands of hours of footage for their family of YouTube channels. Now, all those people who enjoy extreme sports who weren’t live at the event get exposed to the Red Bull brand. Momentum builds for the Red Bull brand through its innovative sports marketing campaigns.

“Red Bull is a publishing empire that also happens to sell a beverage. ”

— James O’Brien

Acura and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

In an era when paying for Television advertising is an effort in futility, how do you reach potential car buyers?

The average American purchases eight cars in their lifetime. A new car is the second largest purchase most Americans make, next to a house. Auto manufacturers comprise the largest percentage of television advertising spending, but DVRs enable viewers to skip over commercials.

Acura has found an innovative way to reach their target audience in an unobtrusive fashion.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is entertainment that compels you to stick around for the pitch.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee home screen

In each episode, Jerry Seinfeld picks up another famous comedian in a vintage car, then they go out to coffee and talk life and comedy. Acura is targeting a specific persona of buyer with this show, and it successfully gets the Acura brand in front of viewers.

Each episode is between seven and twenty minutes long. There is a short sponsor message at the very beginning and end of each episode. The production is top notch. The show makes you forget that this is meant to be a car commercial, because the emphasis is on entertaining people that enjoy comedy and classic cars. Acura feels that this intersection of people has a good chance of appreciating good cars and the revenue to afford them.

By making people laugh and feel good, Acura makes potential car buyers feel better about their brand, without having to do a hard sell. That’s brilliant content marketing.

Zillow and Their YouTube Channel

Real estate marketplace Zillow has put out some brilliant videos spotlighting interesting homes that people have built. In the episode below, Dan Phillips of the Texas-based Phoenix Commotion is building whimsical houses, like the cowboy boot house, and other houses straight out of fairy tales.

Other videos in this series have featured a Hobbit house, floating houses, tiny houses, even tiny houses that float!

What does Zillow get out creating content like this?

Everyone needs to buy a home at some point in their lives. If home buyers go through the Zillow platform, that helps their business. But every real estate agent is out there shaking hands, meeting people. How do you cut through the noise and build brand awareness.

Creating spotlight content on homes that are inspirational, remarkable, or one-of-a-kind makes people stand up and take attention. People are fascinated by seeing both the homes and the stories of the people behind the creation of the homes. At the beginning and end of each video, Zillow can place their branding. This creates a connection in people’s minds. They remember the videos of the amazing homes, and remember that Zillow produced these videos. The architects and home builders receive attention as well, so it is a win for everyone all around.

Content Marketing Takes Many Forms

Marketing is anything that raises awareness of your brand, and puts it in front of people who would benefit knowing about your product. It doesn’t have to be online. It doesn’t have to be offline. It just needs to be relevant to the audience it’s being delivered to.

There’s many ways to get your brand in front of the people who are most likely to need your products. Think about what activities your target market already enjoys, and find a way to introduce your brand to them there.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

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