I’m half-Swedish on my mother’s side. I’ve always known the folk of my second home to be a level-headed lot that will enjoy a marathon of Fawlty Towers in the afternoon. The Swedes are particularly good at combining a Germanic approach to organisation with a very British humour, dealing with an absurd situation by employing as much stoicism as they do wit and nonchalance. It’s the reason their airports still gleefully operate under 2 metres of snow every January, for instance.

Happy H-Day

My mum’s always said one of the most ambitious and ironically successful undertakings by the Swedes was also their one – and very possibly only – day of complete chaos. That day was Dagen-H (H-Day) – September 3, 1967. Also known as Högertrafikomläggningen (The right-hand traffic diversion), Dagen-H was the day that Sweden changed from left-hand to right-hand drive.

Allow me to reiterate that – the entire country of Sweden began driving on the other side of the road. Overnight.

The reason was basically to bring the country in line with its right-hand driving Scandinavian (and indeed European) neighbours. However, the enormity of orchestrating something like this cannot be overstated. And yet, they did it. Not only that, they did it in style. The big switch was so well planned and expertly communicated that the Swedes didn’t just comply with reverent obedience; they had a nationwide street party. Not a royal wedding in sight.

There was a countdown; Dagen-H information and memorabilia were on milk cartons everywhere and a campaign emblazoned the logo on women’s underwear. A hugely popular Saturday night television show called Hylands Hörna ran a ‘wake’ for left-hand drive. It turned into a Comic Relief-style telethon and New Year’s Eve extravaganza combined, as cheery reports filtered in from all over the country about how Mr and Mrs Svensson were preparing for the morning after. It was a celebration of silken practicality.

And then, at 1am every street sign in Sweden about-turned. By 5am, cars had switched sides. Done. There was a bit of confusion in the capital, resulting in what Time Magazine described as a ‘brief but monumental’ traffic jam, but even that was met with a significant sense of revelry.

Which brings me to my point, finally. Last week, founders of the Content Marketing Institute Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose – more or less charged with inventing the term ‘content marketing’ – discussed a maligned report by Chuck Richard, analyst for content strategy observer Outsell, entitled Can We All Just Agree to Drop the Phrase ‘Content Marketing’?

Marketing with content

The gist of the report in question is that it’s time to drop the adjective ‘content’ from ‘content marketing’, because this apparently new practice of creating different forms of content to engage with and deliver to people is simply the definition of marketing. In other words, the concept of content marketing is little more than a fashion.

Understandably, Pulizzi and Rose took issue with the sentiment. First and foremost this is not the definition of marketing, they said, in the sense of sticking a banner up in front of someone to sell them something. There are plenty of ‘traditional’ marketing practices like direct marketing, PR and advertising that do this very well. Secondly, the idea of content marketing is not new; it is the approach that is different. For a lot of big companies and corporations it is a new muscle – it is a new drive.

The other side of marketing

Just like Sweden in the ‘60s, the heads of corporations that have been marketing through the same traditional avenues – and very successfully so – are trying to come to terms with a complete paradigm shift. Not only that, the people trying to convince them to get with the times are also trying to get them insatiably excited about it. No mean feat.

As Pulizzi and Rose put it: “Becoming a content-producing media organisation is a new concept for businesses; it is not a traditional marketing venture.”

Put that into context and you can see the importance of calling it ‘content marketing’ just to make sure everyone’s on the same page about what they’re doing. In the early days it was called everything from ‘brand journalism’ or ‘custom media’ to ‘custom publishing’ and ‘integrated marketing’. Rose adds that when he was trying to sell things like email marketing packages to big corporate executives, he was met only by utter bemusement. This wasn’t marketing as they knew it; no one knew what it was, let alone if it could give you any ROI.

In the same way that marketing for an established corporate needed to shift, so too did Sweden need to change its way of being completely, to allow it to play on a level field both socially and economically with its neighbours. Sure you’re driving in the right direction, but are you driving in a manner that is competitive in your market?

As it turned out for the Swedes, they weren’t. So they used a sustained campaign of content marketing – using all sorts of media – to bring an entire country around to the idea that there was going to be a major directional shift. And they did it so well that not only was every single Swede aware of what was going to happen, they were actually looking forward to it. It was a ‘pull’ technique, not the ‘push’ of direct advertising, that brought out the best in organisation and humour in a country that was apparently facing chaos.

So why do we distinguish marketing from content marketing? Why do we insist on calling it ‘content marketing’?  It’s not because it’s a popular trend or a new concept; it’s because it is a new way of thinking. The hard bit is convincing everyone in your corporation, especially upper management, to think the same way. But, empathise with their concerns while showing them how to flex their new content marketing muscle, and you can give your whole company the right drive.