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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.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute