A Brief History Of Content Marketing (It's Not As New As You Think)

May 20, 2014 Emily Bauer

As its popularity has spiked in recent years, content marketing may be mistaken as another modern marketing buzzword; however, it is not something to be written off as temporary fad or recent marketing craze. In fact, content marketing is something of a practiced craft with a longer history than you might expect. The story of content marketing spans the past 120 years, beginning with a tractor manufacturer that published a revolutionary consumer magazine. 

Today’s content marketers have the benefit of being able to reflect and learn from the mistakes and successes of their predecessors. Here’s a quick history lesson on the origins and evolution of content marketing:

John Deere: The Furrow (1895)

John Deere is often touted as the earliest example of successful content marketing. The agricultural machinery manufacturer launched its consumer magazine, The Furrow, back in 1895. Today, the magazine has a circulation of about 1.5 million, so the first historical example of content marketing was certainly effective. The Furrow, which is now available in 12 languages and 40 countries around the world, is successful because it tapped into something that John Deere’s consumers truly cared about: making farming more profitable. Modern content marketers should take a page out of The Furrow and always try to understand the specific needs, motivations, and interests of their target market.

Michelin: The Michelin Guides (1900)

One of the best applications of content marketing is to drive demand for your product—which is exactly what an early example of content marketing by a certain tire company achieved. Michelin published its first guidebook for French motorists in 1900, an era when few consumers owned cars, in an attempt to ramp up the public’s demand for automobiles. Michelin distributed 35,000 free copies of its first guide, which contained information for motorists, despite the fact there were only 3,000 cars in France at the time. The Michelin Guides expanded into a series of annual guidebooks of different countries, offering information on hotels and restaurants that motorists may want to visit, all while creating brand awareness and desire for its product.

Jell-O: Jell-O Recipe Book (1904)

The key to successful content marketing has always been to include value for your consumers without overtly advertising your product. Jell-O created one of the earliest successful content marketing campaigns with its free recipe book, which was first distributed in 1904. Jell-O recognized the importance of addressing the specific needs, interests, and desires of their target market. Additionally, Jell-O made its books easily available to anyone who wished to experiment with creative Jell-O dessert recipes by delivering them door-to-door for free. Today, the Internet provides a streamlined digital distribution channel that wasn’t imaginable for the pioneering content marketers of the early 1900’s - so take advantage of your ability optimize content visibility across multiple social platforms online. 

Hasbro & Marvel: G.I. Joe Comic Book (1982)

Between 1904 and 1982, marketers grew more adventurous in their content marketing methods. The lessons learned by John Deere, Michelin, and Jell-O still rang true in the 80’s, but Hasbro and Marvel teamed up and followed a previously unexplored path in their approach to content marketing. Hasbro and Marvel refashioned the G.I. Joe action figure into a product that was primed for cross-channel promotion through television and comic books—which is how the ‘Real American Hero’ became a household name through bold content marketing. Modern marketers still struggle to balance effective content marketing with innovative strategies to boost brand awareness, but G.I. Joe proved that creative cross-channel promotion was a viable option even when content marketers were more limited in their choice of media.

A Time Tested Strategy

The concept of content marketing has come a long way since the days of John Deere’s first edition of The Furrow. Out of necessity, our marketing ideals and concepts have been refined and evolved quite a bit. Today’s audience is more conscious of advertising, so modern marketers often require greater finesse and subtlety. Reflecting on past examples of notable content marketing campaigns allows us to appreciate the modern mechanics of content marketing, and helps us improve future campaigns by preventing us from repeating the mistakes of our predecessors.

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About the Author

Emily Bauer

Emily is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario who covers a range of topics from technology to travel. She holds a Bachelor in English Literature and Business from the University of Waterloo. No matter how many projects she is working on, Emily always finds time for baking, reading, and yoga.

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