Content Marketing Is Moving Toward a Zen State of Storytelling

Cycle of engagement created by quality over quantity

On my way to work recently, my Lyft driver asked what I did for a living. It's a simple question but one almost anyone in content marketing becomes uncomfortable with as the answer inevitably leads to more questions. "I'm in content" is clearly a nonsensical thing to say. But on this particular morning, after bracing myself for the awkward pause following my answer, the driver surprised me with this retort: "Are you in branded content or content marketing?"

Greg Hadden 

It was an insightful question and one that might not have sparked an interesting conversation had I not come to an epiphany the night before while watching Louie Anderson marvel his way through a Costco store in the latest episode of Zach Galifianakis' Baskets.

In the show, there is so much Costco and Kirkland love that I'd just assumed it was a brilliant example of  a brand being seamlessly integrated into the narrative, as we content marketers like to say. However, upon learning that not a single Costco penny had been spent on the placement, it suddenly became clear to me that we are entering a new era of branded content: one in which there is no such thing as branded content, at least to consumers. It's an era of storytelling in which, to borrow Duke Ellington's theory about music, "there is only good and not."

Following the long game of this theory is interesting for advertisers because many of the scenarios end with them enjoying the same benefits as entertainment executives. In other words, as content marketing continues to grow, quality becomes more important than quantity. And, as the quality of content marketing grows, a brand's product offering begins to resemble merchandise. This is a good thing because when the lines between your story and your product blur, your product has become the merchandise of your brand's continuing saga. And what happens then is really good: an increased cycle of engagement, multiple steams of revenue, and more consumer demand for new products and new content. Of course, it also brings increased sales and a stronger brand.

These days, content has become a marketing buzzword du jour. One often hears the word storytelling referring to a 30-second spot or an instructional video. What often gets lost is the fact that good storytelling is potent stuff. It has the power to make people want to believe and to belong, which is the goal of all storytellers. We're all selling something, be it an idea, an exploration of the human condition, or say, a vacuum cleaner. It's no mistake perhaps that good stories often create products. Look at King Arthur's Excalibur, possibly the greatest product placement of all time. Sure, it's a product of our imaginations, but isn't that half the point? Boiled down, good storytelling and good content marketing are one and the same. It's the commerce of ideas wrapped in entertainment and manifesting products of our imaginations.

The modern master of content marketing also happens to be the person who arguably created the most significant story of the past 100 years. George Lucas proved that a compelling story can sell anything—and I mean anything, as we can see from the latest influx of Chewbacca koozies and Darth Vader shower heads. While the Star Wars stories—it should be noted that today is May 4, as in "May the 4th Be With You" Star Wars celebration—manifested these products of our imaginations, it was only when the imaginary products became real that Star Wars achieved a Zen state of storytelling, which in marketing terms, is all about a perfect cycle of audience engagement. As someone who spent some time in the toy business—content marketing's great validator—I can attest that excellent content marketing is not a simple tale of product creating story, nor is great content a simple matter of story creating products (of our imaginations or otherwise).

In 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was about to launch. I entered Hasbro believing that story is everything—because clearly a compelling story well executed had created the merchandising Death Star that is Star Wars. Through market research, I also learned that kids (and many adults) were spending more time interacting with Star Wars toys than they were with the films. They were recreating and, in some cases, co-creating the stories. The toys were extending the film property so far that the line between where the story began and the product ended began to blur. Suddenly, it wasn't the story but the product that was everything. To confuse matters more, I learned that the popularity of Boba Fett merchandise had led to his minor film role being reprised and expanded in future films. My new takeaway: The product was the story.

The Transformers is another great example of product creating story. The toy line started with the '80's cartoon and a cult animated feature. When Hasbro refreshed the line in 1995, it launched a corresponding CGI series called Beast Wars. Little did I know at the time, but we were proving out a model in which each new iteration of the Transformer's product offering was both creating the story and simultaneously becoming the merchandise of its brand's evolving saga.

Today, the Transformers movies and merchandise have achieved content marketing Zen in which both the story and the products are the products, and the result is a perfect cycle of consumer engagement and revenue generation. It's impossible to tell where the story begins and the merchandise ends. In essence, everything is the story, and everything is the merchandise. This is Hasbro thinking like Lucas and probably why Hasbro calls itself an entertainment company. It should also be noted that Disney calls itself a product company.

Of course, it's easy to see the connection between Zen content marketing and toys, in which characters are cool vehicles that turn into awesome robots. But what if your product has a less obvious storytelling foundation? Take, for example, furniture. For four seasons Ikea ran a web series called Easy to Assemble. The first season was the little web series that could, making a surprising impact on a market completely unsaturated by branded content.

So, for the second season, we decided to apply the Lucas model by creating a content ecosystem that would pull viewers into an absurd Ikea universe. This included, in addition to the web series, a mockumentary short about a fake Swedish band (featuring Keanu Reeves), a corresponding 8-track EP, several fictional blogs, and a fictional talk show called Forty and Bitter starring Justine Bateman. Once fans started asking how they could buy the iconic yellow Ikea uniform shirts, it also included merchandise. Ikea was delighted and also a little confused that their marketing was somehow paying for itself.

But what if your product isn't a product at all? What if what you're selling is simply an idea? In 2014, in response to the ongoing California drought, some friends and I started Project: Drop-a-Brick. The idea came from the old trick of putting a brick in your toilet, displacing water so the toilet uses less with each flush. What started as a potty joke turned into a PSA campaign. But the crux of the campaign became a product: a nontoxic rubber brick that wouldn't clog toilets the way a real brick would. With the Drop-A-Brick, the PSA campaign became more than just a message—it became merchandise (giving people a way to actively get involved).

The Drop-A-Brick spawned a nonprofit Indiegogo campaign, which in turn generated a lot of press, including an appearance on Fox Business News. Bricks were suddenly being dropped all over California. An NGO and a property management company were dropping bricks (sometimes two) in toilets across the nation, culminating in Shock Top sponsoring a second production run. It was a case of story creating product in which the product was the story and the story wouldn't have been half of what it was without the product.

More than any kind of storytelling, content marketing gives powerful reasons to believe and to belong. The more you can blur the line between where your story begins and your product ends, the closer you come to the Zen of content (not just content marketing). Maybe the next time a Lyft driver asks what I do for a living, I'll simply say I'm a storyteller.

Gregory Hadden is ECD at Motive Made Studios, an entertainment company for brands and a Project: WorldWide agency.