Building an Audience Is Not a Chore: 5 Brands That Began with Content

May 10, 2017 Bethany Johnson

If you're building an audience from scratch, the symbiotic relationship that results will produce momentum for years to come.

What is Star Wars, truly? Is it a film franchise? Or a great marketing and content strategy? The answer depends on whom you ask. My nine-year-old nephew would say it’s the best evolving narrative of all time. As a marketer, I know there’s more to the story.

Lately, I’ve discovered countless examples of iconic companies that found themselves building an audience long before trying to sell anything. From 1977 to today, the Star Wars films have generated over $7 billion in ticket sales. That’s, of course, an impressive number. However, Lucasfilm Ltd. sold over $12 billion in toys and merchandise, according to Forbes, and that’s just products. Today, the franchise appeases the masses by serving up games, books, and ongoing TV shows that tally over $32 billion in add-ons.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be a film director or fiction writer to entertain the masses before making a newsworthy profit. Your content strategy may just need a fresh dose of inspiration. Revive your team’s creativity with these personality-driven brand stories.

1. The Pioneer Woman

“Oh, have you seen the Pioneer Woman website?” my mom asked, suddenly animated.

“No, stop. Mom, please. I’m not interested in homemaking blogs, and Prairie Lady—or whatever it’s called—sounds especially wifey,” I muttered.

The year was 2010. “You’d love her,” my mom pressed. “She’s funny. Like, funnier than you. And her photography—Bethany, she’s inspiring. You’ve got to check her out for yourself.”

I admit, my mom was right. This Ree Drummond character—her wit, her stories, her honesty, and wow, her photography—drew me in almost instantly. I didn’t just sign up for her newsletter; I stopped regularly to visit her site, checking whether she had posted. And I wasn’t the only one. In fact, I was one of over 23 million fanatical page viewers per month, according to the New Yorker. The next step, of course, was for Ree’s character to get snatched up by Food Network and for her to become an on-air personality for the network’s next cooking show. There would also be a cookbook, a line of cookware and kitchen accessories, another cookbook, and a ridiculously sweet kids’ story.

Ranchers drive cattle

Image attribution: Pioneer Woman

I’m struck by how marketers tend to approach their content marketing somewhat apologetically, as though at some point, their followers will feel betrayed when a favorite brand sneaks in that one stealthy product mention. Ree’s followers, on the other hand, never seem miffed that she’s suddenly selling stuff. Instead, they appear to be relieved. Perhaps that’s because finally, her fans get to bring a bit of the prairie into their own homes and share some of the Drummond’s lust for life with their own families. And when you look at it that way, it’s no wonder they’re begging her for more.

2. Mint.com

Never again will another financial services firm successfully argue that the topic of personal finance isn’t interesting or click-worthy. Mint’s dramatic ramp up showed the world that budgeting could be sexy. And as Mint’s head-spinning success story unfolded from 2007 to 2009, experts intensively analyzed the “how.” I assume they do it to try to find the formula and replicate it. But the magic wasn’t in the app. What generated the buzz to begin with was the brand’s personality prelaunch. According to Mint’s lead designer Jason Putorti, the brand crafted a zingy online blog that specifically targeted young professionals, a group they noticed had been left out of the online personal finance dialogue.

And according to TechCrunch, the tactic more than worked. Many of the brands I see that start building an audience before selling anything are somewhat surprised to find their success. Mint, on the other hand, deliberately used content strategy to go out and get the followers first, all with the intention of delivering an app users needed.

3. National Geographic

In a noble sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the National Geographic both piques the interest of readers and then quenches the thirst it created. The publication began as a scholarly journal primarily for scientists, as pointed out by Cengage Educational Services, without photos or the storified natural drama it’s known for today. It was Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the Alexander Graham Bell) who took the magazine in a different direction for the purpose of touching lives of “ordinary” people like you and me. When revenue came in, the Society turned those funds around to sponsor expeditions and research endeavors that further promoted the world’s enjoyment of natural phenomena.

A panda climbs trees at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center

Image attribution: Chester Ho

Today, the National Geographic Store is a hub of tactile adventures you can bring home—without even venturing into the great outdoors!

4. LDN Muscle

In 2013, four workout enthusiasts (who also happened to be a pair of brothers) started a blog called LDN Muscle to document how they were successfully developing more muscle and naturally burning fat. After building an audience online, they released their first ever product: a chest workout regimen and the Cutting Guide (a favorite that still outperforms many of their other offerings). Today their site satisfies hungry followers with tried-and-true supplements, apparel, personal-training sessions, and even education resources for other health nuts to turn around and become inspiring coaches themselves. What are the brothers’ annual sales today, you ask? It’s a cool $1.5 million and growing.

5. Vick Seed Company

Early American business history slays me. Every time I read a brand story that grew from the harsh, inconvenient lifestyles of the 18th and 19th centuries, I’m undone by how human these business ventures are. Take, for example, the Vick Seed Company. In 1833, a twelve-year-old kid named James Vick began working at a number of local newspapers in an effort to learn the printing trade. He then started writing and editing horticultural publications, and eventually bought The Horticulturist in 1853.

A man and a woman gardening

Image attribution: Benjamin Coombs

As he was building an audience, his love of all things plants also grew, so it was only natural he share his love of botany by sending seeds to readers. He began his own floral guide and catalogue that gave readers advice, cute stories, letters from readers, and even a kids’ section for “budding” floriculturists. A circulation of 250,000 may not seem exceptional by today’s standards, but keep in mind the country was torn by the Civil War as Vick’s story and business unfolded. By 1870, he was getting over 3,000 letters a day, according to the Smithsonian Institute—something today’s marketers would call robust engagement.

I don’t know George Lucas personally, but I doubt he spent his 20s and 30s dreaming about how to improve lives with a Yoda-dictation GPS navigator. No, he set out to deliver the best story ever told, to awaken the imagination, and delight moviegoers. The rest has been fun, sure, but what made Star Wars a killer example is the undeniable entertainment that came first.

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Featured image attribution: Saksham Gangwar

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