Stories that engage consumers instead of pitching them have been on the creative’s palette at least since Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker hired John E. Powers to write copy in the late 1880s. Powers’ daily newspaper ads were mini essays in plain language with no “anxiety to sell,” as Powers once put it.
“So much of what we do in marketing — and the buzzwords that we use — is often a repackaging of an earlier concept, and I would say that content marketing certainly falls in that category,” says Thom Villing, who has run Villing & Co. with his wife Jeannine out of South Bend, Ind. for 33 years.
With a current staff of an even dozen, the “marketing services” company has always offered an array of choices for its clients to get their message across, from local newspaper ads to broadcast TV and radio spots to PR to building websites. And it has always tried to tell stories, even in trade campaigns.
For example, more than a decade ago, a series of ads for Damon Motor Coach featured colorful landmarks selected by an art director and shot by a photographer who traveled along historic Route 66 -- the “Main Street of America” that ran from Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier before it was eclipsed by the interstate highway system. It was an unusual spot for the RV industry -- which normally leaves it up to local dealers to connect with the consumer -- as well as for a client with a tight budget.
It also provided an apt metaphor for Villing in a blog post he wrote in 2010 after attending a seminar about disruption in the business of marketing. The moderator had made it clear that browser and smartphone apps were the future.
But Villing wasn’t really worried that the way he’d been doing business was going the way of Route 66. “Marketing has always been about ideas. Ideas that communicate a client’s story,” he wrote. “Technology is providing us tools to get where we want to go faster, more efficiently and presumably safer.”
And so, the routes taken by content marketing in the past -- advertorials, seminars, speaking engagements -- have been supplanted by native advertising, social media and webinars, with strategic public relations often behind the wheel, as it always has been.
“These are just different ways of establishing ‘thought-leadership’ credentials, though we wouldn’t have used that term back then,” Villing now says. “The big difference, of course, is that today we are our own publishers. And the ability to push out content in a proactive and aggressive way just enhances the opportunities.”
But if you’re going to tell a brand story aggressively, you’d better find one that rings true -- not necessarily about “what” you are or “how” you do it, but with “why” you do it, as ethnographer and author Simon Sinek put it in a celebrated TED talk in 2009.
Sinek’s premise is that people "buy why you do it, and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe,” he says. All leaders and organizations who inspire people to act -- from Martin Luther King to Apple Computer -- have figured out the “why” of what they do.
In recent years, Villing has kicked off strategic planning sessions with clients by showing that 18-minute TED talk and spending some time trying to tweak out each marketer’s distinct “why” in an ensuing discussion.
Not that it’s easy, for either Villing or his clients, to do so. But “drilling down and identifying the ‘why’ serves as a great way to understand the very essence of our motivation and how that somehow translates to an emotional connection,” he says.
And it has helped Villing himself confirm a connection between what he tries to do in “forging brands” and what his grandfather did in his small blacksmith shop in Cincinnati more than a century ago: He took wrought iron and, through the forging process, shaped it to serve a particular function. Not incidentally, the process also strengthened the raw material.
What more “why” would a potential customer need?