This article will look at five of the best pieces of content marketing since the dawn of the 20th century, including the aforementioned Michelin Guide. ‘Best’ is a highly subjective word – and the campaigns which qualify for this list would vary based on the definition being used. For our purposes we’ll look at culturally impactful marketing – marketing that did more than sell products or services, but instead started conversation and changed the world around us.

Michelin Tires’ – Michelin Guide

 In the year 1900 the brothers Édouard and André Michelin found themselves with a small problem. Their new tire company had a shortage of customers – and the cause was simple: there were only 3,000 cars in all of France! The brothers decided the solution wasn’t to market their tires to these few customers, but instead to make driving more accessible. The result was the first edition of the Michelin Guide.

At the time the guide was far different than the prestigious restaurant review publication we know today, and instead offered what we might think of standard fare for the burgeoning automotive world: maps with filling stations, mechanics, and hotels, as well as guides on how to change or patch tires. The publication was available for free – and they distributed 35,000 copies of the first edition.

Over the years the brothers expanded the guide to encompass most of Western Europe, the British Isles, and Northern Africa, but the general format remained basically unchanged.

In 1920 Andre walked into a mechanic’s shop and saw his guide being used to level a workbench. This led him to raise the price of the guide to 7 Francs (about $6 when adjusted for inflation), reasoning that “Man only truly respects what he pays for.” The story of the Michelin Guide’s success could end here, a formerly free product was now being sold successfully for a profit. However, the guide’s story had just gotten started.

When Andre transitioned the guide from a free publication to a paid publication in 1920, the restaurant section was already popular and Michelin had begun hiring anonymous inspectors who reviewed restaurants. In 1926 the guide began awarding a star to restaurants of note, and in 1931 they expanded the ranking system to its 3 star system.

Today having a Michelin star is a badge of honor, and fewer than 4,000 restaurants worldwide have managed to garner this accolade. What started as a way to make driving more accessible to the masses turned into an incredibly successful marketing effort, turning Michelin into a household name associated with excellence.

Ultimately, the Michelin Guide teaches marketers a couple important lessons. The first is to recognize that while you may be selling tires (or irrigation systems, or fireplaces…) your customer is looking to buy experiences. By making the whole idea of owning a car and going on rides around the European countryside exciting and accessible, Michelin expanded their customer base more than any tire-focused ad campaign ever could have.

Second, the Guide shows us that success requires flexibility. While the original guide offered a diverse array of valuable content, for free, ultimately a paid-for guide of restaurant reviews was what kept customers coming back. By changing the nature of the guide to fit demand, the publication was able to become more desirable and reach a wider audience.

Available on archive.org and unless I miscalculate available on public domain. I couldn’t find a version from the early years of the star review system, so this unfortunately predates that.

DeBeers – “A Diamond is Forever”

Today 86% percent of first-time brides were proposed to on bended knee with a diamond-topped engagement ring. The average value of these rings has been trending downward over the past few years as the more recent fashion has trended towards smaller center stones, but a typical engagement ring still costs between $3,200 and $5,900 depending on who’s compiling the estimate.

But, prior to 1940 less than 10% of future-brides were receiving diamond rings. It wasn’t just engagement rings that were bereft of diamonds, diamonds simply weren’t regarded more than sparkly rocks which the super rich collected. This belief was held by both men and women, which was a clear problem for the DeBeers company, which held a virtual monopoly on diamond production.

The solution was marketing. In 1938 DeBeers hired Philadelphia advertising firm NW Ayers & Son to find a way for them to sell more diamonds. NW Ayers had an uphill battle ahead of itself, facing the post-depression economic slump and then World War II, but they persisted.

Their strategy was built on two simultaneous fronts:

  • Convince men that diamonds were the quintessential symbol of enduring love, and that the size and quality of the diamond was directly proportional to that love.
  • Convince women that any man who truly loved them would give them diamonds. And, ideally that diamond would be large, radiant, and costly.

In order to achieve these goals NW Ayers embraced several types of advertising. These efforts included product placement in film – showing men giving the women they loved big diamonds. Diamonds were also advertised in print and radio – although not with direct sales in mind. Instead these efforts were simply to connect the idea of love and marriage with diamonds. Many of these early advertisements included ‘tips’ on buying diamonds, encouraging people to ask jewelers about the three C’s: cut, clarity, and color.

NW Ayers even gave presentations to highschoolers, reasoning correctly that this next generation of young lovers were those who needed to be convinced of the centrality of diamonds in the courtship process.

During the process of creating a market for diamonds, one of the advertising firm’s copywriters, Mary Frances Gerety, hastily came up with the slogan “A Diamond is Forever.” At the time she didn’t think much of the slogan, and it wasn’t met with adoration when she presented it at the meeting. However, the company decided to go with it, and since 1948 the slogan has appeared in virtually all of DeBeers’ advertisements.

This fortuitous phrase managed to encapsulate all of the emotional ideology that DeBeers had wanted to tie to diamonds. Diamonds were the perfect metaphor for the enduring manifestation of love that marriage professed itself to be.

The adjacent phrasing has changed over the years, but the sentiment of permanence has been maintained and diamonds have become the de facto stone of choice for engagement and wedding rings.

Through the power of marketing, diamonds were transformed from sparkly stones which only the super rich bothered themselves with, to a defining feature of romantic love. This launched De Beers sales from 23 million dollars in 1939 to 2.1 billion dollars in 1970. While other stones are making inroads against diamonds, the diamond still reigns as king of engagement ring stones.

This marketing campaign shows us the power of multi-channel marketing, and marketing’s ability to create a market where none had previously existed. During their decades-long process of crafting a message tying diamonds to love, DeBeers stumbled across an enduring statement which still resonates today.

Got Milk – California Milk Processor’s Board

In 1993 the California Milk Processor’s Board was facing a serious problem: milk sales had been on a decline for 15 years and there was no sign of the trend abating. They decided to embark on an aggressive (and expensive) advertising campaign, spending 3 cents for every gallon of milk they processed on marketing their product.

Milk faced an interesting problem – it wasn’t as though it was unknown amongst consumers. Milk advertisements since the 1950s had stressed how healthy milk was, and by and large consumers agreed. In fact 93% of people surveyed at the time believed milk was good for them, but this alone was clearly not enough to get people to drink it!

What had happened was that other beverages with large marketing budgets were stealing market share from the dairy industry. Throughout the 1970s soda companies pushed their products aggressively and their success had seen a parallel erosion of other beverage’s consumption.

Part of the problem was milk – compared to the competition it looked a little plain. In addition to the classic sodas of the past, milk found itself pitted against Gatorade, Snapple, Mountain Dew, AriZona Tea, Crystal Pepsi, and a slew of others.

Milk’s sales issues were compounded by packaging – milk came in drab cardboard boxes and generally was branded only minimally. Milk, after all, is a commodity* – regardless of brand it is essentially undifferentiated and milk producers had not spent much effort on brand development.

*Recently there has been a shift away from this representation, with milk coming in myriad forms touting Omega acid content, Pasture-raised, Organic, High-Protein, and other variations on the theme of milk. However, let’s return to the early 1990’s when milk was milk.

How do you sell milk? In order to answer this question the marketing team conducted research, surveying milk drinkers about their preferences. However, the marketers instructed the interviewees to abstain from milk for the week leading up to their interviews. This fortuitously led to the discovery that not having milk caused some serious and emotional dilemmas amongst those interviewed: do you just eat cereal without milk or do you totally forgo this breakfast staple? Are cookies without milk even worth eating as a sweet treat?

The marketers decided to market the absence of milk – highlighting the emotional stress of not having milk when you need it. And needs for milk abounded – you can’t pour soda into your coffee or cereal!

The first ads were silly, showing hyperbolic situations where for want of a glass of milk some tragedy was unfolding. Each ad ended with the short and simple phrase: “Got Milk?”

A welcome benefit of the transition to this new marketing campaign were the cross-advertising opportunities. During the previous decades of marketing milk as a health-food it was unthinkable to put milk alongside junk-food like Oreo cookies, but the new campaign offered greater flexibility. This meant that high profile national companies like Nabisco and iconic figures like Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster could represent this ubiquitous white beverage.

As the campaign went on it gained a national audience, celebrity endorsements, and the two word phrase entered into the American zeitgeist. The slogan resulted in dozens of spinoffs, in marketing, television, songs, and movies. Today this simple phrase and the milk-mustachioed photos of celebrities who endorsed it are still fondly remembered by generations of Americans.

So, how did milk sales fare in the face of this wildly successful advertising campaign? Well, they actually continued to fall, dropping from 28.6 gallons per person per year in 1970 to a low of 20.9 gallons in 2010. The campaign was unable to reverse the effects of changing consumption practices and wider availability of alternatives (later including non-dairy milk alternatives).

Ultimately, this just proves that sometimes purchasing trends shift and even a marketing campaign which garners national attention might not be enough to reverse it.

Blair Witch Project

How do you turn $60,000 into $250,000,000? Well, in 1999 the Blair Witch Project answered this question and demonstrated that through clever and unconventional marketing a low-budget indie film could be turned into a box-office success.

The film took the then-uncommon mockumentary approach, following three students as they attempted to uncover the truth behind supernatural events taking place in the woods of rural Maryland. The footage itself is purported to be film recovered a year after it was taken, the students themselves having gone missing, with their bodies yet to be recovered.

Among the marketing material for the film were missing persons fliers for the students. The fliers, which were released well in advance of the film’s release, included fake police reports, and fostered discussion about whether or not the disappearances were real. Reinforcing these claims, the IMDb pages for the student-actors were falsified to say that the actors were missing and presumed to be dead. The mother of Heather Donahue (one of the film’s actors), even received condolence cards from people who had come across accounts of her daughter’s disappearance.

In addition to these fliers and forged IMDb records, the marketing team created the website, blairwitch.com, which hosted a timeline of the events leading up to the film, biographies of the missing students, and interviews with the bereaved families of the students. Today we take it for granted that a film will have a web-based presence, but this was innovative for the day and its success shaped what future online marketing would look like.

Additionally, the Blair Witch team engaged in grassroots style digital marketing, sending actors posing as real people onto chat rooms to drum up interest in the story and the website. The effect was profound and the website managed to rack up 21 million unique hits within a week of the film’s release date. This number might not sound impressive today, but considering that the web only had 191 million active users in 1999, this figure represents 11% of everyone using the internet.

While the marketing efforts could have easily stopped here, the Blair Witch Project kept exploring creative avenues for advertising. Bootlegs are typically a bane of the film industry, but Kevin J. Foxe, the film’s executive producer, decided to use them to his advantage. Ahead of the Sundance film festival Foxe gave the greenlight to his office employees to make copies of the film and basically do with them as they pleased. These bootlegs made it to the internet and drove tens of thousands of hits to the film’s website as fans tried to make sense of the faux-documentary.

On release, the film itself was met with generally positive reviews, particularly for its effective use of found-footage documentary style, however its success is inextricably linked to its hugely successful marketing campaign. Many argue that the film was one of the first examples of a subject “going viral,” rapidly gaining the attention of millions.

The Blair Witch Project serves as a reminder of the power of using multiple advertising outlets, including grassroots and new or yet-to-be proven mediums. This project was able to go viral due to the project’s ability to make itself more than a film, instead turning itself into a conversation. Going viral isn’t something that can be easily forced, but the BWP reminds us that in order for a subject to go viral people must care about it and want to engage with it.

Finally, the film is a poignant example of how much can be done with little – just because your company or project is small doesn’t mean that the sky isn’t the limit.

Flo from Progressive Auto Insurance

The insurance industry has often struggled to find a way to market itself in a way that people find engaging. The most common route was to tell people how reliable they were, or how they’ll help you after a disaster – but the reality is that insurance companies don’t radically differ from one another.

In the mid 2000’s Progressive Auto Insurance was a relatively obscure, budget insurance company with poor brand recognition. Progressive had hired the ad agency, Arnold Worldwide, to create a new marketing campaign for them in hopes of boosting revenue and breaking into the big-leagues of auto insurance.

The advertisement which led to the creation of Progressive’s iconic Flo character was actually designed with a completely different idea in mind. In the commercial, different types of insurance were being sold as physical products in a gleaming white supermarket-esque store. The idea was to make intangible insurance feel accessible and easy.

When presented with a literal handful of insurance products (all at a savings of course) the customer in the commercial said “Wow,” to which the bubbly cashier replied with the improvised line “WOW! I know… I say it louder.”

This line, and the actress who delivered it, was quickly recognized as having the potential to go well beyond the original campaign ideas. The character, played by comedian and actress Stephanie Courtney, went on to be named Flo and starred in over 100 commercials for Progressive Insurance.

With her bubbly personality, quirky humor, and relatable demeanor, Flo made the brand feel accessible. Progressive capitalized on this relatability by making Flo the face of their company. Customers who saw Flo on TV were also greeted by her picture on Progressive’s clean and simple website, as well as seeing her face within Progressive’s app. In an era where brand mascots had largely been set aside, Flo led a revival of the trend.

The results were clear: prior to Flo’s debut in 2008, Progressive’s revenue was 13.6 billion dollars, within a decade the brand’s sales had more than doubled, nearing 30 billion dollars.

In 2017 Progressive pushed past Allstate to become the third largest auto insurance company in the United States, with this growth driven in large part by Flo’s electric smile and contagious enthusiasm. Her character is immediately recognizable, and while admittedly her over-abundance of cheer may dissuade some viewers, it’s undeniable that most Americans could quickly identify her and the insurance company she represents.

Flo offers a few major takeaways for content marketing. The first is to be flexible – rigidly sticking to the plan just because it was the plan is a recipe for missing great opportunities. Flo was essentially discovered in the process of creating a different marketing plan and was allowed to thrive due to a creative team giving her the chance to do so.

The second important takeaway is to recognize the importance of humor and relatability. Flo was able to resonate with people by being imperfect and likable. She didn’t take herself too seriously, but was still able to competently and clearly state Progressive’s competitive benefits. Instead of trying to persuade customers she offered clarity, albeit conveyed through her amusingly whimsical character.

Creating the Best Content Marketing

At the end of the day these examples of the best pieces of content marketing may not seem to have much in common with one another. However, there are common threads that run through each of them. Among them include utilizing multiple channels for marketing, having the awareness and the flexibility to pivot when a better idea is spotted, and creating a conversation around the brand.

 If you’re looking to increase your own sales, content marketing has been proven time and time again to be the recipe for growth. Schedule a free consultation to see how content marketing can help your business grow.