May 17, 2016

Does Content Build Brands?

Last week, Sir John Hegarty of BBH made some very cogent statements about the relative value of content marketing and advertising.

This week I was a guest on a marketing podcast that ripped into Hegarty for his comments. I didn't have the time to defend his point of view properly. So here goes.

First and most obviously is this: The highest goal of marketing is to build brands. Advertising has built thousands of major consumer-facing brands in hundreds of categories. Until you can show me even a few major brands that have been built by "content" I cannot accept content as anything but a footnote.

Let's be more specific: Overwhelmingly the world's major brands -- Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Nike, Pepsi, Microsoft, Walmart, Samsung, Toyota, BMW and, literally, hundreds of others -- have been built by advertising. I cannot think of one major non-web-native brand that has been built by content (or social media, for that matter.)

Second is this: If you look at the brands that are most successful at content marketing, they are overwhelmingly brands that have spent billions of dollars on traditional advertising. In other words, success in content marketing (and social media) is overwhelmingly the effect of brand power, not the cause of it.

Do you think Coca-Cola would have 100 million Facebook followers if it was Bob-a-Cola? It took billions of dollars of traditional advertising to make Coke a social media success.

Have there been a few brands that have come out of nowhere and been successful with these tactics? Sure, but these are very rare exceptions. Check the lists of the brands most successful at content marketing and social media and you will find they are overwhelmingly brands with enormous advertising budgets.

Finally, content is a symptom of the advertising and marketing industry's obsession with incrementalism. With very few exceptions, the content created by most marketers reaches a miniscule proportion of the population. And the rare examples of content that break out and reach a large percent of the population tend to be those that closely resemble traditional advertising.

There are many people of integrity in the content/social world who understand these factors and are modest in their claims and moderate in their speech.

But, sadly, there are still far too many swaggering digital showboats who are dismissive of the power of traditional advertising and are too eager to take credit for content and social "successes" that have far more correlation to the popularity of a brand that was built by advertising than to anything they have contributed.

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