You could say that Sydni Craig-Hart, co-founder and CEO of Smart Simple Marketing in the Bay Area, specializes in connecting major tech brands with woman- and minority-owned small businesses.
You could also say she specializes in avoiding the Detroit debacle.
A few years ago, a promotion for a Detroit property management company made the rounds on Twitter. “See Detroit like we do,” read the slogan, which accompanied an image of a mostly-white crowd. Detroit is more than 80 percent black, though.
“It was almost comical,” Craig-Hart (pictured left) told Built In. “I think brands have a responsibility to reach out and to create content that really speaks to everyone in their audience.”
Her company helps brands do just that by crafting inclusive content. Smart Simple Marketing has worked on educational video for LinkedIn and written materials for Google — and it’s just one of the players in the vast ecosystem that is content marketing.
What distinguishes content marketing from other marketing efforts is its rejection of the traditional advertising model, where ads pop up in the middle of some sort of media — say, halfway through a podcast. With content, there’s no such interruption. Instead, this strategy fuses media and marketing into one seamless whole: a branded podcast, or video game, or magazine, or Twitter account. There are numerous possibilities.
Craig-Hart was drawn to her current specialty, facilitating partnerships between tech giants and small businesses, by twin passions for words and entrepreneurship. In addition to being a lifelong reader, she’s a fourth-generation entrepreneur.
“I have seen quite clearly the [uplifting] impact of entrepreneurship on families and legacy and women and people of color,” she said, “because I've seen all of that in my family.”
Ideally, her content marketing functions as a resource for entrepreneurs, that helps them learn about new options.
But content marketing is much more than a B2B enterprise. It’s a vast marketing sector, with implications across almost every industry.
With a little help from Craig-Hart, we rounded up 15 examples of companies using various forms of content marketing.
Food & Drink
Content can enhance the experience of a meal, fleshing it out with a backstory. “I'm from the Bay area,” Craig-Hart explained, “and we're very into where our food comes from… and if it was grown sustainably and how you fed the cows.”
A savvy content strategy can answer those questions — and could have saved the waitress in Portlandia’s famous chicken sketch some strife. It’s not just for gourmet restaurants, either. Content can also connect a swig of Red Bull to death-defying feats.
These food and drink purveyors use content marketing to strengthen brand awareness.
KFC: A Dating (and Cooking) Sim
Location: Louisville, Ky.
How it uses content marketing: KFC’s latest foray into content was formatted as a dating sim. This video game subgenre blends elements of film, gaming and novels into a text-based choose-your-own-adventure love story. (If that sounds sweet and gentle, fair warning: in at least one dating sim, you can end up murdered by ninjas.) In KFC’s take on the genre, players strive to date — you guessed it — Colonel Sanders, their longtime mascot and actual founder, who died in 1980.
Titled “I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator,” the game was born of a collaboration between the fried-chicken brand and agency Psyop. The premise: You have a crush on a sexy, silver-goateed Colonel Sanders — a culinary school classmate. Can you make him yours while juggling your studies? Buckets of fried chicken and other KFC delicacies adorn the screen throughout; in the sparkly pink world of the game, the food looks almost as sultry as Sanders.
Redbull: An Adventurous In-House Media Company
Location: Fuschl Am See, Salzburg, Austria
How it uses content marketing: On October 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner flew a helium-filled balloon to an altitude of 128,000 feet, almost quadruple cruising altitude for a commercial airplane. Then, from the literal stratosphere, Baumgartner jumped, filming his four minutes of freefall with his forehead-mounted GoPro.
It was the highest-altitude freefall in history, and it was funded by Red Bull. The footage was released by Red Bull Media House, Red Bull’s content studio. It’s not independent from the energy drink business, exactly — it’s targeting the same adrenaline-junkie consumers — but the content arm aims to turn a profit on its own, Fast Company reported. In fact, video content has become so integrated into the brand that it’s widely considered to be a media company that just happens to sell beverages.
Denny’s: A Breakfast-Hungry Twitter Personality
Location: Spartanburg, S.C.
How it uses content marketing: Denny’s was one of the first brands to cultivate a Twitter persona that felt human, entertaining and distinctly pro-pancake. The account now has more than 500,000 Twitter followers and regularly shares food jokes like “bananas are fruit sausage.” It’s inspired plenty of other brand accounts, especially fast-food accounts, to innovate on Twitter — but Denny’s was first.
The goal was simple when ad agency Erwin Penland took over in 2013: “We want people to love the brand and to make them hungry,” one of the strategists behind the account told Marketingland. In that spirit, the account often shares memes and jokes about the news of the day, but it always ties trending content back to breakfast food.
The fashion industry often gets accused of superficiality, but content marketing routinely takes it beyond the visual realm. Some brands focus their content on how their clothes are made, highlighting eco-friendly materials or humane working conditions in their factories; other brands focus on how customers incorporate their garments into a lifestyle.
Craig-Hart especially appreciates when brands with plus-size collections — like J.Crew and Anthropologie — support their new clothes with new content, like videos and blog posts. “It’s just really important that people be able to see themselves in the content that's in front of them,” she said.
These fashion companies employ content that’s both relatable and aspirational.
Glossier: A Blog Turned Unicorn Beauty Brand
How it uses content marketing: It was valued at more than $1 billion in 2019, but Glossier wasn’t always a beauty company. It started out as a humble beauty blog called Into the Gloss. Founder Emily Weiss started it on the cheap, with little more than a digital camera; with her approachable tone and interviews with superstars, though, she built up a devoted fan base of beauty geeks. From there, Weiss learned about the content that resonated with them, the products they loved, and the products they wished existed — all of which helped her create and market Glossier’s natural-looking products.
“I think Glossier is still very much a content company,” Weiss told TechCrunch. “I think about our products themselves as pieces of content” in that people often photograph and Instagram them. Into the Gloss persists to this day, too, and its written content continues to boost awareness of and trust in Glossier.
Outdoor Voices: An Athleisure Magazine
Location: Austin, Tex.
How it uses content marketing: This athleisure brand publishes a magazine, The Recreationalist, that focuses on the fun of an active lifestyle. (Similar leisure magazines often focus on weight loss tips, or fitness metrics like mile time.) Available in both print and digital formats, the magazine blends interviews, city guides, playlists and artist profiles into a cohesive whole. Self-described as “the resource for recreation,” the magazine also features impeccable photography and celebrity cameos, including a recent interview with Jane Fonda.
The company sees the magazine as a way to engage more deeply with its existing customer base. “[I]nstead of being obsessed with ‘How do we get more members and more people?’ [we’re] really focusing on ‘How do we make what we have and the tools we offer to the community more valuable and potent?’” founder and CEO Tyler Haney told Adweek.
Away: A Publication for Globetrotters
How it uses content marketing: This company achieved unicorn status with its luxurious luggage, which, thanks to a direct-to-consumer business model, costs much less than competing brands. Away sells its luggage — including a carry-on that famously charges phones — partially through content marketing that links its products to a hip, nomadic lifestyle. Hence the company’s branded magazine, Here Magazine, stocked with dreamy travel photography and guides to places from Shanghai to Asheville, N.C.
Digital social platforms play “a huge role in creating human connection and connecting people with shared interests,” Craig-Hart said. Simply put, they tap into a universal desire for community. (It’s no coincidence that Facebook, the original social platform, calls its rules “Community Standards.”)
Content marketing can help people understand the texture of a digital community before they join. It can also help social platforms sell themselves to potential advertisers.
These social platforms promote themselves with content marketing.
Mailchimp: A Podcast with a Hillary Clinton Cameo
Location: Atlanta, Ga.
How it uses content marketing: Ads for this email marketing company peppered the podcast that started the podcasting boom: the first season of Serial. (Your reptile brain may remember the sound of “Mail… kimp?”) Since then, it’s been a major presence in podcast advertising. So it’s no surprise that in early 2019, the company released a season of its own podcast: Going Through It, hosted by writer and podcaster Ann Friedman.
“We’re not trying to [be] Netflix or Hulu or anything,” Mark DiCristina, Mailchimp’s senior director of brand marketing, told Neiman Lab. “Our audience is pretty busy, so we’re thinking about more snackable things that people can chew on in between things.”
In that spirit, each podcast episode is the standalone story of a high-profile guest — Hillary Clinton, for example, or Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s Samin Nosrat — at a moment of struggle. Will she quit or persevere? Though the podcast makes occasional mention of MailChimp, the stories feel more editorial than promotional; Neiman argues it’s an “assumption of the studio model,” a la Red Bull. Still, it’s raising MailChimp’s profile through original content — which means it’s definitely content marketing.
Tinder: An In-App TV Show About the Apocalypse
Location: Los Angeles
How it’s using content marketing: This dating app, which has an elaborate content marketing strategy, launched a star-studded podcast of its own. Its most intriguing offering so far, though, may be Swipe Night, an interactive TV show aimed at Gen Z users. The show, which Tinder calls “a first-person, apocalyptic adventure,” unfolds inside the Tinder app in five-minute weekly installments; at key junctures in each episode, the user decides what their avatar does next. It’s part choose-your-own-adventure storytelling, part reminder that you wouldn’t want to be alone during the apocalypse and part conversation-starter. Tinder encourages users to discuss the show, and the choices they made during its run, with new matches. It’s definitely a better ice breaker than “Hey.”
Facebook: A Business Podcast About Connection
Location: Mountain View, Calif.
How it’s using content marketing: Facebook recently launched a podcast, created by Pacific Content, that explores the ways technology brings us all closer together. In our age of social media, the average strangers are no longer six degrees of separation apart, but more like 3.5, according to Facebook research.
Hence the podcast’s title: “3.5 Degrees: The Power of Connection.” Hosted by a Facebook’s VP of Business and Marketing Partnerships, the show investigates our new digital closeness (and its business implications) through interviews with entrepreneurs and other leaders in commerce. The target audience seems to be potential Facebook advertisers, rather than the average user, which makes sense — more than a third of the people in the world already have a Facebook.
Often, new technology solves a problem or smooths out an inefficiency. Thanks to laptops, we’re no longer chained to our desks. Thanks to Soylent, we no longer have to chew our meals. But if consumers don’t know how to use the new tool, it’s actually worse than the status quo.
“Most of the time what happens is, we download something, we sign up for something, we buy something, and then we learn by trial and error,” Craig-Hart said. “Which isn't a great experience. If I'm not even using [new technology] to its full capacity, I'm not going to see the value in it the way that I could.”
Hence the rise of Cloud providers and other tech companies publishing explainers and tutorials. Of course, tech brands also use content marketing for other reasons — to establish trust and credibility, or to highlight the humans behind their gadgets.
These tech companies use content marketing to bolster their brands.
Amazon Web Services: Free Trainings on Cloud Amenities
Location: Seattle, Wash.
How it’s using content marketing: Amazon’s cloud service, AWS, is both immensely powerful — it’s NASA’s cloud-provider of choice — and labyrinthine. To help newbies master AWS’ myriad features, the Cloud service offers a library of free digital trainings. (Users also have the option of paid in-person classes.) Focused on topics like Hadoop basics, Internet of Things device management, machine learning algorithms and more, the free courses can last anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours, and function as marketing as well as education.
Buffer: A Blog About the Office
Location: San Francisco
How it’s using content marketing: Buffer’s Open Blog focuses on behind-the-scenes details from Buffer, a social media management software company. It creates a sense of openness and transparency — readers can find out how Buffer allocates time off (employees must take at least three weeks of vacation a year), and what their content style guide looks like (there’s a section devoted to inclusive word choice). Overall, it forges a sense of human connection between readers and the Buffer team. For prospective employees, it also gives an unusually clear sense of the office culture.
First Round Capital: A Prestigious Tech Journal
Location: San Francisco
How it’s using content marketing: This venture capital firm — an early investor in Uber — publishes the First Round Review, an outlet full of longform journalism on the business of tech. It self-describes as “Harvard Business Review meets the New Yorker,” and attracts hundreds of thousands of readers each month with its potent mix of panache, integrity and insights from the C-suite.
Content marketing via prestige journal doesn’t make sense for every business. It makes sense for First Round Capital because the company isn’t “conversion-driven,” explained First Round Review founder Camille Ricketts. In other words, she isn’t trying to sell anything with the journal. Instead, she said, “we wanted to build as big of an audience as we possibly could to expand the group of brilliant founders that we could work with. It was a broad awareness play.”
In other words, as long as people are reading, it’s working.
What stands out to Craig-Hart about travel is the variety of consumers who do it. Some travel on budget airlines and long-distance buses. “They just want to go from San Francisco to Paris for $150 and they could care less that they have to pay for their own water,” she said.
Others, like Craig-Hart herself, want comfort when they’re flying. “I’m happy to pay for a premium experience.”
The reasons people travel are varied as well: family vacations, work trips, honeymoons. All of which means that travel companies must address wildly diverse audiences.
These travel companies are tackling that challenge through content marketing.
Amtrak: A Social Media Residency Program
Location: Washington, D.C.
How it uses content marketing: This year, Amtrak is experimenting with a social media residency program. With Amtrak’s support, select customers will ride the rails and document their journeys on social media using the hashtag #AmtrakTakeMeThere. The program has yet to begin, but its aim is to show how real people from different walks of life experience train travel. Rather than paying influencers to do the traveling, Amtrak selected its residents — who range from solo travelers to a family of six — from an open casting call that focused on factors like writing ability, photography skills and social media engagement metrics.
United Airlines: A Widely-Read In-Flight Magazine
How it uses content marketing: In-flight magazines are a staple of any aircraft, but United Airlines’ Hemispheres is one of the better-read ones. It’s an intriguing content marketing case study because, while it promotes air travel (especially on United Airlines) with features on exotic locales around the world, it also features ads from other travel-related enterprises — especially hotels. Plenty of companies want to address a captive audience of travelers with disposable income to spare; it’s not just airlines.
Uber: A Wildly Popular Facebook Page
Location: San Francisco
How it uses content marketing: It’s no surprise that Uber has 110 million users worldwide — it’s a popular app! — but it may come as a surprise that the company has a whopping 22 million Facebook fans. The company posts about a mix of new app features, promotions, inspiring driver stories and important causes like nature conservation. One of its videos went viral: a cross-promotion with the Disney film Zootopia, in which a cartoon giraffe named Jeremy explains why he drives a Zuber (Zootopia world’s version of Uber). In general, Uber’s videos outperform its static content on Facebook; this particular one earned 10,000 shares — and presumably inspired some Uber rides.