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Content Lessons From Three Brands That Kept Their Brand Promise (and Three That Didn't)

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Content marketing has the power to help companies articulate and communicate the brand promise—which goes beyond a corporate mission statement. Marketers can craft content that shows what they really stand for.

"The promise of content marketing is that we can directly connect to our customers," says Ann Handley, chief content officer for MarketingProfs. "Customers don't want to hear about what you do; they want to hear about what you can do for them. The smartest brands are aligning their content to something greater than themselves."

A brand that has expertly demonstrated brand promise over the years is Subway. The website is full of content—mainly health advice, fitness tips, and meal suggestions from expert trainers, doctors, and dieticians—none of which advertises Subway in any way (and which sometimes even advises making your own meals at home). In addition, the brand sponsors shows, such as The Biggest Loser, and events like the American Heart Association Heart Walk.

All together, this content builds a picture of what Subway's true brand promise is—helping you live a healthier life. There's no mission statement telling you so; the story is told through the content. However, some brands find understanding the line between content that demonstrates the brand promise and advertising difficult.

"We are classically trained as marketers to describe value. We look at a product or service, and we can come up with very clever ways to talk about features and benefits to convince you that this product is great," says Robert Rose, chief strategy officer for the Content Marketing Institute. "But we're not very good at creating original value. What we often get is a mishmash, where brands try to sprinkle a little bit of sales into informative content and end up with something that just feels like a watered-down ad. It doesn't feel valuable to consumers nor does it enhance the brand's story."

Before any brand can create meaningful content that also lives and promotes the brand promise, they have to ask some hard questions.

"You have to understand who all of these buyers are and what their pain points are," says Steve Farnsworth, content marketing strategist for B2B High Tech at the Steveology Group. "You have to ask, 'Who are these people and why do they care?'"

Rose concurs adding, "Who is it we are trying to move? Who is our audience? What value will they get from this? How will they be better off after having received it?"

Here are some brands that have hit the right note in creating content that advances the brand promise and some that may need to go back to the drawing board.

Hit: LinkedIn

"Five years ago, LinkedIn was just a digital rolodex," Handley says. "It was only a resource for people looking for a job. Increasingly, they've done a great job of telling their story. LinkedIn is now for anyone who has ambition."

LinkedIn has changed its image through aggressive recruitment of talent for the LinkedIn Influencers program. The program provides a platform for thought leaders like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Guy Kawasaki to share their thoughts regularly with LinkedIn's far-reaching community.

The LinkedIn Influencers program not only allows LinkedIn users the opportunity to follow their favorite influencers, it also cements an image of LinkedIn as a place for those who have ambition. The posts are not all career-related—they may be inspirational works, interesting stories, or life hacks—but they all show LinkedIn as a place where innovators go.

Handley also notes a LinkedIn slideshow telling the story of Matt Henshaw, a musician who uses LinkedIn to get music gigs.

"It underscores their mission to support anyone who has ambition, whether it's a salesperson finding customers or a musician booking new gigs," she says. "They are telling a bigger story by broadening their own story."

Miss: Facebook Stories

Facebook was on the right path with Facebook Stories—envisioned as a content marketing platform, similar to LinkedIn's efforts, which would feature stories of "people using Facebook in extraordinary ways."

However, the platform has not really taken off as planned. "These stories range in topic and style so vastly that it is impossible to discern what end (if any) the site serves—and this problem shows in the search engine rankings," writes Mike Straus. "Facebook's main site is the second most-visited website in the world, with 15 daily pageviews per visitor. At the time of writing (August 5, 2014), Facebook Stories' global traffic rank is 178,227 with less than two daily pageviews per visitor."

While Facebook is trying to create value around the brand promise of keeping people connected, Facebook Stories is too focused on the product itself. LinkedIn Influencers don't only write about LinkedIn, but Facebook requires users to describe how Facebook makes life better.

Furthermore, the stories lack a sense of focus, ranging from family stories to business advice, so who the target audience is (everybody perhaps?) is unclear. The content cannot be filtered based on interests—it's all in one jumbled pot—making it very difficult for users to connect to content that interests them.

"Facebook's lack of focus has hindered the Facebook Stories project, and it demonstrates why good content marketing serves a larger goal beyond simply creating content," Straus says.  "In order to leverage the power of content marketing, businesses must maintain a focused content policy. The best content marketing plans contain concrete goals and a well-defined list of topics."

Hit: Marketo

Marketo is a B2B marketing automation solution that is knocking content marketing out of the park.

"Go to their website and you will find that some of the best, cutting-edge information is readily available," says Farnsworth. "They have e-books, guides, videos—all of the elements and education about the individual pieces of managing a lead. This content is not about their software at all, it's about really good marketing elements to help companies move that lead along. I like what they do a lot."

All that content reflects Marketo's brand promise to help you become a better inbound marketer. The content helps users learn best practices for marketing, whether they use Marketo. However, thanks to well thought out content, when users think inbound marketing, they will think of Marketo as an expert resource.

Miss: Dell

Dell's native advertising in the New York Times has been a target of much derision. A January piece titled "Will Millennials Ever Completely Shun the Office?" was cited by blogger Dan Shewan as being among the worst examples of content.

"Not only is the agenda of this piece completely transparent from the outset, the 'Millennial work ethic' angle is so tired it's practically comatose," writes Shewan. "Even the question posed by the article is ridiculous—no, Millennials will not 'shun' offices, because most of them are saddled with back-breaking student loan debt and can't find work. Oh, but if they do choose to shun the office, they can always use Dell hardware to telecommute, right?"

Ultimately, those pieces of content don't tell you anything about what Dell is about as a brand. Is it a hip brand for Millennials? Are the stories about rethinking the way you work?  Dell's other native advertising posts have been removed from the New York Times, perhaps a sign that the content was not providing benefits to the brand or consumers.

Hit: Lego

Only when a brand gets out of its own way and creates a product or value distinct of the service can they engage the customer and differentiate value. This value doesn't have to come in the form of an article, even feature-length films can convey brand purpose without

"The Lego Movie is such a great example of this," Rose says. "I go to The Lego Movie not because it's Lego; I go to The Lego Movie because it's a great story, it's fun, it's entertaining, it's going to make me laugh and it's going my kid happy. But ultimately, it's going to lead me back to the Lego brand because they made me happy and made my kids happy and sparked my imagination. I can insert a business purpose into it. I just can't insert the business into it."

Lego's film is a stellar example of content that lives the brand promise—a promise of fun, imagination and creativity.

Miss: McDonald's

McDonald's Moms' Quality Correspondents shows what happens when brands try to mix marketing into content, creating something that is too commercial to be seen as useful or authentic.

One article about how McDonald's procures its McCafé coffee could have been an interesting example of how coffee comes from field to cup. However, it is loaded with inauthentic lines such as "As part of the Moms' Quality Correspondents program in the last two years, I have come to expect McDonald's to require above-industry standards from its suppliers. The McCafé line of beverages was no exception."

We're supposed to believe that an everyday mom, and not someone in McDonald's PR department, wrote this? Also, it seems odd that a brand famous for serving things like "pink slime" requires "above-industry standards from its suppliers."

Another "mom" asserts that the Happy Meal toy is "very much part of the chain's family dining concept where the time spent eating with the family is deemed to be an important part of the experience." What they don't explain, however, is how a plastic toy contributes to a family experience.

"McDonald's thing for a long time was that people come to McDonald's as families to hang out and have food together, and that was a very valid brand promise," Farnsworth says.

McDonald's now seems to be in an identity crisis... Is it a coffeehouse? Is it a place where you get healthy food? Is it a place where you get food for a dollar? This lack of self-awareness leads to content like the McDonald's Moms' Quality Correspondents.

"Who thought this stuff was important to parents?" Farnsworth asks. "It shows a complete disregard...for the consumer and a strong desire to check a task off of a list and move on—we wrote about how educational our toys are, box checked, job done. There is not one piece of content actually capturing parents' concerns."

How You Can Make Content That Connects

The key to making content that lives your brand promise lies first in understanding your brand, boiling it down to its core essence. After that happens, you can understand your customer and how your brand promise connects to them.

"All of these examples are about articulating and communicating that brand promise," Farnsworth says. "I would say that 98% of companies do a crap job of content marketing, mainly due to their failure to map that content to the people who are buying it, including their pain points and why they buy the product."

Reflection is difficult. It is hard for brands to stop trying to be everything to everyone and to focus on core purpose and the needs of the audience. It takes brands—and executives—out of their comfort zone when they have to take a critical view of what they actually do and do not represent... but a clear sense of self is the first step toward better content marketing.

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Ryan Johnson is an award-winning Web content producer, SEO practitioner, and digital marketing strategist based in Chicago.

LinkedIn: Ryan Johnson

Twitter: @rsj8000 

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  • by Jennifer Thornberry Thu Jan 8, 2015 via web

    Hi Ryan, great post. It seems to me that the three brands on your list that "hit" their message did so because they were clear about who they are, exactly who their customer is, and how to be authentic to that customer. Brands that don't try to be everything to everyone and market to a particular type of customer are more likely to succeed.

  • by Ryan Johnson Thu Jan 8, 2015 via web


    You hit the nail on the head. you can't accurately represent yourself to customers until you strip away all of the layers of corporate speak and marketing and ask yourself what your company is really all about. Subway did an excellent job of separating themselves form the pack of fast food and sandwich shops and it paid royally.

    I think it is really hard for brands to potentially turn away from any extra money by saying "this is a market we don't serve", but that is exactly what's required sometimes. I think Subway is in danger of doing that when they start turing to offerings like Frito subs things that violate the brand promise of "Eat Fresh".

  • by Mash Bonigala Fri Jan 9, 2015 via web

    great article! However I must admit LinkedIn is perhaps still lagging behind. Here is another interesting article I wrote about your brand promise in the new year:

  • by Ryan Johnson Thu Jan 15, 2015 via web

    Thanks Mash:

    You should add some social share options to your blog post - I couldn't find any!~

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