By Robert Rose published March 2, 2015

Is Content A Sustainable Competitive Advantage?


Is content a sustainable competitive advantage?

No. It’s not. And, now let me tell you why.

A reporter was interviewing me a couple of weeks ago for our upcoming book launch and he asked if he could “push back” a little on a word that I used. It was a word that, in his mind anyway, was one that we marketers tend to throw around a lot. I said “sure, push away.”

The word was “strategy.” He said, “Tell me – what is strategy?”

OK, yeah, time to go get a cocktail.

But, the good news is that I didn’t have to come up with a great definition of “business strategy” (because, let’s be honest, we’re not talking military here). Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter gives us a perfectly capable answer. (By the way, I cannot implore you enough to go learn from this teacher.)

Anyway, I won’t and can’t do it justice here – but basically in his seminal article, “What Is Strategy?,” published in 1996, he begins to break it down like this:

A strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving different sets of activities:

  • Serving the FEW needs of MANY customers
  • Serving the BROAD needs of FEW customers
  • Serving the BROAD needs of MANY customers in a NARROW market

It requires the business to make trade-offs in where to compete – and make decisions about what NOT to do. It involves
creating a broader “fit” among all the activities the company decides to do.

As we think about content marketing – and everything we’ve been learning about developing a content mission – those three bullets should be burned into your brain.

So it was easy for me to answer the question. I just replied, “Yeah, what Michael Porter said.” But it got me to thinking hard about the current nature of what it really means to do strategic content marketing.

Is content a sustainable strategic differentiator?

In doing that thinking, I went back and reread (for, like, the fourth time) Rita Gunther McGrath’s book The End of Competitive Advantage. (As a side note, she is another teacher who is just unbelievably influential.)

In that book, she vividly illustrates that all competitive advantage is transient – and now perhaps more transient than ever before. This fact, she contends, is fairly well understood. But then, “Why,” she asks, “hasn’t basic strategy practice changed?”

Most executives, even when they realize that competitive advantages are going to be ephemeral, are still using strategy frameworks and tools designed for achieving a sustainable competitive advantage, not for quickly exploiting and moving in and out of advantages.

This has deep implications to the nascent and evolving practice of content marketing in a business.

As I’ve gotten the absolute privilege of working with more than 100 enterprise brands across the last four years, the application and strategic nature of content marketing are challenged with this very thinking. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to:

We currently think, “How do we change content to fit marketing’s purpose?” – instead of “How do we change marketing to fit our content purpose?”

So, no, content itself will never be a sustainable competitive advantage or differentiator – because ALL competitive advantage/differentiation is transient.

Instead, we need to change our perspective and understand that WE are the competitive advantage. Our ability as a marketing team (no matter the size) to be dynamic and fluid and to move in and out of “arenas” (as McGrath calls them) and create temporary advantages will be critical to success.

Here’s the real takeaway. We should ask ourselves if we truly believe that compelling, engaging, useful, and dynamic content-driven experiences will ultimately move the business forward.

If our answer to that is “yes,” then the strategic value is in our ability to repeatedly create the valuable stories and not in where we tell them. This has many implications as we’ve discussed:

  • Businesses must increasingly stop organizing and scaling new marketing teams based on platforms, technologies, or an inside-looking-out view of the customer journey. The successful business will ultimately become skilled and integrated at creating and managing content-driven experiences. The format and placement of them on multiple channels will always be temporal in nature.
  • Businesses must stop looking at content as a campaign that supports a marketing tactic or initiative, and instead start looking at marketing as a function that increasingly supports the fluid use of content to create and support better customer experiences.
  • Businesses that will win with content marketing will be able to constantly reconfigure their efforts and manage a “portfolio” of content-driven experiences. When a particular experience is no longer advantageous to the business, it will not lean on “that’s the way it’s always been done” and instead will healthily disengage and dismantle these experiences.

Yes, content is change

What we’re really talking about here is marketing’s ability to adapt to change.

These days, we no longer have to build a case for the connection of a company’s ability to innovate with a higher-level strategy. Whether you’re an old-school fan of Michael Porter or Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma – or you’re part of the new school of Jason Fried’s Rework or Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, it is our ability to adapt to change that provides the foundation for success.

And, if you think about it, content is the one thing that MUST change all the time. Our company’s abilities when it comes to content reflect its relevance to the culture in which it lives. In other words, we had better get good with creating relevant content, or we risk our communications sounding like the dialogue from an episode of Deadwood.

In fact, in many cases content is the only thing that can change. As Jonathan Mildenhall, then the VP of Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence for Coca-Cola, told me pointedly, he couldn’t change anything about the iconic nature of the packaging or the product of Coca-Cola. The only thing he could build upon was the experiential media and conversation around that product. As he said:

Coca-Cola can be viewed as a huge media brand with amazing reach and frequency. The question we ask ourselves is, ‘Can we use our assets as content, and can we create content out of our assets?’

In short – he changed. Instead of looking at content as a way to fit marketing’s purpose, he changed marketing as a way to fit a content purpose.

This is strategy in the world we live in today as content marketers. This is the change to which we should strive.

And this, by the way, is going to become one of the key areas of focus in our Executive Forum coming up at the end of March.

I hope to see you there.

Does this evolution interest you – or do you think marketing is headed in a different direction? If you are a marketing leader at a Fortune 5000 company, join us at CMI’s exclusive Content Marketing World Executive Forum from March 26- 27, in San Francisco. You’ll connect with 50 leaders from around the globe in this intimate and inspiring venue to set the stage for content marketing success in 2015 and beyond.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory - the consulting and education group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been said to “rewrite the rules of marketing”. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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  • Walter Schärer

    Excellent thoughts, thanks for sharing! Will try to follow this “strategy twist” in our coming content creation efforts.

  • Cathy

    Impressive and invaluable stuff Robert! But like a master story teller, you kept on upping the ante and exploded in the end with the Coca cola. This sentence summed it all,
    “Instead of looking at content as a way to fit marketing’s purpose, he changed marketing as a way to fit a content purpose.” Every business must learn from this.

    Cathy Mayhue,

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you so much Cathy… I really appreciate that thought…. I wish I had planned it that way – but I’m glad the “explosion” came through when it did… … Ha!

  • Mike Myers

    Yes, yes and yes! Completely with you on all of this, Robert. I look forward to a time when businesses stop creating short term campaigns to sell the products and services they have on-hand and start to develop content-driven experiences that, in turn, help them create relevant products and services people actually want.

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you Mike… I really appreciate that comment.

  • aboer

    I went to HBS and I have to say: I never really intellectually grasped the ideas behind Porter’s five forces and sustainable competitive advantage — either they described a world of 1985 that has changed, or they weren’t as accessible to start-up culture as say, Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. But I do agree with your thesis that all competitive advantage is transient with the possible exception, I think, of network effects. Network effects are very hard to disrupt.
    So can content marketing create network effects? Where every person who consumes the content or joins the community adds more value to the content for the next person?
    That is the whole story of Wikipedia, and its competitive advantage at this point, I think, is nearly insurmountable, and should last fifty years. Most content companies/brands aren’t able to take advantage of network effects because it often means giving ownership and direction of the content over to the community.

    • Robert Rose

      Yup… absolutely right… And great point… Yeah, you’re right I think the 5 forces stuff is probably a bit dated at this point… But I’m a fan of understanding where we’ve been if we want to know where we’re going…. The network effects are a great point here – and as you point out have direct correlation to content marketing. I think there are many examples, as well, of brands that use a high level of control over their story (Apple is a great example)… It’s all in delivering true value through the narrative…

  • Jonathan Bean

    Excellent post Robert. Must say I have never really been a fan of Porter either. More a Drucker, Christensen and Ries man myself. If there is one old school strategy guru to Iook to I would say its Henry Minzberg and his school of emergent strategy. The best definintion of strategy I heard was “doing things” and I guess thats where the build, measure and learn school comes from. For me content marketing is still in the “doing things phase and as Minzberg would say there are a lot of potters out there currently in the content marketing world … have a read 🙂

    • Robert Rose

      Good stuff, as always Jonathan…. the one thing I do like about Porter is his point about strategy being just as much about deciding about what NOT to do – as what to do. This goes to Minzberg for sure (I’m familiar for sure)… Doing stuff is important… But there’s real value in determining what we shouldn’t do.

  • David Butler

    Robert great discussion and article. For me strategy means positioning. Positioning is both strategic and tactical. Your positioning strategy is the narrative for your competitive game plan. It is the Main Story for your company, products, services, etc. This is core to marketing and can be used to orchestrate your content strategy. I see the need to integrate and orchestrate positioning strategy and content development and execution. Why? As you say: today the marketing challenge is change. Change caused caused by: hyper digital, hyper competitive, hyper fast and hyper dynamic content. This creates a gap between strategic positioning and content that is insanely difficult to manage with a platform to bring these two strategies together. Then collaboration can occur at the right levels across business, marketing and content teams.

    • Robert Rose

      Great comment David…. I’d firmly agree – and maybe even expand the idea of “positioning” to not just one of brand positioning (or story) but positioning in terms of which “position” to we take in the market we are in. This is what Rita McGrath gets to in the book – basically the “arenas” we want to compete in – for however long of a time. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned there for people putting together a content strategy.

      • David Butler

        I love that vision of “arenas”. I did a talk recently where I described it as your “social rainforest”. Defining your rainforest and how you plan to grow, evolve, and in some cases survive.

  • Terri Zora

    Thanks for the post. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to get into a rut of “what we’ve always done” and forget that in today’s world the customer’s journey can be more important than the individual messages.

  • globalcopywrite

    Hi Robert,

    It’s interesting that you mention the importance of making decisions about what NOT to do when creating a strategy. I spend a lot of time dissuading clients from a tactic, like setting up a Facebook page or starting a LinkedIn group, because research doesn’t support what worked in the past will work now. Or, what works for a low-cost CPG product doesn’t work for a high-end B2B technology. In the future, I’ll make sure to whip out this post.

    What does surprise me is how resistant to change marketers are when we’re living in an age of change. Keeping up with algorithm changes of Facebook and Google, knowing what’s influencing LinkedIn and keeping an eye out for the next big thing is a study in setting a new course. And that, to me, is what keeps content marketing so interesting.

    I love this post. I hope you cover this at Content Marketing World Sydney.

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you so much for the kind words… it’s true. Many of the decisions that I see companies make are made out of fear. And that can be culture-driven or even just a personal fear. But so many times the fear of adapting is in the fear of “adapting myself out”…. So the natural tendency is to grasp on to what I know – because if I can incrementally grow it – at least I know it will be there. It’s a balance for sure – but yeah. Change.