By Peter Haapaniemi
With content playing a bigger role in marketing, and an expanding array of channels available for delivering that content, marketers are seeing a range of opportunities to get closer to customers. But that may turn out to be too much of a good thing for those marketers who are charged with the care and feeding of their company’s brand.
The growing number of channels and content providers across the corporation can make it difficult to stay on top of it all. “You have a lot of people reinventing content all the time—and of course, that’s expensive and it leaves room for error and inconsistency” in terms of brand messaging, says Bryan Iwamoto, senior vice president of creative and strategy at Hanley Wood Marketing in Minneapolis.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that so much content is reused and recast by customers and outside stakeholders. “Marketers want to plant content seeds, let those seeds take root among the intended audience, and have those intended audiences build upon that content and play it forward. We’re in an age where content that is disseminated by a company has every chance of being mashed up by the intended recipients, and parsed and reparsed and morphed and sent every which way,” says Thomas Stein, president and CCO at Stein Rogan + Partners, a branding and integrated marketing communications agency in New York. “It leads one to think that we may have reached an inflection point, where content can quickly get out of the grip of the marketer—creating a real possibility for brand chaos.
“I think a lot of people are beginning to think through the question, how do we ensure that we give content its opportunity to connect with audiences, but not completely lose control of it, so that messages don’t
turn into other kinds of messages that really aren’t constructive to the brand?” Stein continues. Unfortunately, there is no single, silver-bullet answer, and marketers will need to keep their eye on emerging practices and solutions. But that doesn’t mean they are helpless: There are, in fact, a number of steps that companies can take to keep content aligned with the brand, and drive brands toward cohesion rather than chaos.
Plan, share, and follow through
In this complicated landscape, it’s more important than ever to focus on the basics of creating a content strategy in support of the brand. Such a strategy can be “a great and necessary starting point,” says Stein. That may seem self-evident, but too often, he says, “some marketers are pushing content out without having really done the due diligence to understand that it’s the right connective tissue that engenders a value exchange, brand to customer.”
An effective content strategy encompasses factors such as audience, tone and voice, the personality of the brand, what platforms are appropriate, and the business challenges that content can help address. It provides a foundation of consistency that can be used across channels and audiences—a touchstone all marketers and content creators can refer to in order to make sure their efforts are aligned with the brand.
But being consistent does not mean being identical across the board. “Each channel has a unique audience, with distinct preferences for how they absorb information and respond to it,” says Elise Anthony, editorial director at D Custom in Dallas. That means that marketers often need to provide different content in different channels, while ensuring that this content resonates with the same brand messages.
Anthony points to the example of the Purina Beneful brand, which last year launched WagWorld, a website for dog owners. At the same time, the company worked with D Custom to rebrand its print publication with the title WagWorld. “Part of their focus on brand cohesion was to make sure that the annual print magazine was in sync with the online efforts,” says Anthony. “They understand the value of having separate strategies for print and online, because customers use those two media differently. But they also consistently stick to the brand message and incorporate a content strategy.”
The magazine features relatively timeless, nationally oriented content on topics such as swimming with pets or dog-friendly hotels, while the website provides regional and time-sensitive content, such as event schedules or guidance on local dog parks. It’s all aimed at helping pet owners make the most of their relationship with their dogs. The company’s metrics indicate that the approach is working, she adds: “There’s not only strong customer loyalty to the brand, there’s also been new customer acquisition and [improved] consumer confidence.”
Having a content strategy is one thing, but making effective use of it is another. “Think about all the groups in marketing communications, PR, investor relations, and the product lines that are all pushing their content out there,” says Stein. “Everyone within the organization has to get on the same page.” That means sharing the content strategy throughout the organization—not necessarily by providing the strategy itself, but through clearly defined policies and procedures for creating content.
“Even when there’s a great content strategy, brand chaos can happen when there’s not a plan to execute the strategy and share it with the appropriate people and channels,” says Anthony. Often, she explains, marketers are reluctant to widely share brand strategies and the propriety research behind them. One way around that, she says, it to establish a voice and style guide that distills content strategy into useful principles while avoiding proprietary information—and then having everyone involved sign non-disclosure agreements.
Sharing brand strategy was considered vitally important when 21st Century Insurance conceived of a new magazine to support an integrated rebranding effort involving the full range of customer touch points, including website, print, direct mail, and call centers. The content of the magazine—titled 21st Centuryand scheduled for launch later this year—emphasizes helpful advice for readers, such as how to save money or find more time in the day. This addresses readers’ needs while reflecting the company’s brand position of “same coverage for less,” says Mike Boyd, assistant vice president of brand and creative development for 21st Century.
However, long before talking about content, 21st Century held discussions with its publishing partner, McMurry, that focused on the business and the brand. “The initial conversations were a briefing on our business: Here are some of the changes that we have done as an organization,” says Boyd. “Here’s what the target looks like. Here’s a competitive assessment,” Rather than simply provide McMurry with brand guidelines, 21st Century wanted to make sure the publisher had an in-depth understanding of the brand and the reasoning behind it. Such conversations continued as the magazine was developed. “McMurry had access to our C suite from the CEO to the COO,” says Boyd.
The conversations also included the insurance company’s ad agency, which was “the sounding board relative to alignment with the brand,” says Boyd. The agency, McMurry, and 21st Century’s internal team worked closely, he says, with “really open dialogue and participation….We told the agency, ‘You’re a brand steward, you have to help us keep this on point. But you cannot create everything. We have partners that specialize in different areas. And we have to raise this brand together.’”
Staying on track
Once a content strategy is in place, marketers need to guard against the “drift” toward brand chaos that can occur as creative teams constantly explore fresh ideas and possibly lose sight of the brand. To do this, says Anthony, companies need to establish governance processes that identify who is responsible for keeping content up to date and aligned with the brand. “It’s really important to go back to the core values of why the content should exist and make sure it’s consistent,” she says.
Some companies are putting considerable resources into keeping content on track with the brand. For example, Hanley Wood Marketing has helped a client implement a system that enables all marketing materials from across channels to be submitted electronically and reviewed by the brand team as they are created. “Every piece of copy that runs through marketing and is customer facing has to go through this process,” says Iwamoto. The process “is all based on very, very strong brand guidelines,” he says.
Hanley Wood has been working with another client that is taking a different approach with the creation of a “content engine.” The idea is to create a “central repository for the basic nuts-and-bolts content that customers need,” says Vince Giorgi, vice president of Solutions Development at Hanley Wood Marketing. This core content can then be kept up to date and delivered to anyone in the organization who needs to create customer-facing content. Depending on the project, some may cut and paste whole portions, while others may use fragments to make sure they are using the right terminology, definitions, and so forth.
Let go and listen
Looking ahead, preventing brand chaos is not likely to get any easier. Channels will continue to evolve, and more and more corporate content will be out of the direct control of marketers. And companies will need to find new techniques to manage it all.
“It’s a tough challenge that we all need to think through,” says Stein. “I think the next step is to track and listen to your content as it echoes via social spaces, communities, sharing, peer-to-peer communication, and word of mouth. We’ll have to have the mechanisms, the technology, the feedback loops in place that let you really monitor that and react to things as they develop, almost in real time. Then, if you sense that things are getting into a realm of chaos, you can act aggressively to inject new messaging into the conversation.”
Such abilities will probably become a fundamental part of the marketer’s toolkit, Stein says, “and that day will be sooner rather than later. This is an evolving space, and I think it’s the next frontier.”