5 Things History Can Teach Us About Modern Content Marketing

Since the digital age of marketing has empowered consumers, content marketing has emerged as an essential part of an effective brand marketing strategy. But, is this a new concept?

No, not really. Turns out, the roots of content marketing have some important lessons for today’s practitioners.

From Great Beer to Great Marketing Strategy

Recently, I saw a news story about the Guinness Book of Records that mentioned the iconic publication’s origins and it got me thinking — for those unfamiliar with the story, here it is in a nutshell:

The Guinness Book of Records was the brainchild of Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of the Guinness Breweries in the early 1950s. Legend has it that after a missed shot at an oddly named game bird called the golden plover, an argument ensued about whether or not it was the fastest game bird in Europe.

Beaver thought that there must be countless other questions debated every night in pubs throughout Ireland and Great Britain, but there wasn’t a book that could settle these types of arguments. Seeing a marketing opportunity, he published the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records in 1954 as a “marketing giveaway,” and the rest is history. A great moment in content marketing.

Even Further Back

The idea of creating content to reach and engage a target audience goes back further than that. In the 1930s, there were the radio shows sponsored by P&G for Duz and Oxydol that later became known as soap operas. Yep, that’s how they got that name.

Here’s another example. The Michelin brothers created the Michelin Guide in 1900 for their customers as a travel guide to boost automobile ownership (and thus tire sales).

How about one more? In a precursor to Red Bull’s event-based content strategy, the Tour de France was created as an epic stunt by a French newspaper, L’Auto, to sell newspapers and attract advertisers. No matter where you look, history is packed with these kinds of stories.

Here’s a little bit of sports trivia for you. L’Auto was notable because it was printed on yellow newsprint. This inspired the awarding of “le maillot jaune,” or yellow jersey, to stage winners so people could identify the leader, creating a tradition that continues as an iconic sports achievement.

The True(ish) Origin of Content Marketing

Who knows? Maybe content marketing goes back 30,000 years to the ancient cave paintings. Could they be the handiwork of an enterprising hunter trying to drum up some business? Perhaps they are just an engaging way of saying:

“Need a wooly mammoth in a hurry? See Zog at Zog’s Hunting Services. Visit the first cave left of the big rock for details. Zog accepts berries and PayPal.”

If so, this could be evidence that content marketing, and storytelling itself, is truly in our genes.

What History Can Teach Us About Content Strategy

So, what is the takeaway from all this? The common theme in all these cases is that someone with a keen insight into the lifestyle, needs, and interests of their target audience saw an opportunity and then created a content solution that provided relevant information or entertainment. These content pioneers understood that promotional communication is a transactional exercise — a quid pro quo.

Our attention is a precious commodity. In exchange for our attention, we as consumers demand a promise and a delivery of something of value. Good content marketing has an inherent advantage in winning these negotiations. This instructs us to answer the consumers’ question, “What’s in it for me?” first, and then address the, “Here’s what I want you to know about my product” part later.

Top 5 Lessons on Content Marketing

So, what can we learn from these examples of proto-content marketing? Here are five takeaways to consider:

    1. Know your audience. You can’t just know the demographics. You need to really know them on an emotional and lifestyle level. What interests them? What do they do for fun? How do they spend their free time? Build your knowledge base of how they perceive themselves. Sir Hugh Beaver understood his customers intimately, and that helped generate his idea for the Guinness Book of Records.
    2. Know their relationship with your product. How do consumers use it? Where do they use it? What else are they doing when they are using the product? The Guinness Book of Records is a great example of this, as is the Michelin Guide. In the case of Michelin, in order to sell more tires, they realized it would help business if people bought more cars. How do you get more people to buy cars? In that day and age, the answer was show them what to do, where to go, and how to travel.
    3. Be helpful. Automobile travel was quite an adventure in 1900. The repair tips and how-to information in the initial guides provided invaluable information for the intrepid auto traveler. That’s another way to get around people’s attention defenses and engage them.
    4. Entertain. Never forget the fun factor. That’s the best and fastest way to “strike a deal” for your target audience’s attention. That was the point of the Tour de France — tap into the public’s fascination with the superhuman exploits of men pushing the limits of their bodies and their machines.
    5. More ideas. Less yakking. Don’t just add to the noise level. Yes, there is a lot of the basic blocking and tackling that needs to be part of a branded content and social media effort, but be sure to build in the time and budget for something spectacular. Be original. The Guinness Book of Records was not a half-step idea. If you want to make an impact, think big.


The key point to consider is that the concept of engaging an audience with ideas that entertain and inform to gain a marketing advantage is not new. What is new is the wealth of affordable, accessible channels to reach people that make it easier (and at the same time more difficult) to make an impact. Our challenge as marketers is to better understand our consumers and develop innovative content that makes a difference to them.

One final note for those who may be curious: yes, the golden plover is the fastest game bird in Europe. Now you know.

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Infinity Marketing

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