As much as we’d all like to be Don Draper, the marketing world has come a long way since the days of Mad Men. The money is nowhere near as good, people wear jeans to work, and drinking spirits in the office is generally frowned upon.

But most importantly of all, the digital revolution has shifted the balance of power away from the business and into the hands of the consumer. Way back in 1999, content marketing demi-god Seth Godin coined the term ‘permission marketing’: the idea that advertising is not a right, but a privilege; and, like every privilege, it must be earned.

Building your brand is about earning the trust of your customers, and as Godin puts it, ‘you don’t get trusted if you’re constantly measuring and tweaking and manipulating so that someone will buy from you’. But if that’s the case, how do we go about winning people’s trust? Some kind of mind-altering gas, perhaps?

Let the conversation flow

Unfortunately, you can’t solve all of life’s problems with mind-altering gas. Instead, think of branding as a conversation between you and your target audience, remembering that as in a real conversation, you can’t just bang on about how fantastic you are.

We all know how tedious it is to turn up to a party, only to be cornered by a self-important blowhard who won’t stop talking about themselves. The difference is that instead of having to stand there nodding politely and wishing they were somewhere else like real-life audiences, digital audiences have the power to close the tab. If you don’t give them a reason to pay attention to your content by making it useful or funny or relevant to them in some way, they’ll switch off and look elsewhere for entertainment.

Two young people demonstrating a lively conversation

Two way street: Content should be a conversation between your brand and the end user

Of course, you can’t be all things to all people – but your brand conversation can help you become the right thing to the right people. Like a real conversation, it’s reciprocal in the sense that the more content you put out there, the more you discover about your brand through the way people engage with it; you can then utilise this back-and-forth ‘dialogue’ to inform your brand’s tone and values.

Once upon a time…

If you really want your audience to sit up and listen, don’t be a blowhard; be a storyteller. The smartest firms have abandoned the hard sell in favour of content that says something about their values, gradually weaving together the narrative of their brand through blog posts, listicles, social media updates, videos, and any other print, digital or multimedia channel you care to mention.

As a result, the bombastic slogans and calls-to-action of traditional advertising are being replaced by subtle, story-driven content that takes the scenic route to the sale. And that’s no bad thing. It’s in our nature to seek out narratives, and when you connect with your audience on this basic human level, you begin to foster the sort of lifelong trust that is the holy grail of all branding.

Brand-building, brick by brick

One superb example of this ‘softly softly’ approach is The Lego Movie. Take a punnet of loveable characters, stir them into a universally appealing plot and garnish with a catchy tie-in song, and what do you get? A 100-minute-long advert-cum-mission-statement that people actively choose to watch because – and here’s the important part – they genuinely enjoy it. Every viewing consolidates Lego’s reputation as a fun, irreverent, family-friendly company while giving the audience a warm, fuzzy, Lego-shaped feeling inside – and there isn’t a sales pitch or call-to-action in sight. Even their ad campaign for the film (see video below) was expertly judged, aligning themselves with other brands rather than all-out self promotion. The message? Lego is inclusive, fun, able to make fun of themselves and innovative.

Of course, few firms have the resources to produce a feature-length movie, and we can’t exactly see Hollywood studios tripping over each other for a screenplay about an insurance firm on the edge of Swindon. The thing to take away from this example is that Lego used the feature film format as an innovative way of telling their brand story, without explicitly selling anything. In fact, you might say that branding is advertising with the salesy bits taken out.

The personal touch

So, in order to win the trust of your audience, you need to tell your story and you need to let the conversation flow. But before you can do any of that, you’re going to need one more thing: a personality. Sadly, many if not most brands (and a fair few actual humans) are lacking in this department, but without a clear idea of your brand’s personality, you’re not going to get very far. And why? Because people don’t relate to businesses; they relate to people. Think of your brand not as a ‘what’, but as a ‘who’. If it were a person, how would they feel? What would they think? And – most importantly from a content marketing perspective – what would they say?

Oh, the humanity

It all comes back to Godin’s idea of trust. In a world so saturated with advertising, people have grown understandably wary of sales-speak, which is why it’s so important to drop the patter and relate to them on a personal level. Of course, sales-driven content has its place, and we’ll be coming to that later in this series – but when it comes to branding, the bottom line should be the last thing on your mind. If we had to sum this article up in two words? Be human. Your audience will love you for it.

Content should fit into every aspect of your marketing strategy. Why not read one of our case studies to find out how we work? And say hello on Twitter too.