Lessons from content marketing history

Content marketing has come to be seen as an innovative new online strategy since the word entered the marketing collective consciousness back in 2007. You won’t find references to this term online before this point, as this Google search trends graph demonstrates:

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But the newness of the term often obscures some of the fundamentals of the art (and it certainly is an art, as these examples will show).

For the truth is that the content marketers have always been with us, to paraphrase the bible, and they always will be.

To get a solid understanding of the relevance of content marketing to your brand, let’s take a trip back through history to overview some of the classics of content marketing right up to the present day.

In the historical examples that follow we will give an overview of the content strategy employed and answer the following questions for each:

• What was the customer pain point or need the company identified?

• What specific content solution was rolled out to solve the problem?

• What were the results for the company in question?

Whilst you read, think about these above three questions in relation to your own company.

Then we’ll draw out practical lessons that you can apply to your content marketing practice today.

7 content marketing trailblazers

John Deere: masters of their field

In 1885 celebrated tractor manufacturer John Deere printed the first copies of The Furrow, a new magazine aimed at “the American farmer”, featuring stories of general use to its readers’ farming operations.

By 1913 demand had risen drastically. So the company purchased an electric printing press to churn out tens of thousands of copies of the magazine which were distributed by a network of John Deere dealers.

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Contemporary Furrow editor David Jones sums up the content marketing mindset:

“Telling stories that folks enjoy reading—and that they can use in their own operations—has been the recipe since the beginning.”

Interestingly, only a minority of stories in The Furrow focused on John Deere’s products themselves. The focus was instead on providing genuine value to the company’s customers.

  • Customer pain point: a need for broad solutions to the complexities of daily farm operations
  • Specific content solution: providing a journal of value-adding stories of general industry use
  • Results: The entire farming community looked to John Deere as an all-knowing resource of farm operations expertise.

Lesson 1. Become a thought leader and industry expert in your niche.

Through its magazine content John Deere transformed from an industry product specialist to an industry knowledge generalist. Your content should go beyond the specific pain point your software solves and tackle a broader set of problems.

Michelin: gaining marketing traction

As with John Deere, French tyre manufacturers Michelin are further proof that content marketing is not a new thing and that although the specifics might change over time, there are general rules of engagement that are timeless.

As early as 1900, Michelin’s founding brothers conceived of the Michelin guide as a hotel and restaurant pamphlet for the French motoring community (numbering only a few thousand at the start of the last century) advising them on quality travel destinations.

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Their belief was that by encouraging and facilitating motoring in general they would stimulate greater tire purchases. And that’s exactly what happened.

Since its founding, the 400 page Michelin guide has morphed into a global content marketing empire and their coveted star ratings can mean life or death for today’s restaurants.

  • Customer pain point: desire for motoring travel advice for burgeoning motoring community
  • Specific content solution: producing informational travel guides for the motoring lifestyle
  • Result: becoming the go-to authority on restaurant and hotel destinations, plus selling TONS of tires along the way!

Lesson 2. Be bold.

For many the name Michelin is as much associated with restaurant reviews as it is with tyres. They developed a marketing strategy that was so bold as to change the way their company was perceived; from being a mere manufacturer of quality products to being a global tastemaker. Ask yourself what seismic changes you could make to your brand image through the high quality content you produce?

Procter and Gamble: the advertising gamble that paid off

Why did a soap manufacturer have such a keen interest in moving into serial drama production in the 1930s? Because they believed this was a way to connect with a generation of depression-era housewives who were unsurprisingly more interested in escapist distractions from the daily grind than they were in what cleaning products they purchased.

It was a gamble that paid off. Not only did they create a whole new genre of entertainment broadcasting (soap operas… the clue’s in the name) they also massively boosted their sales.

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P&G had identified their customers’ pain points and provided content that solved those problems. Their solution was also a classic example of lateral thinking.

The problem their customers faced was reframed from being a question of what cleaning products to purchase to a question of how to make it through another day of boring yet often backbreaking housework.

  • Customer pain point: lack of entertainment during mundane housework
  • Specific content solution: creating drama serials to entertain their potential customers
  • Results: sales up, brand identity ensured for generations, institution founded

Lesson 3. Be creative.

Think creatively. There does not have to be a direct line of connection between your content and your services (at least no more direct than between soap and dramatic fiction). It’s about creating a perceived value in your company beyond the services you sell. It’s about your product being part of your customers lives, of being close to their hearts. This is a much more effective sales technique than simply banging on about how great your products are.

Guinness: writing the book on record sales

What do legendary beer brewers’ Guinness have to do with the world’s strongest man? Well, perhaps a little. After all, what to people talk about over a pint of Guinness in their local bar anyway?

Following an interminable argument over the identity of Europe’s fastest game bird during a shooting party in Ireland in 1955, Guinness Breweries’ managing director, Sir Hugh Beaver, bemoaned the lack of a book containing, as he put it, “superlative facts and answers that would be of great use to the general public.”

Thus, the Guinness Book of World Records was born and would swiftly become Britain’s number one bestseller, celebrating its 60th anniversary back in 2015.

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Customer pain point: lack of general knowledge resource of definitive facts and figures

Specific content solution: the creation of a book of “record breaking achievements”

Result: mass book sales, society-wide brand recognition, new revenue stream for Guinness

Lesson 4. Think about the general problems faced by your potential customers AND the people they interact with.

Create content that solves those problems. This is an example of what Rand Fishkin calls ‘the relevance scale’. Here’s what it looks like:

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The aim of your brand should be to create content that relates to any people who interact with your potential customers.

As with Sir Beaver, this can be drawn from frustrations in your own life. Often a solution for you is also a solution for your customer. This is especially true in the B2B sector.

LEGO: building a content marketing empire brick by brick

Suffice it to say the pioneers of content marketing operated in a wholly different media landscape than would come to dominate the latter half of the twentieth century.

LEGO’s Brick Kicks magazine (now rebranded LEGO Club magazine) is a widely regarded entry in the annals of content marketing, emerging after the huge magazine media explosion of the 1980s.

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After their patent expired in 1982, LEGO’s easily replicable building blocks faced a dearth of competition. They needed a radical plan to regain, and maintain, the edge on their rivals.

The Brick Kicks magazine featured customer’s LEGO creations, construction tips, and exclusive members’ offers that would morph into a content empire of magazines and multimedia microsites.

  • Customer pain point: lack of deep connection to LEGO brand
  • Specific content solution: creating a customer-centred magazine building and documenting a community of LEGO enthusiasts
  • Results: phenomenal brand recognition and loyalty levels. Birth of a media empire and entry into the Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Lesson 5. Think in terms of community.

LEGO championed a community of creativity and imagination, profiling customers who made exceptional LEGO models, and spreading the joy from their LEGOLAND locations in their content. They made being a LEGO customer mean something to a broad community of children AND adults. Ultimately, that was what separated them out from their competitors.

Even LEGO’s content marketing adventure began in a hugely different media age. The internet revolution was still in its infancy and its full implications were not yet apparent.

Here’s a vision of how what a SaaS website looked like in 1995:

Source: Business Insider

Fast-forward to 2008 and we find the concept of content marketing is beginning to become systematised by a vanguard of marketing professionals. If its full implications for the internet age were not yet clear, here’s how one small company put the fledgling theory into practice with spectacular effect.

River Pools: taking the DIY content marketing plunge

Following the 2008 financial crash, swimming pool manufacturers River Pools teetered on the brink of collapse. Going against the advice of a phalanx of consultants, co-owner Marcus Sheridan made a dramatic change to the company’s marketing strategy.

Here’s Sheridan’s content marketing methodology in his own words:

“The moment we stopped saying ‘we’re pool builders’ and started saying ‘we are the best teachers in the world about fibreglass pools and we happen to install them as well’, that was one of the most prosperous days of our lives”.

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Customer pain point: desire for knowledge of pool construction to give customers confidence in their purchasing decisions

Specific content solution: to become “the Wikipedia of fibreglass swimming pools”

Result: company survived financial crisis, became industry leader and content marketing sensation

Lesson 6. Leverage talent.

River Pools looked inwards for talent they could leverage within their company to create high quality, value-adding content. They drew on the teaching background of Marcus Sheridan to create an information-rich, comprehensive resource which became the last word in fibreglass swimming pools.

They had mastered the art of selling by not selling. They understood that by providing in-depth information on the ins and outs of their niche they would solve their potential customers’ need to feel informed before making a purchasing decision. And by doing so they would increase the likelihood that those shoppers would purchase their products.

Cisco Systems: the mother of all content marketing reboots

One of the more bloody minded take-ups of content marketing came from Cisco Systems back in November 2015. Their cull of 200 hundred marketing and corporate communications personnel was not the usual rationalisation exercise, as it was followed by an equal-sized hiring spree. 200 content marketers were recruited worldwide in a bid to forge a content marketing strategy that would be integral to the company’s operations. Cisco’s head of content, Katrina Neal, put it simply:

“As buyers’ journeys become more digital, marketing is becoming more integral.”

Cisco’s content chief makes their value-adding goal explicit, saying their editorial strategy involved “80 percent editorial to 20 percent ‘advertorial’” content.

In very short order Cisco’s strategy has delivered in spades. One of their blog posts, ‘10 Career Pointers for the CNAA Holder’, was shared 25,000 times.

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  • Customer pain point: need for orientation in the vast IT/tech industry
  • Specific content solution: generating content for Cisco website on broad sector-specific topics written by industry experts
  • Result: Massive surge in industry leadership, creating huge industry influence, AND driving epic site visits and sales

Lesson 7. Don’t be afraid to outsource.

Cisco Systems were not afraid to drastically alter their marketing strategy to adapt to new marketing realities. They drew on content marketing specialists with the depth of knowledge and practical experience needed to make them the loudest and most authoritative voice in a crowded marketplace.


A tyre manufacturer publishing a field guide for European motorists; a soap company making drama serials for bored housewives; a tractor manufacturer becoming the go-to source of farming news and know-how… for well over a century the content marketing greats have come up with bold, innovative content solutions that make them a cut above the rest.

Successful content marketing operations in modern times draw on those techniques to stay ahead of the game.

And who says no one learns from history?

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