Brand and content: a love story
Doris Eichmeier has been working as a content strategist, content manager and content producer for over 15 years. She has been active for BrandTrust since 2011. She co-authored the book “Die Content-Revolution im Unternehmen” (The Content Revolution in the Company) with Klaus Eck. The qualified media consultant, information scientist and volunteer journalist shares her knowledge, among other occasions, in the master’s program on content strategy at Joanneum Graz University of Applied Sciences.
Every single piece of content has a brand-shaping function. Its purpose reaches far beyond quick conversion success.
You probably know this expression: "A brand is made in the customer's mind." So far so good – we can understand that. But how exactly does it happen? How does a consumer form his opinion of a brand? To do so, he doesn't merely evaluate the product quality, but also the social habits of the company, its design and advertising. He also checks the usefulness of the content.
That can consist of the product text in the online shop, the video on YouTube, the information graphics on the web site, the instruction manual or a lecture by a brand ambassador – every single one of these offers spurs the consumer to check his opinion: Do I stay with my decision? Perhaps I start to find the brand more attractive, even love it? Or do I feel disappointed, reject it more and more?
Content shapes the brand image
To make it perfectly clear: Content has a brand-shaping function. Its power should not be underestimated and goes well beyond quick conversion success.
Many entrepreneurs are not aware of this. The buzzword "content marketing" that has unfortunately become established in our business has done great damage to our understanding. Lots of people think content is a kind of replacement for advertising, whose success is determined by cold hard figures. But that is only one of many applications.
The true power of content can only be harnessed by appreciating it as a whole – as a company asset that benefits all departments (not just marketing). For this to happen, all underlying structures and processes must work smoothly, internally and externally – much like financial flows. Many organizations don't even know how many content offers they communicate with every day. That number can easily go into the hundreds.
Bad content kills the brand
You think I'm exaggerating? Then you should know the result of an Adobe study: Schlechter Content ist der Marken-Killer Nr. 1! (Bad content is the No. 1 brand killer)(Brand Content Survey 2018). More than 65 percent of consumers abandon their purchase when they don't like the content. Gartner even calls it the "Bottleneck and Cause of Failure by 2020", because it threatens the brand value.
The problem is bigger than many want to admit: 60 % of content is meaningless, German consumers believe. So it is useless. (Havas study Meaningful Brands 2019.) They are also annoyed by content that is
• poorly written (39%),
• poorly designed (28%)
• outdated (23%)(Adobe Brand Content Survey 2019).
So German consumers are dissatisfied. That is alarming – especially in these times of dwindling brand loyalty – because their expectations are high at the same time: About 9 out of 10 expect content that is useful to them (88 %, Havas). If that is not the case, they turn away from the brand. Which is a very healthy reaction to the content shock they would suffer otherwise – there is too much content in too many places, especially in saturated markets. So they only deal with content that stimulates them – regardless of whether it is informative or entertaining.
This leads us to three conclusions:
1. Brands need first-rate, unique, convincing content!
2. The content hodge-podge common in many companies ("a little of this, a little of that"), banalities like "our customers are our first concern" and half-baked blog articles contribute nothing to brand building and brand strength.
3. Poor or even mediocre quality is ineffective, can damage a brand and ultimately work in favor or the competition.
Brand style and consumer wishes – content unites them
Company content must address the needs of people and at the same time preserve the brand's character. Finding a healthy balance between the two: That is the true challenge of brand communication.
Ideally, consumers appreciate the content and at the same time recognize what brand they are dealing with. The "Art School of Fish" by John Atkinson is a great example. A blogpost, for instance, is always a blogpost – only the brand behind it makes it special. The brand shows the content makers what language, what topics, what formats they have to choose to express this excellence and uniqueness.
Touchpoints: Where the brand image is updated
What happens when brands meet people? It's like a chance encounter at a party: Two characters check whether they like one another, whether they share any values. This "sniffing out" happens at all touchpoints – during the sales talk, on Instagram or when opening the box the product comes in. Consumers evaluate not only the sleek outfit, but the content as well. Content is how every consumer checks his own personal image of the brand: Does it still fit? Or should he change it? This is a slow process – a brand image changes only gradually, from one touchpoint to the next.
Content should be first-rate at every touchpoint. In order to plan this well, you need a fundamental content strategy. It provides the necessary foresight and overview. Or, as BrandTrust consultant Sebastian Schäfer puts it: "Those who don't have a strategy get stuck in the operative."
Brand manager and content manager – strong together
To make this trustworthy super content happen, companies have to invest in a partnership and foster it with loving care: the partnership between brand managers and content makers. The content pros need this exchange from the beginning – long before they apply the final touches to their texts. Conversely, brand managers benefit from our knowledge, because we can give regular feedback on the acceptance and attractiveness of the brand, market developments, trends and imminent crises.
We content people want to think on our feet! To do that, we need more than meaningless adjectives that are supposed to give us direction. Popular: "innovative". Sorry, but that's a given. Even the most ingenious content people can't spin that into gold. Instead, we need basics: information about the brand core and its DNA, the brand values, brand messages, one-word equity, brand strategy, brand architecture, brand positioning, brand history – you name it.
Charged with that knowledge we can develop a unique brand language (tone of voice) and discover surprising theme worlds that fit the brand exactly and thrill consumers.
Countless examples show that this knowledge transfer often fails. There are scores of blogs whose content is weak, boring, interchangeable. Everybody is copying someone else. It seems we are making the same mistake that advertising made decades ago. Do you remember car commercials from the 80s and 90s? The never-changing studio shots of polished cars – plus a posing lady, businessman or happy family with dog? After 10 minutes you couldn't remember: Was that a commercial for Renault, Peugeot, Fiat – or was it VW?
The same thing is happening today in the content business. The offers are too similar: many copied themes, cliché-laden stock photos and verbose videos full of ad slogans. These steer companies straight into the fog of interchangeability, where things are crowded already.
Have we learned nothing? The only thing that can correct this course is the brand.
Many bank on content – but have no brand
I know, here at BrandTrust I am among entrepreneurs who recognize, appreciate and use the power of the brand. That is excellent, but certainly nothing to be taken for granted.
"Who here works in a company that has a brand?" I ask this question in my seminars or in the content strategy master's program, which is a work-study program. Usually about half of the hands come up. Then I follow up: "What brand messages do you communicate?" I get answers like: "We are better than the competition" – "We are respectable and responsible" – "We have inner attitude". You'll agree with me: Those are not brand messages. Those are empty phrases.
The brief survey shows: There are companies that have no brand. Added to those are companies that falsely believe they have one. So the people sitting before me are future content strategists that are expected to be successful without a brand foundation. How can that work?
Brand building with "card sorting" – born of necessity
These little surveys reveal a chronic problem we content strategists and content marketers have to deal with: Time and again, clients expect us to whip their content into shape – even though they don't even know what is unique about their company. We content strategists face this issue only too often when we are called in. This is why a method has become established in our business that helps us to temporarily fill the void: "card sorting".
Here's how it works: In a workshop of a few hours, up to six communicators of the company or consumers are asked to sort 150 cards. Each card has one adjective, things like "down-to-earth" or "progressive". The 150 terms are divided into three categories: "What we want to be" – "What we would like to be" – "What we don't want to be". The participants keep sorting and re-sorting until three to six adjectives are left. These describe the desired aura of the company.
Brand experts will, I expect, rub their eyes. They struggle for months – with intensive market and competitor analyses, historical research, customer and employee interviews – to come up with the right messages and the perfect one-word equity. And others simply spend an afternoon sorting a deck of cards?
Yes, that's right. And yet, we content strategists cannot do without this stopgap measure. Because this is how we find out what is roughly the right direction – and that is better than none! My US colleague Margot Bloomstein deserves lots of credit for transferring card sorting from the UX to the content biz.
Give us details!
Of course, the best-case scenario looks different. Ideally, we content people are given an A-to-Z introduction by our brand colleagues. From every single aspect, we can filter something that is important for our work:
- Brand strategy: It tells us, for instance: What kind of people with what kinds of needs should the content inspire at what touchpoints? Based on that knowledge we create personas and a package of life situations and needs, in order to build perfectly matched themes for the individual touchpoints.
- Brand building and brand management: What projects are planned at what time at what touchpoint and for what purpose? Once we know that, we can support them with matching content.
- Brand architecture: What is the role of the brand for which we are to develop content within the brand system? If we know this we can reveal time and cost saving synergies in content production. Or we run into similarities that should perhaps be emphasized more strongly or avoided.
- Brand style: What standards are already in place, perhaps regarding design? What might the right "tone of voice" sound like? What key words fit the brand? Using this knowledge we develop guidelines that are useful not only for internal work but also for briefing service providers.
- Brand positioning: What is the nature of the brand and what competitors does it need to differentiate from? We use these insights to perfect the style, themes and content format.
- Brand values: What is unique about this brand? What trends fit it and can be used for content production – and which do we have to give a wide berth – even if they are the hot topics of the day that we could exploit to drive up clicks & likes?
- Brand messages and themes: Which of the messages do we communicate where, when and how? What themes and stories fit? Fact is: Online analyses and surveys only tell us what is popular right now. Brand fit and "being out in front" is a different matter.
Brands should surprise, be pioneers. People should feel that the brand helps them to grow as people. Velux is a great example of this. With its international and long-term promotion "Indoor Generation" the window maker provides knowledge that nobody has ever compiled in quite this way: They give information about the effects of poor indoor air, based on the study Healthy Homes Barometer.
Before that, Velux was, to put it bluntly, a brand for contractors. Now it is a brand for occupants. "If you remodeled your home, what would be the 3 most important things?" Velux asked this question prior to the start of the promotion and for some time after (in Germany, Italy and Great Britain). And lo and behold, priorities have changed: focus on "fresh air" rose by 12 %, on "daylight" by 10 %. The loser is the new kitchen (minus 12 %). Windows – and with them Velux as a brand – moved up in the minds of private citizens.
In order to develop effective themes like "Indoor Generation", the exchange between brand experts and content deciders is crucial. After all, the brand is the source of innovation – which we have to use for content as well in order to actively support the corporate goals. And should a crisis ever loom, we can find out together what content will make the best reaction – in the spirit of the brand.
Content managers help with brand building
For example, energy services provider Polarstern brought on board a content expert right from its founding days. Today she is a member of the executive team. Young companies like Caspar, Slack also do it that way. Some direct-to-consumer brands (DTC) even involve their fans in their content production. "These brands weren't 'built. They were earned", says Harendra Kapur, Head of Writing at Velocity Partners – with a lot of content commitment in advance. Such high flyers have understood that content is important for brand building.
How can content managers support their brand colleagues? Here are a few more examples:
Content analysis: We can conduct an audit and determine: Do website, magazine, shop texts and social media posts fit the brand? Does the content work in line with the brand? What content presents the brand particularly well – and what needs to be revised urgently?
A quick-and-dirty two-group exercise I do with seminar participants shows how wide the gap can be between the intended brand image – and what is ultimately generated in the consumer's mind. The exercise compares consumer assessment and company intention:
- One half plays the consumer – they analyze a web site suggested by a course participant, completely spontaneously.
- The second half examines the company's intentions. To do that, they interview the course participant that suggested the web site: They ask him about brand-relevant intentions and what needs the online presence is intended to fulfill. Finally, both groups present their results – consumer assessment versus company intention.
The most common result: What the company wants to express is perceived by consumers very differently – or not at all. The brand building is not working.
Such insights should be exciting for our brand colleagues, right? We are happy to share them.
Buyer personas and corporate personas: In preparation for content production, content managers like to create some personas. These are average persons that represent a target group. We use these personas (who also have names like Manfred or Sophia) to generate the right content. The corporate persona represents all employees of the company and is also used as an aid for content production.
Couldn't these personas also be useful for daily brand management?
Competitor analysis: Of course we study what the competition is publishing. Sometimes we detect a kind of directional change, like a website relaunch that brings new topics and a new tonality. Or we recognize when they are copying – which points toward a weak brand.
Such aha-experiences should be useful for the brand positioning.
Content success monitoring: How well does what content work at what touchpoint? What content is most successful – and what brand messages are behind it? And what content is performing poorly, even though it has to transport the key brand values?
This information could help to continuously optimize the touchpoints.
Customer Journey: We create a customer journey with the various content formats. Which of them are for getting to know the brand, which do I use to spark customer loyalty? These are fundamental and highly complex considerations – and it would make a lot of sense to deal with them together with the touchpoint managers.
The content solar system is a sample illustration of how we combine the individual content offers – and how central the role of the brand is: Like the sun, it forms the center. Its power affects all "content planets".
The significance of the brand will continue to grow in the content business, because it is essential for the next phases of development – personalization, automation, splitting of the content formats into modules, artificial intelligence. In this data-driven future, the brand will be the glue that holds it all together.
The solar system runs counter to the usual AIDA funnel, which I honestly don't like. Why should a customer fall out of the funnel – basically become uninteresting – as soon as he has paid? Isn't that exactly the problem? Rather, we have to do whatever we can to keep him in our environment – regardless of whether he has already paid or not. We need a "never-ending story" that holds the consumer's interest – and a solar system where he can browse not according to AIDA logic but hither and thither.
As you can see: There are countless reasons why we content and brand managers should form close alliances. Together we can keep an eye on consumer needs. Together we can track down the special entrepreneurial esprit, reveal it, and give it a powerful voice through content. This is how we fill the touchpoints with life, give them an aura. Doing without this foundation means constructing content without a soul. Content trash that contributes nothing to brand attractiveness. We have to avoid this – for the sake of long-term business success.
Does your content fit your brand? For an initial quick check I recommend five perspectives you can use to take a look at your content.
These five perspectives describe strong brand-centered content:
- Empathy & Emotion: Does the content show sensitivity, understanding for customer needs? Does is stir emotions?
- Energy & Elegance: Does it radiate the brand-typical energy and elegance?
- Uniqueness & Memorability: Does it stand out from the crowd with special themes? Does it have a pioneering role and a chance to be remembered? Does the product take a back seat?
- Simplicity & Efficiency: Does it compel with clever clarity, does it forego the unnecessary and appear efficient?
- Commitment & Insight: Does it promote commitment, the communication between brand and consumer? Does it demonstrate that the brand likes feedback, even if it is in the form of criticism?
I wish you great success!
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