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The Competitive Advantage of a Brand: Content Strategy, Not Content

“What is a content strategy, and how does it provide a competitive advantage if the content itself does not?” “Shouldn’t the strategy define the content?”

Defining strategy

A strategy is the creation of a “fit” among a company’s activities – establishing a distinct and valuable position through a variety of activities:

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

A strategy requires the company to make these trade-offs in terms of where to compete – as well as decisions about what NOT to do. A strategy’s success depends on achieving a greater ‘fit’ among all of the activities that the company decides to undertake.

As you might expect, the most important component of that breakdown is “activities.” Ultimately, all differences between companies… derive from the hundreds of activities required [to run the business]. The basic units of competitive advantage are then activities!

While operational effectiveness (OE) is defined as “performing similar activities better than rivals,” strategy is defined as “performing different activities than rivals” or “performing similar activities in different ways.” Strategy is creating a fit among a company’s activities. Differentiated or distinct activities position the competitive advantage.

When you consider content strategy and marketing your business, you will notice an immediate alignment. Everything you’ve learned revolves around creating strategic content that corresponds to the activities that enable your business. You’ve learned how to communicate with audiences in a coordinated and distinct manner.

What is your competitive advantage challenge? Do those things efficiently, but find new ways to do them.

So, to answer the question about what a content strategy is, one would say; A great content strategy is the coordination of all the activities required to enable a business to communicate effectively.

A content strategy is not simply “the brand will discuss X, Y, and Z.” A content strategy connects various activities or activities that the brand will do differently in order for the brand to talk about whatever it determines it needs to talk about.

Now, looking at the second half of the question: how does content strategy provide a competitive advantage if the content does not?

Is content a long-term strategic differentiator? Why hasn’t basic strategy practice changed?

Even when executives recognize that competitive advantages will be fleeting, they continue to employ strategy frameworks and tools aimed at achieving long-term competitive advantages rather than quickly exploiting and exiting advantages. This has far-reaching implications for a company’s evolving strategic content marketing practice.

This way of thinking calls the application and strategic nature of content as a business activity into question. After working with hundreds of enterprise brands over the past years, I’ve concluded that most businesses consider how they can change content to fit the purpose of marketing rather than how they might change marketing to fit the purpose of content.

So, no, content will never be a sustainable competitive advantage or differentiator – all content is easily replicable and, at best, only has a transient difference in differentiated value.

Change your perspective instead. Recognizing yourself and the activities you engage in gives you a competitive advantage. The ability of your team to be dynamic and fluid – moving in and out of “arenas” and creating temporary advantages – is critical to future success.

The real takeaway is as follows. Consider whether you truly believe that compelling, engaging, useful, and dynamic content-driven experiences will ultimately help the business.

If the answer is yes, the strategic value is in your ability to evolve and coordinate all activities in order to create those valuable experiences on a regular basis. It is not the content or how it is distributed.

Recognizing this strategic value has ramifications:

  • Businesses must increasingly abandon the practice of forming and scaling new marketing teams based on platforms, technologies, or inside-out views of the customer journey. A successful business becomes skilled and integrated in the operation and management of various content-driven experiences. They will always have a temporal format and placement on multiple channels.
  • Businesses must abandon the container-first approach to content, which is solely intended to support marketing tactics or initiatives. Instead, businesses must recognize content operation as a function that supports the fluid use of content to fuel better customer experiences.
  • Businesses that can constantly reconfigure their activities and manage portfolios of content-driven experiences will win with content marketing. When one experience is no longer beneficial to the business, they do not say, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” Instead, they disengage and dismantle these experiences in a healthy way.

Content strategy is a collection of activities that work together.

It all comes down to the company’s ability to adapt to change. According to Michael Porter, achieving simple operational effectiveness (e.g., efficiency) is “enticing because it’s concrete and actionable.” It’s simply easier to see how common activities like content creation, management, activation, and measurement can be improved.

More difficult is determining which activities the business will perform and which activities the business will perform differently.

When you think about it, content strategy – and how the activities fit together – is the thing that must always change. The content capabilities of your company reflect its ability to communicate. And it is your ability to evolve your communication that gives you a competitive advantage.

In fact, in many cases, content-related activities are the only things that can evolve. As Jonathan Mildenhall, then-VP of global advertising strategy and creative excellence, pointed out, he couldn’t change anything about the iconic nature of Coca-Cola’s packaging or product. He could only build on the experiential media and conversation surrounding that product.

Coca-Cola is a massive media brand with incredible reach and frequency. We ask ourselves, “Can we use our assets as content, and can we create content from our assets?”

Jonathan Mildenhall

In a nutshell, Coca-Cola evolved. Instead of viewing content as a means to a marketing purpose, Jonathan viewed marketing as a means to a content purpose.

In your world as marketers, this is known as content strategy. This is the kind of change you should aim for.

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