Educational content that is unconditionally proffered by a company is a low-cost means to enable brand exposure and foster engagement with the general public, prospects, competitors, and existing clients or customers.
The overarching criteria for every type of educational content explored and differentiated in this piece is unconditional accessibility. Without sincere generosity of access on the company’s part and authentic content therein, I’d argue the prefix here of “educational” is more appropriately replaced by: promotional.
What’s So Educational About This Piece Anyway?
The obvious pitfall of writing a piece about educational content along the lines that I’ve established is that if this piece is not unconditionally informative, then not only is it a waste of your time but it renders me a hypocrite!
Throughout this piece I’ve linked various external sources that have inspired me to think further about how education plays into brand development and cultivation; many of these resources are beyond the scope of commercial and enterprise marketplaces, and so I hope they provide an interesting outside perspective on the topic discussed here.
Taking a step back from the usual enumeration-piece of brands that provide educational content, I’ve defined seven strategies of unconditional educational content creation that brands effectively leverage to expose the public to their values and further engage existing customers-clients-users.
How We Got Here: Educational Content & Brand Engagement Today
Consider this bit of armchair postulating: at any given diurnal moment, people in the 21st century are either producing, consuming, or thinking. As recent as a few decades ago, these modalities were far more disjunctive than they are now. I’d imagine white collar work and critical discourses for example were once discrete domains of activity, but nowadays grey areas and overlaps abound.
Such convergences of producing-consuming-thinking have changed the nature of work and also the purpose, meaning, and pedagogical frameworks of education across the board. To say the least, with the advent of bootcamps, nano-degrees and activism groups, the university no longer owns the exclusive rights to the curriculum.
Education is everyone’s secret sauce
Over the past century, “knowledge workers” speciated from manual workers, and ever since software started eating the world, the knowledge worker has speciated yet again into learning workers! “White collar” work, associated with rigid knowledge and desk jobs, now sounds somewhat anachronistic with contemporary technologies changing every year and the definition of a workplace becoming increasingly ambiguous.
And pardon the evolving language: whether you’re into Pokémonesque teleological notions of progress or not, how work and education interface is undeniably changing. Regardless of how these changes have come about, as the great paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould would assert, determinism is a bias and the future is open for us to define. And what better way to articulate the future we want for ourselves, how we consume, produce, and think, then through continuous education?
As such, brands are increasingly positioning themselves (from the inside-out) and regarded (from the outside-in) as cultural institutions that customers look to for more than just products and services: lifestyle suggestions, recipes, procedures, resources, accountability, forecasting, what’s-it-all-means-etc constitute an increasingly expected array of educational content.
To say this is a trend is missing the underlying forces driving this phenomenon: brands that don’t unconditionally and impartially educate (the public, prospects, existing clients or customers) are limiting themselves to the transactional extents of their marketed goods. I’d wager high quality educational content will soon be the new table stakes of 800-pound gorillas, would-be-unicorns, and household names.
You might be rolling your eyes thinking, this is just content marketing and that’s nothing new. Publishing useful information that integrates a product but does not derive from it has been around for awhile. A qualitative resurgence in branded educational content began with the advent of the digital revolution however, and that warrants some attention. “Unconditional” is the operative word here, or the independent variable that (content) quality is a function of — how can brands create educational content that does not attempt an underhanded sale or switch and bait plug?
The strategic categories
As mentioned above, I’ve identified a few strategic categories (no doubt there are more) of educational content that may not be explicitly branded, but nonetheless can drive brand engagement beyond product adoption alone. For many of these strategies, “cultivate” is a better word that drive, as with employee advocacy, the relationship between education and brand engagement is characterized by the building of trust.
If educational content is not genuine and meaningful (personal meaning is more important than utility in this case), then the value-proposition of the brand, regardless of its products, is null to begin with.
That said, depending on the nature of a company’s product or service, one these strategies of educational content creation might be better suited than the others to enable brand engagement and exposure. But as all these strategies are in many ways inflections of each other, many brands employ a complimentary combination of educational content creation mediums and formats. As indexed in no particular order or ranking of eminence, the strategies include:
- Executive Transparency (Qua Philosopher King)
- Contextual Resources
- Extrabrand Engagement Tools
- Product Displacement
- Brand Vestibule
- Upfront Lagniappe
- And the ubiquitous and uninspiring: Redundant Promotion
Executive Transparency (Qua Philosopher King)
Philosopher king is perhaps an overstatement (hence the prefix of “qua”), but the confiding of personal thoughts and experiences from the CEO with the public imbues the brand with an authentic humanism.
Sir Richard Branson and his daughter Holly substantiate the Virgin Group blog, sharing personal stories and points of interest that are as applicable to an executive as they are relatable from the perspective of a layperson. Without any promotional gimmicks, Sir Richard Branson offers his core values to the public, values that the blog portrays as not only the pillars of Virgin Group but the progenitors of the brand’s success.
While no explicit transactions are being made by engaging with the Virgin Group blog, SRB and Holly are participating in the trust economy, allowing potential customers to visit the cockpit and meet the pilot in a sense.
While the Virgin Group blog does not offer some of the other kinds of educational content categorized in this piece, education as such is clearly an underlying value of SRB’s writings, as he cites one of his favorite quotes from B.B. King, “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”
Educational content that contextualizes the brand’s product in a greater library of suggested use cases is classic Michelin-style content marketing. Unlike the Michelin guide however, you don’t have to buy most branded contextual resources nowadays. A few brands that are cultivating engagement through this kind of educational content are companies in the grocery and hardware spaces: Whole Foods, Lowe’s, and Home Depot to name just three.
The Whole Story was a prime example of contextualizing a brand’s products with informative use case resources, and they were even finalists for the International Association of Culinary Professionals award back in 2014. However almost exactly a year after Amazon acquired Whole Foods, the blog has gone inexplicably dormant; perhaps a coincidence.
Up until the blog’s mysterious idling, they provided a myriad of resources including recipes (of how to use ingredients, hypothetically bought at a Whole Foods store), pancultural event and menu planning, details of local farm providers, tips on how to grow your own produce, food culture festivals, nutrition, and much more. In many ways, The Whole Story was a sort of grocee’s almanac (is a “grocee” someone who buys groceries?) that offered valuable information to anyone who enjoys food. Maybe someday Amazon will resurrect The Whole Story, but for now they’re resting on its organic laurels.
Both Lowe’s Creative Ideas blog and The Home Depot Blog contextualize their products with suggested projects and tutorials on basic home repair. Very similar in format to each other, the two blogs leverage independent home improvement personalities and other design-build blogs by providing a directory where these DIY experts can be looked up according to the desired task at hand.
Because both of these home improvement blogs showcase real people with large followings as their primary source of educational content, there’s little doubt that the content itself is trustworthy. And by association, the overarching brand (e.g. Home Depot, Lowe’s) that organizes and distributes the DIY-influencer content becomes more trustworthy as well. If a brand can network and showcase influencers within their space and organize all of that content for anyone to learn from, exposure begets exposure, and everyone benefits as a result.
Extrabrand Engagement Tools
The tl;dr of this section is: extrabrand engagement tools are the vanguard of educational content creation and can cultivate, drive, and inculcate brand trust and loyalty at the highest level. But how is a tool, content? If a tool effectively networks anyone with brand-aligned purpose-oriented activities, creating new experiences, and introducing new acquaintances, then it goes without saying that new lessons will be gleaned on a firsthand basis. What could be more educational?
Very few brands are in this category, as it involves providing sophisticated interactive tools for anyone to engage in the values of the company regardless of that person’s affiliation with the product or service otherwise sold.
Hands down, Patagonia’s Action Works is a prime example of extrabrand engagement tools. As a proxy that allows users to find local environmental organizations, events, and petitions that align with Patagonia’s mission, anyone can carry the torch of the company’s values, effectively embodying the spirit of the brand regardless if they’ve bought Patagonia clothing or not.
Similar to Lowe’s and Home Depot’s blogs which are also proxies but of influencers, authority is assumed when a brand represents other people, entities, and causes, all in the interest of educating the public.
Whether you are sympathetic to Patagonia’s environmental rhetoric or not, a free tool like Action Works is the apotheosis of engaging educational content as it literally enlists anybody to act on the brand’s mission.
Similar to the contextual resources that might inspire you to shop with the respective brand that offers the educational content, perhaps Action Works participants feel compelled to buy some Patagonia workwear before getting their hands dirty.
But because Patagonia presents itself as a self-conscious and almost an invisible brand, showing up to restore a riverbank with appropriately branded gear is probably a faux-pas as Patagonia repeatedly depicts their brand (either as a stroke of genius or repulsively) as bigger than their brand.
“We’re in business to save our home planet” says their slogan verbatim in the website footer. Presumably consumers internalize the reverse psychology Patagonia presents of “Don’t buy our gear, just save the world” message (my paraphrasing) and then go buy a Nano Puff. But at the very least, Action Works does not require any proof of brand loyalty and enables a whole new level of brand exposure and engagement for Patagonia.
Enough about “Fratbrogonia/Patagucci”, except just a few more things: they also produce educational documentaries, curate user generated content, distribute a podcast that they co-produce with a few affiliates because if it were just Patagonia, that might be a brand conflict of interest! And they have a blog that romanticizes everything-outdoors but their product, indirectly illuminating their clothing in a global-noble cause and peripatetic transcendentalism that let’s be honest, is quite alluring.
Seeing how other brands take note of Patagonia’s extrabrand educational engagement tools will be interesting, as it requires not only declaring one’s values upfront, but prioritizing them over the company in what appears to be a kind of corporate altruism that in reality, no doubt, yields tangible returns.
Product displacement has a specific meaning in the context of advertising, but I’m invoking it here in a new light and different meaning: positioning the product as tangential to a sphere of culture that one might presume the product is otherwise central to. Brands that use this strategy are showing how their product is perhaps necessary but not sufficient to enable the culture that their educational content explores. This is similar to the extrabrand engagement tool strategy, as it can imply that our actual brand is bigger than our apparent brand, as is the case with Patagonia.
Not bereft of product placement and extolling of their own innovation, but The Trek Blog has great educational multimedia pertaining to maintenance, innovation in general, advocacy (e.g. restoration), charity events, and biker stories. The Trek Blog is inspiring for anyone interested in cycling however, and does not require allegiance to Trek specifically.
Making educational content as brand-agnostic as possible is any company’s best bet to build trust with any profile of websurfer. Said differently, the more brand-agnostic your educational content can be, the richer and more authentic it will read, and the more it will expose your brand as genuinely invested in their values, and thus worth engaging with.
Also in this strategic category of educational content, UPS is supposedly the fourth most “loved” brand in America as of 2019, and their blog Longitudes exhibits a surprising depth and breadth of insightful writing.
The UPS blog speaks to global systems, market trends, logistics, entrepreneurship, and critical analysis of social norms. Longitudes reads and feels like something between a general management magazine and a macroeconomic journal — sometimes reminiscent of the HBR, The Economist, and the Atlantic all at once.
While very few if any of the pieces on Longitudes are explicitly didactic (e.g. “Read This to Learn That”), there’s no way anyone would walk away without a new perspective having spent time on the UPS blog.
By displacing their brand tangentially to their core product and service domains, both Trek and UPS in effect expand the range of their perceived value — these are not just bicycle and shipping companies, they are public resources and authorities on all things related to bikes and boxes; I mean not just boxes — globalism writ large!
A brand vestibule is a lobby, most often virtual but also physical, that the public can enter, peruse the resources on display perhaps without any intent on making a subsequent purchase or service commitment. A brand lobby allows those loyal to a brand and the public to mingle together due to the provided content’s quality and accessibility.
Existing customers will find brand vestibule content supplemental to their incumbent purchases or subscriptions, and the public will find the same content alluring not only because it’s free but also because if existing customers find it useful then it must be valuable.
This kind of educational content strategy establishes the brand as taking the high-ground by sharing resources that competitors might want to withhold as an incentive to sign up for their services or product. ahrefs is nothing but SEO generosity in every post, which is interesting because keyword research, website traffic, link building, and email outreach are all integral to their product, and yet they are not making any underhanded bait-switch sales here.
Brands that unconditionally offer upfront advice, even if it cannibalizes aspects of what the customer or client would pay for, position themselves for leadership within their niche and foster prospect and customer trust (and probably some competitor insecurity).
As far as I can tell, Signal v. Noise is not linked (at least not easily found) on Basecamp’s website, which is all the more reason to trust the content on the blog as sincere and unconditional. “We’ve gotten by on strength of product, cult of personality, a unique point of view, running against the wind, and incredibly generous word-of-mouth promotion from our customers.” to quote Jason Fried the Co-Founder & CEO Basecamp.
A lagniappe is often a gift that a shopkeeper gives a customer as an unexpected bonus or loyalty-gift only after a purchase was made. So what would an upfront lagniappe be? Similar to the brand vestibule educational content strategy, the upfront lagniappe is a public-facing resource that leads to the business proper, but exhibits clear attempts to bring the wayward visitor in for a closer engagement.
Neil Patel is a brand (although he regrets it), and he has a great blog that gently hustles users to subscribe: if you click “No, I have enough traffic”, you are unapologetically and hilariously ushered to the subscription field just the same.
But by and large Neil Patel provides an unconditional upfront lagniappe of succinct resources and tools, all of which are squarely on the pulse of contemporary marketing trends. There’s his blog proper, his podcast Marketing School, and all the free tools he provides like Ubersuggest!
I personally don’t have enough time to take advantage of Neil Patel’s generously exhibited resources, tools and wisdom. But there’s no question about it, Neil has spent almost two decades presenting himself as an authority on digital marketing by sharing educational content as a means to hook subscribers and followers. You don’t have to sign up, but you might as well!
With so much dedication and experience displayed upfront, he has fulfilled his own prophecy: if you claim to hold the key to gaining followers, you will be followed. As such, Neil Patel is the scion-prince of the upfront lagniappe educational content strategy with millions of visitors and followers across every platform to prove it.
The last educational content strategy is not really a strategy at all, so allow me to pick on two cherished brands that I wish would do something more along the lines of the previous categories described.
Sadly, Apple really doesn’t do a good job at providing engagement opportunities that are not directly related to their products or services. The Apple Newsroom is just an official feed of what has been posted on many other, potentially more frequented sites. And yes they do have public in-store educational events, but they are heavily focused on using Apple products.
Despite marketing themselves as the paragon of consumer electronics, increasingly with an environmental caveat, Apple still hasn’t followed up on what is arguably their core value: technology married with liberal arts. Coming from both a Mac fanboy and a humanities fanboy, I gotta say: Apple isn’t intersecting with enough non-technological aspects of what their brand could encompass, whether that be the liberal arts or another genus of values.
To further indict myself as a fanboy, I also love Nintendo, however their blog Nintendo Life is perhaps expectedly just about their own games when it could be about so much more: how to design play systems like Shigeru Miyamoto for example (that’s a piece I’d bookmark!)
The Legend of Zelda was inspired by Miyamoto’s childhood exploration of the rural suburban interstitial wilderness around his home; a cave in particular. And yet that experience of childhood adventure resulted in one of the most endearing game franchises ever — how might Nintendo provide educational resources beyond their product that allow children to also experience wonder in a similar way?
Similar to Apple, Nintendo has been able to rely on a winning record of cherished product designs and experiences, and perhaps this has made them complacent despite the increasingly prevalent trend of brands positioning themselves as educational and cultural institutions. Nintendo’s blog presupposes if not requires a buy-in to the brand already, as there is not much to learn from it if you don’t already own the games discussed.
But again, when a brand neglects to provide unconditional educational content, the public, loyal customers and competitors alike must ask: what is this brand’s core values? What are they willing to provide the general public beyond transactional goods?
Nintendo and Apple have captivated the imagination of the world for generations now, and I trust it’s only a matter of time before they step up to be the educational resources that they are primed to become.
While there is no universally ideal strategy for educational content creation in the interest of driving brand engagement, any of the categories explored above are well suited for every brand depending on the nature of that company’s product or service.
With new imperatives to market to disloyalty, how brand’s create the most unconditionally inspiring and value-driven content will play a large part in claiming authority of one’s market space. How the creation of educational content affects brand loyalty at the macro-level warrants future investigations! But for now, it’s a safe bet to create content that inspires people to engage with your brand’s values, even if they are not yet considering adopting your product.