A riff on poetry, brand associations and content marketing

Content marketing: how to stand out from the crowdWarning: if you have an exceptionally sensitive disposition, turn away now – my story requires me to quote a slightly dodgy word I found in a poem. But if you do, you’ll be missing out on a rather strange brand association, plus my tips on how content marketing can make you more successful.

The poetry connection

One evening, in search of new insight, I picked up a slim book with a faded, almost indecipherable spine: ‘Zen poetry’. I was destined to get insight, but not the kind I was expecting.

Opening the book, I dismissed the haikus as not being meaty enough & flicked to one of the longer poems, which rather surprisingly began:

Men without rank, excrement spatulas / Come together, perfuming heaven and earth.

Quick reality check – I had forgotten what Zen poetry was like – but setting that aside, I’d never heard of that kind of spatula. And why associate stinky spatulas with perfuming heaven and earth?

I’ve worked in international marketing for many years, and have spent a little time in Japan, so I do know that different cultures can have their surprises. Ironically, the better you get to know the other culture, the more alert you become to the very real possibility of misunderstanding. Was this one?

Later, still puzzled by the poem, I asked my sweetheart what he thought. Was it just an image, or did he think such a spatula might actually exist, given our experiences with musical ablution toilets in Tokyo and Osaka?

No, he did not: being a garden writer, he was sure that it was just an image for ‘men who earn a noble living by digging with a spade in the dirt’.

I found it hard to accept that I had been treasuring a book that was so poorly translated that ‘dig the earth with a spade’ was rendered ‘excrement spatulas’. Spatulas are narrow and flimsy and poorly suited to earth moving…

Garden writers, though I love them all dearly, do have a tendency to be adamant, so I offered no resistance when the discussion rapidly morphed into something else.

Next day, finding the Zen poetry book still lying next to the iMac, I finally googled the term ‘excrement spatula’ and discovered ‘chūgi’ – a little stick that the Japanese traditionally used. Another little mystery solved – and hats off to the translator then!

Reading the poem again, now understanding the insult, my sweetheart had been pretty much right, but the idea becomes more memorable for being expressed in a way that is shocking to the senses – the poet persuades us to imagine and contrast scents. No mean feat!

But what’s the marketing connection?

Simply that after my online search, I noticed the sponsored Google advert in a box at the top of the page of search results had changed to read: ‘Ad related to excrement spatula:’

Three pristine room-set shots of kitchens followed, highlighted in a neat cream box, with a link to a company (I’ll spare their blushes and not name them) selling… bar stools?

Not really the kind of brand association they were hoping for, bless their hearts.

Setting aside the poor value for money of the advert, would any consumer purchasing the stools in response to the ad know quite what to expect if they were to sit on one? (Sorry – did I go too far? Just ignore that.)

Seriously, we all make mistakes, but how could that association arise? Was it just that their advertising campaign needed a few negative keywords applying to remove other potential meanings of the word ‘stools’ or was it, as seemed more likely, another problem?

Advertising: big budget thinking

Could a company really be prepared to pay per click in the hope that someone searching for a spatula would decide to forget that and buy a bar stool instead?

I suppose it’s just about possible if ‘big budget thinking’ was to blame. That’s the kind of erroneous thinking that can arise when marketeers believe they have been tasked to spend a certain amount of money on a particular activity or campaign. Believe me, this happens!

They may have already covered all the main keywords and associations really well in the kind of paid adverts you see when browsing online. Eventually, with a really big budget, they may increasingly find themselves investing in the long shots. Their creativity becomes focussed on how best to spend the extra money.

It may feel like a risk to highlight too clearly to others that they’re now facing increasingly diminished returns – they may feel they risk diminishing their own position in the process.

I’ve seen this happen with AdWord campaigns and wondered ‘why did nobody question this?’ – significant amounts of money were being paid per click on keywords that were almost completely unrelated to the company’s activity.

Perhaps it takes a very clear-sighted, confident marketeer to suggest money is transferred from their area of the budget to another. It really shouldn’t be all that big a deal.

So if you ever find yourself bidding on your equivalent of ‘spatulas’ to sell bar stools, a wiser approach would be to review the budget. Rather than spending all your resources and ingenuity on advertising, why not invest in creating some relevant, evergreen content about bar stools (or your own specialist subject) which you can publish on the site to attract new visitors? It’s called content marketing and it’s fashionable at the moment, for all the right reasons.

It’s a great way for people to branch out into marketing when they’ve not got big money to spend – or even any money at all. Providing you can think creatively, express yourself in some form or other, and are willing to consistently invest a little time, you can have a successful content marketing strategy.

How does content marketing work?

If you are offering a good service or product, one of the quirks of marketing is that many of the people you’re hoping to attract by advertising are at the same time actively looking for you.

Think of an advertiser as being like a fisherman casting a tasty worm into a particular lake, hoping to attract a fish. I skimmed through a book on fly fishing once and there’s a real art to it. But one thing’s for sure: you won’t catch a fish that’s swimming in a different lake, even if it’s just in the next village. And you won’t catch a fish the day after your visit.

Content marketing just means creating information designed to help people as they research the subject you’re both interested in, then publishing it somewhere they can find it. You may hear this called inbound marketing too.

It’s known as the pull effect: you’re encouraging people to hone in on you, as an expert on your subject, rather than drift away towards one of the many other options available to them.

While an advert tends to be costly and has a limited time span, online content will last till you update it or remove it. Online publishing often has little or no extra cost, although you may decide to create printed material too, such as leaflets or brochures.

Online content is a slow burn, rather than a quick fix, but the idea is that if you publish enough rich and relevant information about your subject and place it on your website, blog and social media channels where people can find it, they’ll naturally start to come to you.

The more people are attracted to your content, the higher your site will rank in organic search results. As time goes on, you’ll find yourself building up valuable brand collateral.

How can I start to create a content strategy?

It all sounds good, but how easy would it be to create content about bar stools? Aren’t bar stools… well… a bit boring? My tip is: if you’re selling something you think is boring, sell something else.

Creating content should always be enjoyable: if you’re not having fun and learning things as you create it, why think anyone else will gain anything from reading it?


Perhaps the only way to start a content marketing strategy from scratch is by brainstorming ideas that relate to your subject. Allow yourself at least 15 or 20 mins to make a start. Just have a bit of fun at this stage and jot your ideas down – don’t try to weed out the good ones from the bad ones or worry too much about the practicalities. You don’t need to show them anyone, so you can let yourself go.

Content lives in many places, in many different formats

Visual content is particularly useful as it’s easily shareable on Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc.

Remember that there’s no need to restrict yourself to simply articles, posts and pictures: some subjects will easily lend themselves to videos, ebooks, posters, infographics or SlideShares.

You might think the more forms of content you use, the merrier, but I’m quite pragmatic: with so many options, I suggest that you play to your strengths, especially at first. If you’ve always loved film, enjoy telling a story visually and can hold a video camera steady, by all means, start off with that, uploading your videos to YouTube. If you’re a natural, confident writer, choose a topic, research it,  then off you go! If you can do both, so much the better.

You may find yourself spread very thinly if you try to use every social media platform available. Pick two or three, and aim to do them really well, ideally including a blog. Maintain some form of presence on any other platforms you think are relevant to your audience. You’ll soon find out where you have most success, and can adjust your strategy as you go along.

Evergreen content and organic search rankings

Of course, it takes ingenuity, patience and resourcefulness to build up a meaningful body of work, but for once, time is on your side. That’s not often the case if you work in marketing.

By creating a steady supply of evergreen content – content that has lasting appeal, is genuinely inspirational and relevant, and will be found over and over again in the future – you’ll gradually build up a strong position in the organic search rankings. It won’t happen overnight, but more potential customers will eventually come to realise that you have some insight, or even authority, on your subject.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this advice from Google, taken from the section on optimising content in their Search Engine Optimisation Starter Guide:

‘Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors discussed here.’

Refine your ideas and make some of them real

You’ll find ideas come more easily that you might imagine.  By writing them down, or making them happen, you’ll think of other ideas too – better ones. As you start to develop and share information, you might come up with ideas for new product features, or get feedback about your existing products from customers, that will help in your product design process, by highlighting an obvious need.

Think of content marketing as just one more step towards my personal holy grail – a holistic approach to marketing. Just remember that content marketing is much more successful when the customer’s needs and desires are kept at the start, middle and end of everything you create and you won’t go too far wrong.

You can write all the information you want, but unless at least some of it hits the spot – gives a little gift of some kind, answers a question people often find themselves asking, or empowers and encourages them to do something – you’ll never get the results you’re hoping for.

With the vision to create interesting evergreen content, great quality controls to make sure your content is worthy of your brand, an eye for what’s popular and what’s not & most importantly of all, the determination to keep at it, you’ll make steady progress.

You almost certainly have a head start on your competition, for many brands have still not yet really wised up to the power of content to generate interest. As Curt Woodwood of xeconomy puts it:

“I honestly can’t wait for the day when companies realize that they are all publishers now, and just publish what they want to put out there, rather than trying to pay someone to ‘place a story.”

So now you have ideas, all you need is an action plan. More of that another day!

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