Though the approach of using content in marketing initiatives has become more prevalent over the past couple of years, businesses have been employing content marketing strategies since the 1800s.
Today, marketers use online content to educate and entertain their audiences in order to drive traffic, conversions and/or leads. Similarly, more than 100 years ago, companies used content (albeit different types) in hopes of increasing business and revenue.
Consider John Deere. In 1895, John Deere started publishing a magazine for farmers called The Furrow. The company published the magazine in hopes of being a resource for their customers.
The content featured in The Furrow was educational, and it focused on teaching farmers how to be more fruitful business owners — a quintessential example of content marketing.
In the 1800s, the only way to get content to consumers was via magazine; there were no websites, blogs or social media sites, and most of the other available “advertising venues” were just not big enough to get the full message out.
Today, however, we have all of that and more, and John Deere has adapted The Furrow to fit the online landscape. The company has not only built out the magazine online, but also features similar content on their Facebook page, Twitter account and more.
And of course, the magazine is still available in print. In fact, it is published worldwide in 12 languages and 40 countries. Obviously, this venture has been extremely successful for John Deere, which begs the question: is John Deere the original content marketer?
During my research, the only example of content marketing I could find that came before John Deere’s magazine was from the caveman era… in 4200 B.C. Supposedly, a cave painting could loosely be translated to “six ways a spear can save you from a wild boar.” Obviously, these cavemen researched their audience well — the topic seems well targeted for the time and place.
Though I couldn’t find any other instances of content marketing prior to John Deere’s The Furrow, I did come across some excellent examples of brands using content marketing before it became mainstream.
In 1900, tire manufacturer Michelin developed The Michelin Guide. The guide was a 400-page document created to help drivers maintain their cars and find travel accommodations. The guide also offered general traveling tips along with addresses of filing stations, mechanics, and of course: tire dealers. By encouraging customers to travel, and in turn wear out their tires, Michelin positioned this content to drive sales.
The guide is still around today and is composed of 27 guidebooks covering 23 countries on three continents. The guide was free until 1920, but now it costs about $20. Michelin created marketing content that was so useful, people are now willing to pay for it!
In 1904, Jell-O wasn’t the household name it is today. In fact, Frank Woodward, who owned the rights to Jell-O, was having such a hard time making a profit that he offered to sell the rights to his plant superintendent for a mere $35 (Woodward paid $450 for the rights in the 1880s).
However, before it came to that point, Woodward decided to try one final strategy, which was distributing free Jell-O recipe books. The books featured recipes in which Jell-O was the main ingredient. This eleventh-hour content marketing effort was a smart one, as the promotion boosted Jell-O sales to $1 million by 1906.
Burns & McDonnell
In 1913, Burns & McDonnell, an engineering firm, launched BenchMark magazine, a trade publication that is still produced today. The magazine is a quarterly periodical that includes articles about a range of topics, trends and engineering disciplines, as well as general-interest engineering pieces.
Publishing a magazine was a way for Burns & McDonnell to illustrate their expertise in the engineering industry by providing high quality educational content to potential customers. This high-level expertise is something the firm is very proud of and serves as a differentiator when compared to similar companies.
When it was first produced, BenchMark was presented as a traditional print magazine, but today it can also be viewed as a PDF online or on a mobile device. BenchMark turns 100 this year and is celebrating not only being the engineering industry’s top free magazine, but also the oldest.
In 1924, Sears became successful by marketing a different type of content: a radio program. The company regularly bought advertising time on radio stations to market to farmers and found it was a great way to reach their audience.
As a result, Sears formed their own station called WLS Radio (World’s Largest Store). The station kept farmers up-to-date throughout the deflation crisis with content provided by Sears Roebuck Agricultural Foundation. Sears knew their audience well, which is why their radio content was so successful.
Du Pont Manufacturing Co., General Motors, And More
In 1942, a number of companies began creating content in the form of magazines. With war consuming the lives of Americans, brands produced content to educate and entertain consumers all over the country. A few of the brands that published print magazines in 1942 were Du Pont Manufacturing Co., General Motors and Harley-Davidson Motor Co.
With the war being top of mind, it was important for Americans to feel a sense of community. As a result, in July of 1942, about 500 publications’ covers featured an American Flag to promote unity and rally support for the war, while celebrating Independence Day. Many brands became publishers during that time period and are practicing the same marketing methods today.
From the examples above, it is clear that content marketing is anything but new, as it has been practiced for more than 100 years (video). Though it may seem as if content marketing is an up and coming trend, it is just the opposite. It is a tried and true marketing tactic that has been utilized by brands in varying industries — from automotive to food to engineering — with much success. Though the types of content created by brands today are very different from the type of content brands distributed a hundred years ago, the core concept is the same.
So, back to my question: is John Deere the original content marketer? It does appear that way — no offense to the cavemen intended.
What early examples of content marketing have you found? Share your comments below.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.