Content marketing is today’s “it” marketing strategy—as it should be. Thanks to some tweaks by Google and the rise of the social web, we believe content marketing is now the most powerful form of Internet marketing that’s ever existed. When done right, it drives unprecedented inbound traffic from search, social media, and the blogosphere aimed at conversion.

What I don’t often hear, though, is that content marketing is also one of the most powerful forms of branding. Content marketing can drive brand awareness, trust, authority and loyalty in ways that traditional advertisers could never have imagined. Just ask Coca-Cola, a brand that’s quickly dropping traditional advertising in favor of content marketing. In my experience, the main intent of television commercials has never been solving consumer problems, enlightening them and answering their questions. Okay, maybe public service announcements—but those don’t hawk a product or service.

Mutant TurtlesDon’t let bad content marketing turn your brand into a mutant!

When content marketing goes wrong, however, it can have an equally devastating impact on a brand. Out-of-control content production with no attention paid to branding can quickly wipe out years of hard-fought brand initiatives. Every piece of content placed on a brand’s website that’s out of alignment with the brand creates a mutation—like a tumor—that can infect a brand’s very foundation.

Many companies are scaling their content production by three to tenfold, so this brand erosion can be taking place at unprecedented rates. Before long, a brand may appear unfocused and adrift in its marketplace, pushing mixed messages to a highly confused customer base. In today’s hyper-competitive environment, that can be the advantage a focused competitor needs to steal market share.

Now, if you’re an SEO like me, you may have always looked at branding as a prickly thorn in your side. I can’t think of how many times I’ve hit serious roadblocks in SEO campaigns because of clients’ branding. A classic example is when clients would force us to target keywords with significantly less traffic because they were ‘branded’ terms—and don’t even get me started on a brand’s compliance departments.

I’d wager that many SEOs have avoided even the concept of branding altogether because of how out of alignment it’s been historically with winning SEO tactics. I’ll admit that I avoided branding for a while—that is, until I put my “business owner” hat on and realized that nothing is more important to my company than the brand we’ve built over so many years.

So, this blog post is a call to all SEOs, inbound marketers and content marketers. We must dive in and learn the brands we work for inside and out if we want to maximize the value of the content we produce. I’ve spent the last year diving into the concept of branding for Slingshot and for our clients, and the following is a summary of what I’ve learned. I hope it helps you get your head around a concept that tends to elude many.

First: Contrary to what many believe, the foundation of a brand isn’t its logo, tagline, culture, website nor consumer sentiment. These are not the building blocks that make up a brand. These characteristics are just byproducts of the most fundamental question a brand has to answer:

Why does it exist?

If you cannot answer this question with the same speed and confidence that you’d name the color of your own hair, you do not understand the brand you’re working for—and I advise you to pump the brakes immediately. There are four essential components of a brand that answer this question: a brand’s belief, purpose, mission and vision. Just like your DNA has three basic components that combine in various patterns to define the characteristics that comprise your body, these four components combine to define a brand.

Belief is the most basic component of a brand. A brand’s belief is often the very problem it was founded to solve:

“For example, Slingshot SEO’s belief is that marketing is broken. We believe that the majority of marketers are spending the preponderance of their marketing budgets on interruption based advertising that is less cost-effective, drives less traffic, and builds less brand equity than other organic inbound forms of marketing.”

Brands must strive to hire staff and accept customers who believe what they believe. Taking on customers with beliefs divergent from the brand may lead to unsuccessful outcomes no matter how much effort is expended.

Purpose is very closely linked to belief; belief is the driver of purpose. A brand must ask itself the question, “Based on our belief, what are were here to do?”

“In Slingshot SEO’s case we believe that marketing is broken; so our purpose is to fix marketing.”

With all of the distractions brands face today, maintaining focus requires brands to know their purpose and champion it. Purpose puts everyone on the same side of the rope, pulling in the same direction. As with belief, brands must hire staff and take on customers that are excited by their purpose.

Mission is how a brand accomplishes its purpose. Mission is the execution of purpose:

“For example, Slingshot SEO will fix marketing by sharing badass ideas that connect brands with their audiences.”

Mission brings increased clarity to purpose by giving staff a concrete task to execute on. A clear mission stops a brand from executing ideas that distract it and mutate it away from its purpose.
Finally, vision is a brand’s impact on the world once it accomplishes its mission on all fronts, or how it fulfills its purpose. A vision may never actually materialize — but theoretically, what would happen if it did?

“In Slingshot SEO’s case, we believe that once marketing is fixed, a world will exist where products and services sell themselves. Essentially, we believe that ecommerce will work as well for services companies as it does for product companies. Think, add ‘Service’ to cart.”

Good luck getting to know the brands you work with on a deeper level. Once you ensure that your content marketing efforts are in alignment with these four critical brand elements, I promise that your content will become far more powerful and you’ll spend less time arguing with editors and compliance departments. You’ll start using content marketing to create brand movements with like-minded customers, advocates, employees, companies and experts who believe what you believe.

For a deeper dive into the DNA of a brand, I highly recommend reading It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For by Roy Spense, watching How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek, and working with an agency that can help a brand define these characteristics, like SmallBox and KA+A.