A word of warning on the content marketing zeitgeist

Beware of the ‘content marketing zeitgeist’ and its potential to take you off message. This was the opinion of John Lewis marketing director Craig Inglis when he spoke recently at the Advertising Week Europe conference.

As reported in Brand Republic, Inglis said: “There’s so many brands that get caught up in this. It’s become the zeitgeist in our community but really it’s just marketing…We get caught up in this stuff then that leads to unnatural behaviour that’s not the right thing.

Undoubtedly, it’s good advice to “keep things authentic”. But the most interesting angle Inglis brought up was the challenge in creating cut-through with content marketing on brand sites that are ultimately designed to sell product.

It’s wrong to suggest that products can’t sit alongside content. If that were the case product-based display advertising in magazines would have died years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

But cut-through can only come from well-written and well-designed content that is tailored for the right market. Maybe this is something of a magic bullet but there’s no point doing it if you can’t hit the target.

Selfridges v John Lewis

With this in mind it was interesting looking at John Lewis’ and Selfridges’ online offering, the latter being highly praised by Inglis. Both of them appeared to have editorialised their pages.

Selfridges has worked very hard. Its home page led to a number of editorially inspired pages. One of these, ‘10 reasons why we love the 70s trend’ was laid out in the style and font that could only be from a Vogue issue circa 1975.

Many of the images were shot in black and white style of the time, while each ‘reason’, described in short pithy commentaries, and covered different clothing categories. Click beyond this and you were into what could be only described as a more traditional, and necessary, retail site where you can look and buy.

Aside from this, it had lots of features including reviews by bloggers and pictorials on location.

John Lewis looks like it has been heavily influenced by the Selfridges campaign. Both featured the ‘Shop the Edit’ line, which seemed ubiquitous along a number of other online clothing retailers. It also used video.

However, it lacked the Selfridges’ theming. The copy was written in the same way. But you could hear the shackles of the site’s brand guidelines and stylesheets rattling as they kept everything in line with the rest of the site.

In this Selfridges has an unfair advantage – it is a premium brand, not a high street chain, and is renowned for its off-the-wall marketing and store displays. It stands to reason its site should operate in the same way. Not all retail marketers have as flexible a remit.

One question. Much of this content surrounded women’s ranges. Menswear, electricals, etc seemed to be left out. Is this is a missed opportunity or has the analytics scared them off? There are plenty of men’s magazines or magazines devoted to TVs and tablets.


Central to Inglis’ words was a warning not to become “unnatural”. Maybe a harsher word is fail. Nothing illustrates this better than when brands moved into social media and got so caught up in the execution they failed to anticipate how the customer would receive the message.

For examples of these just enter “social media fail” and bring up innumerable numbered list features devoted to the subject. A favourite, Waitrose’s 2012 campaign on Twitter seeking customer response through the line: “I shop at Waitrose because…” It gained responses like “because I don’t like poor people” and “I like watching Daily Mail readers support a neo-socialist institution.” Inevitable press coverage followed.

Marketing is littered with brands that having fallen flat on their faces through getting it wrong. Content marketing carries the same risk. Being ignored is one thing, but ridicule is another level down.

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