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Learn From Struggling Brands: Insights From the Marketing Trenches


“I like the energy.” That’s how a friend recently described the e-newsletter written by CMI Chief Strategy Officer Robert Rose. Content Strategy for Marketers started in January 2015. Week after week, Robert gives us peeks into his consultations with clients who are slogging it out every day in the trenches of marketing.

One thing I like about Robert’s tales is their immediacy. We read his just-the-other-day conversations that touch on struggles shared by many marketers. At the same time, he connects his stories to universal truths. He waxes philosophical, posing questions and suggesting possibilities that may help his readers look at their struggles from a new perspective or may help them prepare to face struggles they’ve yet to encounter. 

At the end of 2015, I shared some highlights from the newsletter’s first year. This year, I could not wait until December. I already have too many favorites to fit into one post. Here are a few of them.

Plan for what follows success

When CMI announced that it had been acquired by UBM, Robert contemplated that moment of celebration. “OK. We win,” he wrote. “Now what?” He explored the importance of planning not only for success but also — as CMI had been doing for months — for what follows that success.

Robert’s tale

“I recently worked with a nonprofit that had a brilliant content plan to achieve a legislative victory. The team worked tirelessly on the activist and government personas that would drive toward that success despite the efforts of a small but vigorous minority opposed to this cause. A funny thing happened. The nonprofit won. The content plan succeeded. The organization crossed its finish line.

“Then things turned. The opposition came out with materials and content aimed at undoing the victory. The nonprofit had no plan, no content, no method of dealing with the backlash. This ‘successful’ team found itself in constant triage mode, having neglected to answer one simple question.

“‘What if we win?’”

The insight

In our own marketing projects, we all have some version of the finish line of success. Businesses languish without goals. At the same time, Robert says, we must think beyond our next goal and envision what comes after we achieve it.

We must think beyond our next goal & envision what comes after we achieve it via @robert_rose Share on X

Don’t ‘fix’ your fastest car

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” one of the newsletters begins. No one would argue with that logic. Yet businesspeople have been known to get so excited about things that are working — things that are creating value for the organization — that they push to wring more value from them, only to break them in the process.

Robert’s tale

“I recently came across this kind of ill-advised fixing at a client advisory with a B2C product company. The 2-year-old content team was telling me about a recent failure of epic proportions. They had created an owned media content platform for customers of their product. If you were a customer, you had access to events, resources, and lifestyle-oriented content that gave you a reason to stay loyal to the brand. It was working. Within nine months of this platform’s launch, they had 250,000 subscribers. Growth was in line with projections, and, by all measures, the business was deriving value from this content strategy. The team had created a thriving customers-only content hub.

“One day, the brand and merchandising teams decided to fix the content hub. Instead of launching a new hub for prospective customers, they opened the existing hub to everyone, customers and noncustomers alike. It would be a win-win, they believed. Everyone would see how wonderful the community was and would thus be encouraged to become part of it by becoming a customer.

“Now, perhaps on paper (or the digital equivalent) this looked like a good idea. But in practice it was a mistake. The editorial strategy changed, the exclusivity of membership disappeared, and subscribership plummeted. Traffic to the site did increase, but every other measure of an active, engaged community slowed.

“The company essentially fixed the fastest race car on the track by making it also haul cargo.”

The insight

We marketers are wise to think carefully before we “improve” things that are going well. As Robert says, “Fixing the fastest car in ways it doesn’t need to be fixed is one sure way to lose the race.”

Look for what your customers have in common

How many personas does your organization need? Maybe not as many as you think. Robert urges marketers to resist the temptation to overly differentiate.

Robert’s tale

“During a client meeting last week … it came out that this team had a blog that was aimed — in their minds — at 10 personas. In fact, you can’t deliver consistent value to more than one persona on a single platform. Trying to do so is a recipe for failure.

You can’t deliver consistent value to more than one persona on a single platform via @robert_rose Share on X

“‘Why not think about this differently?’ I said. When we develop personas, I told them, we easily fall into the trap of looking at differences rather than commonalities. It’s a natural tendency for marketers because we spend so much time thinking about differentiation. We find differences everywhere. And make no mistake, they are there. But, I pointed out, you might (ironically) differentiate your content more effectively by seeking out the commonalities among all 10 personas and developing an editorial strategy that focuses on those commonalities.”

The insight

Overemphasizing distinctions between our customers is counterproductive. “When we develop personas, we often look at all our customers simultaneously and pick apart the differences. When we look for differences, we find them,” Robert says. Focus on the important things that unite our customers.

Just say no to creating content that doesn’t support your strategy

Do you and your team create content strategically, or do you just create content? To answer that question, answer this one: Do all of your content creators know what kind of content not to bother creating?

Robert’s tale

“I was having this discussion at a client advisory this week. The practitioners in the business were frustrated because they were constantly behind the proverbial eight ball when it came to getting their content out to various channels. The content team told me, ‘It’s hard for us to maintain a strategic editorial calendar because we’re bombarded with content from every product group. Everybody wants their stuff out on all the channels we’re managing.’

“Here’s the thing: If we keep creating the same amount of crap and just dam it up in front of a workflow that filters the best to the channels, we haven’t solved the quantity vs. quality challenge. Well, to be fair, we may have solved some of the demand side — assuming that some of what gets published is remarkable.

“More importantly, we shouldn’t have created most of it to begin with. Solving the content quality vs. quantity challenge isn’t about choosing which content to publish — it’s choosing which content to create. More accurately, it’s about choosing which content NOT to create in the first place.”

Solving the content quality vs quantity challenge is about choosing which content NOT to create by @robert_rose Share on X
Content Marketing: Forget About the 5%

The insight

A sound strategy includes guidelines on what content not to create. Set boundaries for your content creators so that they avoid wasting their efforts.

Consider new models for organizing content teams

The way content teams are organized affects the usefulness of that content.

Robert’s tale

“The BBC did something revolutionary for a 93-year-old media company. It dropped its channel-based television and radio divisions and reorganized itself around ‘content and audience-led divisions.’ Basically, it will have two main divisions — BBC Entertain and BBC Inform — which themselves will be made up of new divisions, such as BBC Youth and other audience-focused groups.

“Now, does this mean that you won’t be able to watch BBC on that thing that is connected to the coaxial cable on your wall? Or does this mean that you won’t be able to listen to the BBC on that box that connects to radio waves? Or course not. The BBC is simply recognizing that the lines between device and service are blurring more substantially than ever.

“Before digital, of course, the lines were so clear that no one even considered the possibility of them blurring …

“TV teams created TV experiences. Radio teams created radio experiences.

“Today’s devices and experiences have come unhooked from delivery methods … The BBC has recognized something that’s becoming increasingly important for all businesses to wake up to. We content professionals must stop organizing ourselves around channels, platforms, and outputs as we’ve done for the last decade. We have to stop matching new digital channels stride for stride, one team on this channel, another on that. We can’t keep piling on new output-based teams: tech docs and brand and PR and customer service and social and social CRM and web and blog and email and and and.

“This realization hit me full-on two weeks ago when I was helping a large retail company construct a content marketing approach. They were struggling with which channels the content marketing team should own. I suggested that they change their mindset and construct teams around audiences rather than around products, channels, or technology platforms. As we sketched out this approach on the white board, the pieces just fit. Suddenly, content became cross-functional, cross-product, and cross-channel. The goal of repurposing their content and communicating it across all these silos fell into place.”

The insight

For many businesses, the traditional structure of content teams no longer makes sense and may not even be sustainable. Consider reorganizing your content teams in radically new ways — around audiences, for example, instead of around platforms.

Consider reorganizing your #content teams in radically new ways says @robert_rose Share on X


These tales, and many others from Robert’s newsletters, leave me feeling wiser, braver, and more open-minded. Even more energized, as my friend says. I’d love to hear from others of you who read these newsletters in the context of your own marketing trenches. Which stories stand out? Which insights have prompted you to change your approach to something or take an action that you might not otherwise have taken? Please let us know in a comment.

Want to keep up with Robert’s tales to come? Sign up for his Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter today.

Cover image by mconnors,, via