3 Content Strategy Lessons From Iconic Brands

Content Marketing


ONE: The Man Makes the Clothes

Had you grown up in the New York metropolitan area some forty-plus years ago, you would remember Sy Syms. The commercials for his eponymous chain of off-price clothing stores ran on TV and radio night and day. According to Wikipedia: “At its height, the chain had 48 locations in thirteen states. On November 2, 2011, Syms Corp., and its subsidiary Filene’s Basement, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after more than a half a century in the clothing business.” Not a bad run at all.

But perhaps most impressive is Syms’ philanthropy. He used a good deal of the personal fortune he made selling clothes to found the non-profit Sy Syms Foundation, which has given away more than $30,000,000 toward education, as well as being a major supporter Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio (NPR).

But it’s his catch-phrase that I’m interested in here—the seven-word tagline to all of his advertising: “An educated consumer is our best customer.” That simple.

It was said the Syms liked nothing better than to talk about and explain clothes to the bankers and financiers who frequented his original shop in downtown New York City. Syms believed, I imagine, that educating consumers about the cut, and fabric, and look of the clothes he sold at discount prices would help him sell. In fact, according to his daughter Marcy in a WSJ article of a few years ago: “[Syms] salespeople are still called ‘educators,’ she says, which follows his habit. ‘He loved to explain the clothes.’ ”

Marketing that Suits

Syms’ obsession with educating his clients was, in fact, a form of content marketing. Don’t just sell the consumers—educate, inform, and even entertain them with stories and tales and details about clothes. Not all marketers believe in this, but Sy managed to parlay the concept into a multimillion-dollar clothing empire that is still helping to educate today. I’d say the concept is a perfect fit for marketing today when it is all about the customer.

TWO: “Want to Read” and “Have to Read”

Back in my days as a journalist in the B2B-technology news business—that would be at EE Times and other publications (and sites) that were part of the CMP Media stable—I was lucky enough to work with some of the best editors and publishers in the business. The heyday of EE Times, as far as I am concerned, played out under the publishing stewardship of Girish Mhatre.

Girish was not your typical publisher. In addition to being an engineer, he was also one-time Editor in Chief of EE Times. Publishers, in those days, most often came out of the business ranks, not the editorial side. Nevertheless, as publisher, his job, among other things, was to make tons of money by overseeing advertising sales and marketing of the weekly paper. At this, he was top-notch. EE Times was among the, if not the, top electronics industry publication in the market during his tenure. Key takeaway: He was a serious businessman.

And EE Times was a serious newspaper. We saw our competition as the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times. It was also a top moneymaker for the company. But Girish knew about content, too, and he knew about marketing. For one thing, editorial and sales were not only on different floors, they were on different planets and never the twain met. But the quote of his that I recall best—and the one that has the most merit to today’s marketer, is this: You must give readers both have to read stories and want to read stories.

In other words, while the electronics design engineers who subscribed to EE Times were interested in the latest news and technology they knew they could read about every Monday in the paper—the content that they had to read to stay abreast of their business and career—it was also necessary to give them fun and entertaining stories that they would serendipitously find in our pages, stories they just wanted to read because they were, well, cool and fun. It was what made EE Times the special publication it was. And made it one of the most-read.

Time to Pull the Push

Today, it seems to me, too many marketers are still only giving their customers—potential and otherwise—have to read content. They tend to believe that the customer is as interested as they are in the brand’s product, mission, go-to-market strategy, POV, marketing themes, and on and on. And while many appear to have adopted “content marketing” as, at least, one of their new marketing tactics, most of what they do is still push old-fashioned content about the brand and its products at the consumer. It really is time for today’s marketers to heed Girish’s words and begin offering “want to read” content—content that the real world is interested in, stories, tales, facts and fictions, even, for balance. The next generation is not necessarily interested in what you are interested in, Ms. Marketing Leader. “Have to read,” for the most part, has its place, but “wanna read” is where it’s at.

THREE: What Drink?

Another phrase that has stuck with me comes from circa 2014, and it’s about Red Bull. It is attributed, originally, to the company’s Austrian founder Dietrich Mateschitz. The quote is this: “Red Bull is a media company that happens to sell energy drinks.” (See this 2014 article from NewsCred, “7 Content Marketing Lessons From Red Bull Media House,” for some still valid observations about the company and its marketing strategies.)

We all can’t be lucky enough to have such an enviable product to market and sell; I mean, Red Bull almost sells itself. It’s cool, it’s tasty, it puts a zip in people’s step, and, perhaps best of all, it goes great with vodka (although, the jury is still out about whether or not this is a good idea). Nevertheless, think about it: The leap from seller of a sports drink to international media powerhouse is neither an obvious nor easy one.

The Content Not Taken

But you’re in the financial services world, or high-tech industry, or manufacturing, or health care, and the like, you say, and you can’t serve up a corporate home page that’s about soccer and hip-hop and car racing, and exploration, the way Red Bull’s is. No, I suppose not. But you can take a page from its content playbook, realize that it truly is about the customer, not about you, and begin to do more, in whatever form, that engages your consumer is some real, authentic, and interesting-to-them way that has nothing to do with specs and value props and ROI. Yes, this content-road not taken is hard. It is not what you are used to, requiring fearlessness, imagination, and honesty that is not always in the marketers’ quiver.

It has never been more clear that the old ways don’t work anymore. Chest-beating, bragging, and self-congratulatory messaging and content not only fails today—it is downright dangerous and tone deaf. Perhaps it’s time to rewrite your content playbook a bit, which might include a jacket from Syms, a wanna-read from Girish, and a sip of Red Bull and vodka, just to loosen things up.