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Why brands need to stop going on about 'content' and find something worth saying

We came across our first ‘content strategy’ just after we started We All Need Words. A planning agency had been hired by a big (non-sporty) brand to sponsor the sort of sports events that Nike do. Their twist on this was to support the spectators – the families and friends who go along to things, taxi their loved ones to events and put up with all the training in between. So far, so good – ish. But what we soon realised was that the planning agency and its client hadn’t got anything to say. At all.

‘We just need you to write the content’ they said, showing us sheets and sheets of blank ‘wireframes’ (internet speak for pages without any content in them). We sometimes think back and shudder about one big area they’d earmarked on their wireframe with the title ‘making banners’. We remember the creative director talking about his grand plans for a step-by-step video with annotated instructions, and lots of ‘share’ buttons underneath it, just in case it went viral. After probing him about what it’d say and who would read it, he tried at first to explain ‘We’ll tell people that you need a big sheet, and paint some words on it’ before saying… ‘but that’s your job!’ and moving on to another blank wireframe.

As it turned out, the website wasn’t the viral success they’d hoped for. The big brand fell on hard times and stopped sponsoring sports events. Oh and the creative director is still advising his clients about content strategies.

So what went wrong? It wasn’t necessarily that this big brand and the sport event weren’t a great match. It’s that they’d started with a vague idea before they thought what – if anything – they had to say about it. It’s the problem that plagues most ‘content strategies’ that come our way.

It’s not an easy hurdle to get over. Big brands are at an immediate disadvantage to traditional publishers of content (like journalists) and social media (like bloggers). For one thing, brands can’t just write about things people want to read; they need to find things to say that cast them in a good light. And then there’s customer scepticism to get over too. Who’s really going to take fashion tips from a high street clothes shop at face value? Especially if they can get better – and unbiased – advice from a magazine or blog.

One way brands try to get around creating content is to give up altogether and sponsor or buy other people’s content. Here’s Thom Yorke from Radiohead in the Guardian earlier this year:

“We started having meetings where people started talking about what we did as ‘content’. They would show us letters from big media companies offering us millions in some mobile phone deal or whatever it was, and they would say all they need is some content. I was like, what is this ‘content’ which you describe? Just a filling of time and space with stuff, emotion, so you can sell it?”

You can instantly hear how odd the idea of ‘content’ is when you start talking about it as this abstract thing you want to create or buy. Even the word ‘content’ is weird when you think about it. That sentence was content. As is this one. ‘Haddock is most commonly found at depths of 40 to 133 m (130 to 436 ft), but has a range as deep as 300 m (980 ft)’ Wikipedia is swimming in the stuff. Apps and TV shows are called content. We’re told by search engine experts that Google’s algorithm looks for ‘fresh’ content – it doesn’t matter what, as long as you’re saying something new. But it’s easy to come up with ‘content’. It’s much harder to create any that people want.

Yet helping brands create content people want is what we’re doing for clients more and more. Even when we’re officially working on a ‘tone of voice’ project, we’re usually doing a branding project on the sly: going back to innocuous, fluffy brand statements, interrogating them, figuring out what their stance is and using that stance to make all their words better.

Then, when a client asks us for help with content – which in our case usually involves writing of some sort – we ask them to compare what they have to say with all the blogs, magazine articles, Facebook posts (and so on) out there. And if they can’t do it better, don’t bother.

We’ve been in countless meetings with clients from vodka brands to property developers who’ve asked us to help them write about the latest cool bars and restaurants in London. To which we’ve always told them the same thing: although we’d love to eat out on their account, it’s foolhardy to try to compete with magazines and a thousand bloggers Instagramming their dinners every night.

This is probably seen as radical heresy to some, especially those with ‘content manager’ in their job titles, but we don’t think all brands need to become part-time publishers. There’s a confidence about brands that don’t get into the Twitter and Facebook fray or that don’t feel the need to think up things to say and email them to you every week.

The other thing we ask clients to do is to look at things that are popular and why they work. So, when we’re helping clients with social media (which, by the way we, like everyone else, are still figuring out how to do well), we look to the people who get lots of likes or retweets. And a quick survey shows that they’re not asking open-ended questions about the weekend or making endless positive statements about the hot weather.

Only brands do that. Popular people on Twitter etc are cynical. They say what they like and don’t like – and if they haven’t got anything to say, they shut up. This would be a much better content strategy mantra for most brands to follow than ‘starting conversations’.

The one thing we aren’t doing is just creating ‘content’. Anyone can do that. Maybe a simple definition change would help: try swapping ‘content’ for ‘opinion’ and see if you’ve still got something to say.