Content marketing and advertising have a lot in common. They both aim to raise awareness of a brand and their products. Where the key differences start to emerge, though, is in how this goal is accomplished.
In his book Epic Content Marketing, Joe Pulizzi outlines how the tides have changed, and how the technologies that enable brands to act more like publishers have given rise to what he describes as “a much better marketing model for business owners and marketers to attract and retain customers,” adding:
“Advertising is not dead, but content marketing is the driver that leading companies now use to capture the hearts and minds of their customers…”
So, how do these strategies differ? What does content marketing offer to brands that traditional advertising does not?
When we think of traditional advertising, Coca Cola is probably one of the first brands that springs to mind. Their simple yet arresting red and white colour scheme is recognised all around the world, and a number of their television ads (“I’d Like to Buy The World a Coke”, for example, and the annual “Holidays Are Coming” spot) have achieved iconic status.
Reacting to how technology has empowered both creative professionals and consumers, the company issued, in 2012, its marketing mission statement Content 2020 — illustrating the key points that distinguish a content marketing strategy from a traditional advertising one.
Stating that they can “no longer rely on being 30-Second-TV-centric”, Coca Cola outline that their future aims will revolve around producing compelling content that serves not only to drive the business aims of the company, but also to embed the brand positively within the public consciousness through telling stories that provoke conversations, generate trust, and that can have a deeper meaning and significance to peoples’ lives.
This impulse to communicate more helpfully and meaningfully can be seen in a number of content strategies: from Coca Cola’s own brand journalism channel Cola Cola Journey — described by the company as “a digital publishing experience designed to inspire, educate, and provoke action” — to something as ambitious as Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World —Werner Herzog’s documentary about the history and future of the internet, which was commissioned by technology company NetScout.
Through adopting such a strategy, another key difference can be seen that relates to the lifespan of the content. Traditional advertising has always been about the campaign - working on attracting the public’s eyes and ears to your latest product. Content marketing, on the other hand, is altogether more long-term: the content you produce won’t become the historical artefact of a campaign that ran for a few months, it can be something that audiences can return to even years down the line.
Jenna Gross, in her Forbes article, ‘Secrets to Seductive Content Marketing’, outlines the long-term benefits of a content marketing strategy:
“Rather than trying to rack up page views, shares, and impressions, [content marketers should] ensure content resonates with [their] potential customers … The more your message resonates, the more your business will be seen as a resource…”
Brands who have a particular niche often have something of an edge when it comes to being able to use content to foster their audience and to establish themselves amongst their higher-profile competitors. Take Bandcamp, for example, an independent-focused digital music platform that nevertheless been able to make a name for itself amidst corporate titans like Apple Music and Spotify. Fittingly, having made a name for itself as the “record collector’s digital platform of choice”, the platform has found enough success to recently have opened its first physical space in Oakland, California.
A big part of Bandcamp’s success can be attributed to its blog articles and podcasts. This content attracts audiences to the platform by displaying knowledgeable curatorship and music writing that guides readers to the best and most interesting music in Bandcamp’s dizzyingly vast selection (from more established releases, to the most esoteric independent work); while, crucially, doing so in a way that organically and unobtrusively promotes what the design of their platform can offer to listeners and artists. As the blog’s Jes Skolnik explained in a 2016 interview about the musicians who tend to get written about:
“We look for bands that are really using Bandcamp … that are really taking advantage of the cool options that we have to offer … [For example,] we have a feature called the Merch Table. We’ll go in and look if people are selling jewellery and tote bags and all kinds of weird and cool merch.”
One brand that has been particularly lauded for its innovative approach to content marketing has been Red Bull — with Joe Pulizzi even describing them in Epic Content Marketing as “the best example in the world of [a brand] doing content marketing”. Speaking to SportsPro, managing director of the energy drink company’s Red Bull Media House Gerrit Meier, said:
“We don’t believe in traditional marketing; we don’t do big television commercials, we’ve never done that … We believe that we can activate through events and great content, and that’s where we’d rather spend our money. So doing that and having brand relevance absolutely still drives the core business…”
Fittingly for an energy drink company, some of their best-known content has focused on high-adrenaline sports, with one of their best known efforts being their sponsorship of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking, sound barrier-breaking skydive in 2012. Red Bull’s active involvement in ambitious events like these, as well as the diverse array of other content they produce — from branded journalism and other sports coverage, to something like their Red Bull Music Academy lecture series — shows both an appetite for experimentation and an authentic desire (in keeping with their “Red Bull gives you wings” branding) to use their resources to “give a lift” to cutting-edge ideas and culture.
The success of their innovative and daring approach to content marketing is probably best conveyed in the Red Bull founder’s claim that the company has become “a media company that happens to sell energy drinks.”
For all the long-term benefits that content marketing can provide to a brand — namely, the cultivation of a dedicated and interested audience, and the expansive creative opportunities to produce long-lasting and beneficial content — it is crucial to understand that they demand a long-term commitment.
Unlike traditional advertising, good content marketing isn’t just about grabbing an audience’s attention; it’s about maintaining that audience by regularly and consistently publishing content, and understanding that the process of building long-term trust with your audience is a gradual one.