When Content Works

By Gary Johnson  |  March 18, 2014

Coke case image

MSPC President and internal Content King takes a look at Coke’s approach to content marketing, its shortcomings, and what other brands can learn from it.

Our Director of Digital Content Strategy sent me an interesting case study on how content marketing seems not to be working for Coca-Cola.

It’s particularly interesting given that Coke is one of the most visible brands on the planet. Too, they recently made a huge commitment to developing a strategy called “Content Marketing 2020.” In it they laid out what could be considered the ultimate blueprint for a brand hoping to become a publisher.

Mark Higginson, who wrote the case study and does not work for Coke, discovered Coke’s investment is not generating the type of activity it had hoped for. In a nutshell, though they enjoy 78 million likes on Facebook, people are not sharing its content. Consequently the company isn’t realizing short-term product sales.

Coke’s experience is a lesson for brands wanting to genuinely commit to content marketing. It’s critical for companies to consider whether the stories they want to tell are designed specifically to promote and move merchandise or to capture the hearts and minds of consumers. There is ample evidence that building emotional currency, brand awareness and meaningful engagement through storytelling will ultimately sell product, though it may not earn high marks for instant gratification.

And therein lies the rub for corporations wanting to be publishers. Ironically, it was Wendy Clark herself, the CMO of Coca-Cola, who said companies need to ask “why” before they create a messaging strategy. She’s absolutely correct about the ask, but I’m not sure content marketing is as effective a tool for a product like Coca-Cola as it is for brands like Red Bull, Betty Crocker or 3M, i.e, brands associated with a lifestyle, a belief system or a product requiring utility-based content. Indeed, like McDonalds or Marlboro, Coke is one of the few brands I can think of whose one dimensionality may not benefit from transparency, authenticity, context, service journalism or storytelling.

The real issue, though, has more to do with how corporations like Coke and the author of this case study measure the impact of content. Unfortunately, they use the same standards for content as they do for advertising and public relations, disciplines designed to elicit response and sell product. Content is NOT advertising. Content is NOT PR. Missing that point, they place their expectations on metrics rather than the meaningful outcomes that great content can generate. Unfortunately, Coke’s use of content as a proxy for advertising and traditional PR, which I find brave, innovative and trend-forward, is being judged by the wrong standard.

Contrary to popular marketing beliefs, content — particularly the type we create for MSPC — is not a failure if it doesn’t instantly move the needle. The ever-broadening definition of content created by digital agencies, social media firms, ad agencies and PR firms generates wildly different benefits from the type we produce, and often less substantive. The variation shares a parallel with delivery systems: platforms that we now know are vastly different from one another in terms of how they are used by consumers and the outcomes they generate.

If you can call them content, mechanisms like coupons, sweepstakes, video that goes viral and gamification do move needles, but only for a short period of time. And they rarely increase market share or engender long-term consumer relationships, a need that initially drove corporate interest in content creation! Connection and engagement don’t always manifest themselves in shares, likes and followers, though our personal experience with clients demonstrates it can. Marketers, even Goliaths like Coke, still fall well behind the knowledge curve, fumbling mightily with unreasonable expectations when it comes to the innate, intrinsic benefits that brand journalism can deliver.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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