How Jell-O Got Influential by Being Helpful

October 30, 2012

We’ve heard the phrase “content is king” a lot since the mid 1990’s when Bill Gates famously predicted: “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the internet, just as it was in broadcasting.” You can read his essay here.

But not all content is helpful, or deserves to wear the crown. Much of what marketers try to pass off as content is thinly-veiled advertising copy; it’s as if they begin with the best of intentions, and then just can’t help sliding into a sales pitch.  (Try reading a “white paper” by some software companies and see how long it takes before the product name miraculously appears).

I recently attended the Canadian Marketing Association’s annual Digital Day conference, which promised to cover “What’s Happening and What’s Next in Digital Marketing.”  I thoroughly enjoyed the main attractions, including AOL’s mile-a-minute Digital Prophet David Shing and the hilarious Faris Yakob, Chief Innovation Officer at MDC Partners.  But the light bulb that really illuminated things for me was a relatively understated sounding session called “Be Helpful to Be Influential” moderated by Joe Pulizzi, Founder of the Content Marketing Institute. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favour and get to know this wise man.

The session focused on how brands and campaigns that solve consumer problems and give away expertise for free are the ones that will matter the most in the long run.  Pulizzi described several classic examples, starting with John Deere’s custom publishing gem, The Furrow.  The Furrow is a magazine that was created by John Deere in the 1890s to help farmers operate more efficiently and profitably.  Actually, it was created to sell tractors, but the company recognized that being helpful to their target consumers was the way to get there.  Fast forward over a century, and The Furrow is still plowing ahead in print and online, and John Deere’s 2010 annual revenue was $26 billion. That’s a lot of tractors!

Next, Pulizzi talked about Jell-O. About a decade after the first issue of The Furrow rolled off the press, the marketers behind Jell-O were struggling to convince homemakers to buy into its jiggly goodness. When advertisements in the Ladies’ Home Journal declaring Jell-O to be “America’s Most Famous Dessert” didn’t hit the sweet spot, the company deployed an army of salesmen to distribute free Jell-O cookbooks door-to-door.  According to Wikipedia, over 300 million boxes of Jell-O are sold in the United States every year.

For a more recent example, check out The Colour Genius, L’Oreal’s free mobile app that takes the guesswork out of choosing the right shades of makeup to go with an outfit. According to L’Oreal’s marketing director Thierry Trudel, who spoke after Pulizzi, users simply snap a photo of their outfit, select their desired tint, and then choose whether they want to Match It, Blend It or Clash It.  Technologically, The Colour Genius is, well, genius. It’s also marketing genius, because it helpfully addresses a problem faced by millions of people every day.  (And boy, does it ever support L’Oreal’s mission “to improve the quality of life of our consumers, by making beauty accessible to as many men and women as possible”.)  Is L’Oreal influential? The 19.5 billion Euros that rang through its till in 2010 would likely say yes.

According to a recent study involving over 1,000 companies by MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute, one third (33%) of their total marketing budget was spent on content marketing in 2012, up from 26% in 2011.  In fact, in the B2B space, the most successful companies that use content marketing allocate almost half (46%) of their marketing budget to this approach. And there’s more to come.  More than half (54%) of these same companies plan to spend even more on content marketing in the year ahead, with just 2% saying they’ll spend less. You can read more about this important research here.

Even when the printing press was one of the only available marketing platforms, John Deere used content marketing to be helpful to its customers. Now that marketers have a seemingly infinite variety of platforms at their disposal, the opportunity to be influential by being helpful has never been better.  And aren’t PR people just the right kind of marketers to do it?

What are your favorite examples of B2B and B2C brands being helpful to be influential?

Charts used with permission from the Content Marketing Institute.