The History of Content Marketing
The phrase ‘content marketing’ only emerged in 1996, during a meeting of the American Society for Newspaper Editors. Yet the concept itself can be traced right back to the days of Benjamin Franklin, with some academics even claiming it really began with prehistoric man’s cave paintings!
Franklin produced ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack’ in 1732, and its informative, user-friendly content included calendar and weather information as well as poems, astrological information and more, all designed to promote Franklin’s own printing business.
Again in 1888, Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of newly introduced sterile wound dressings, turned to marketing to boost the uptake of their product. Their publication entitled “Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment” did much to inform the wider medical profession about the benefits of antiseptic surgical procedures, whilst also doing a great deal for the health of the new company’s balance sheet.
Also getting to grips with the earliest phase of branded content, in 1895, the John Deere agricultural equipment company launched an informative magazine called ‘The Furrow’. This informed farmers about the agricultural machinery available, and included farming news and agriculture tips to improve profitability. With its basic formula largely unchanged, this pioneering marketing magazine still remains in circulation, has a readership of 1.5 million, and is printed in 12 different languages for distribution to 40 countries worldwide.
By the turn of the century, many more companies were trialing advertising ideas inspired by brand journalism. Brothers André and Edouard Michelin, for example, put together the now-famous ‘Michelin Guide’ full of driving, auto-maintenance and travel tips in the year 1900. Their proud boast was that: “This Guide was born with the century, and it will last every bit as long.” With a first-edition free give away of 35,000 copies, the Michelin Guide soon became a fixture on the fledgling automobile scene. Michelin’s logic would be very familiar to modern marketers: a travel guide would promote increased auto-touring, higher touring mileages would hasten tire wear … leaving Michelin well-placed to supply replacement tires.
Niche consumer publications were starting to multiply as the commercial world saw the potential to boost sales by targeting specific audiences. Among brands taking advantage were the Genesee Food Company who had developed Jell-O, a versatile gelatin substance which could be used to create a variety of culinary dishes. Having brought the product to the market in 1902, the company decided to compile a free cookbook of Jell-O recipes in 1904. Distributed via their door-to-door sales force, this initiative resulted in a mammoth increase in productivity: Just two years later, sales figures were approaching $1 million and demand for the Jell-O recipe book pushed its annual circulation close to 15 million and encouraged leading artists of the day to act as illustrators.
New 20th-century technologies facilitated the growth of new forms of content marketing. For instance, soap and cleaning agent producers Proctor & Gamble began broadcasting a serialized radio drama aimed at housewives in 1933. This series (‘Ma Perkins’) was sponsored by Oxydol, a Proctor & Gamble soap powder, and aimed to create a brand loyalty for their product. Script content included marketing messages plus a housewife lead character (Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins), and was designed to appeal to family-oriented females. Therefore, unsurprisingly, this method of engaging audiences was soon dubbed a ‘soap opera’.
The post-war decades of the 1940s and 1950s coincided with the heyday of mass-market TV and media advertising. During this period, most companies merely refined the content-engagement blueprint already established. In fact, given the novelty, reach and dominance of audio/visual media, advertisers of this era saw little need to genuinely connect with their audiences. As a result, consumers were often subjected to a constant barrage of direct advertising which simply sought to wear down their resistance by endlessly repeating brand mantras.
The early 1960s saw companies such as Kellogg’s employing more sophisticated campaigns to sell their brands of breakfast cereals to children. This was the golden age of characterful animal personalities designed to entertain children, and the packaging also included early attempts at child-friendly multimedia content on the back of cereal boxes, with collectible mascots and more inside. Later in this era, Esso’s ‘Put a tiger in your tank’ slogan again used a cartoon animal character, now accompanied by add-on merchandising ‘crazes’ like tiger tails which could be attached to a petrol tank.
During the 1980s, content advertising become even more multimedia oriented with animated characters used to capture attention and build user engagement. This approach often used ‘pester power’: a process of making even aspects of grown-up products appealing to children, who could then be relied upon to nag their parents to make a purchase in order to qualify for sought after ‘freebie’ merchandise.
The 1990s brought computers and the Internet, allowing consumers to shop from home 24/7. Digital retail quickly learned how to repackage its successful modes of advertising for this rapidly expanding market. As mentioned above, advertisers were speaking of ‘content marketing’ from 1996 onwards. And this technique, where retailers generate useful free content to engage a target audience in order to build brand awareness, has preoccupied marketers ever since.
The arrival of social media networks in the 2000s can be seen as an extension of this content marketing principle – providing a ‘free’ service which facilitates social connectivity, which in turn is funded by retail advertisers seeking those most likely to want their products.
As Benjamin Franklin might say, ‘Poor Richard’ has traveled a long way – and the likes of Facebook and Twitter would also suggest he’s no longer that poor either!