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Grumpy Cat's Serious Lesson for Marketers

Brand building is both easier, and harder, than it ever was before. That's because the key to success is not so much budget, but value. Conventional companies are following the trend.

Bill Gates was one of the first to predict it. Two decades ago, the richest man alive declared that in the then-dawning Internet age, 'Content is King'.

Not that he predicted the emergence of Pewdiepie, Mystery Guitar Man or Grumpy Cat. What the Microsoft magnate did say was that Internet works like a gigantic, free photocopier. (You know, one of those gadgets that replicates paper documents……ahh, ask your parents). In other words, today's marketing challenge is not so much about distribution, about getting your voice out there. It is about your voice saying something that people want to hear.

Simple, eh?

But Seriously, Folks

Well, not as much as it might seem. 'Content' often is understood as, ahem, SERIOUS STUFF. Current events, stock prices, politics – the sort of things printed in a broadsheet newspaper (you know, that bundle delivered in the morning……ahh, ask your parents). Equally serious is the adjective-laden 'brochure-ware' found on many company websites. No corporate deed goes unpraised, and language such as 'human resources were downsized by the leadership team' substitutes for 'the boss fired a lot of underlings'. The thing is – no real surprise here – appetite for this serious stuff is limited. For unserious content, however, the craving seems to know no bounds. Just consider this factoid: the Grumpy Cat franchise generates a six-figure income and is valued at 1 million dollars.

Why so Grumpy, Then?

Surely everyone by now has heard of Grumpy Cat (ahh, ask your children). The scowling tabby, whose Internet photos and videos rocketed her to fame, appears regularly on American television, does photo shoots, plugs a range of products (not only pet food), and even starred in an eponymous film that aired in late 2014. Grumpy's 'content' is, well, to appear grumpy. (It's only an appearance, say her owners, claiming she actually is perfectly happy.) Hardly more serious are the host of web-celebs who have sprung up in recent years. Pewdiepie, a twenty-something Swede, plays and comments on video games on his YouTube channel – earning a reported annual 7 million dollars. Mystery Guitar Man, a native Brazilian living in Los Angeles, publishes quirky songs and action videos for an alleged 2 million dollars. And for each of these, there are numerous wannabees. In Zurich, for example, Albanian-immigrant Endrit Bajra entertains thousands of young people with his comedy clips. From them he earns a supplement to his day job, and he's trying to leverage them into a full-time career as a chat- or variety-show host. Clearly, none of these 'artists' fit mainstream tastes. Back in the days when there were only a handful of radio, TV and newspaper outlets, they would have never made it big. But so what? In today's mega-channel world, each of them can find their place alongside the feeder to the gigantic, free photocopier. Their fans can find places next to its output tray.

Mixing Business With Pleasure

What already works in the entertainment world has started trickling down to conventional businesses. Very conventional, even – for instance, family-owned interior-decorators. Heyse Malerfachbetrieb, based in Germany's Hanover, recently announced that it had topped its target of 600,000 euros for projects won through marketing via social media and the Internet. A similar firm based 500 km to the south in Karlsruhe, malerdeck, credits its ongoing success to the same. Recently retired owner Werner Deck attributes a substantial amount of his sales leads to a blog that he has published for the past six years. No, it's not mainstream stuff – more like how a decorator would recount his daily work to his wife, says new media expert David Schaefer of Haemmerli Schaefer Communications. Pedestrian as that is, there is obviously a market for it. Just as there is a niche for Grumpy Cat, so too for Deck's blog, which numbers more than 20,000 followers.

Coke Was it, But Now Red Bull Is

This really is a new way of building brands. 'Content marketing', as it's usually called, means sending regular, credible, entertaining information to a target audience. Unlike conventional advertising, the primary hurdle is not distribution cost. The challenge is to create material that the audience values, something they will click on, stay on and keep coming back to. An example here is that of two soft-drink giants, Coke and Red Bull. Whereas the former still relies heavily on the old approach of saturating consumers with slogans and songs, the latter focuses on delivering events for vicarious thrill-seekers. Hosting of high diving, base jumping, extreme skiing and other adrenaline-boosting spectacles "has turned Red Bull into a media company that happens to have a drinks factory bolted on." says German Ramirez, founder of digital media consultancy Spark & Strategy. None of this is lost on marketers at established companies, Coke included. According to Joe Pulizzi, Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, leading content practitioners now include such blue chips as Farmers Insurance, Four Seasons Hotels, General Electric, IBM, Qualcomm and SAP.

Content Marketing Is Here to Stay

So what are you waiting for? Well, like anything in life, talking is easier than doing (ahh, ask your parents). Most marketing and communications departments are not organized to master content. And there can be legal restrictions. Finally, adds Ramirez, valuable content usually requires a spin- and jargon-free simplicity that many companies shun. Nonetheless, the Internet obviously is here to stay, so over time few companies will be able to ignore content marketing.