Successful content marketers know that a product isn’t just a product—it’s a story. Just ask Patrick Cassidy, head of Global Digital Brand Marketing at New Balance. We talked to Patrick about creating a brand identity through content: building relationships, telling the tales behind the sneakers and staying authentic in the process.
What is content’s role in New Balance’s overall business vision? How do you use content to make New Balance stand out from your competitors?
I come from a background with a lot of testing and learning, and I came to New Balance to lead Digital Global Brand Marketing, which includes content and social. And at the end of the day, I’m really here to sell shoes. So how am I going to do that with the tools at hand?
If we look at it as a spectrum of brands and what they do in the digital/social space, at one end there is stuff like soap. I’d suspect that the reason people follow a soap brand or brands like it on Twitter is because they want discounts and deals. At the other end of the spectrum are brands or personalities that you just love so much you’d get a tattoo of their logo on your body – a favorite sports team, a favorite band. You want to be a part of that culture so bad; you actually want real content and conversation from them. From what I see every single day from our communities around the world, New Balance is much closer to a favorite sports team than we are to soap. For us, it’s less about selling to our communities and more about distributing compelling content that shows you how New Balance is playing a role in peoples’ lives and the culture we are trying to build.
Through content, New Balance is accessible. We have a personality, we stand for things and we have a culture.
We are really just beginning this strategy and figuring out content and getting it off the ground, but we’ve come a very long way in a relatively short amount of time. When I got here, we were more like soap: 9 out of every 10 pieces of content was “Click here, buy this now.” Now, “click here” is one out of 10 or two out of 10. The rest of the pieces of content are about creating and collaborating with people to develop content that’s actually valuable to people.
People are doing incredible things in their New Balance sneakers around the world. They are winning races in their NBs. They are achieving personal bests in their NBs. They are running to the tops of mountains in their NBs. They are becoming style icons in their NBs. They are creators doing these amazing things everywhere, every single day. We have to ask ourselves, “Who are our true consumers and what do they want?” I think they want to be inspired. I think they want to be a part of this culture. That’s how the content strategy has shifted dramatically to where we are.
The results have been awesome—pushing us much farther ahead than the constant “click here, buy this now.” It’s more about what we stand for, what it means to be a part of our growing culture and how we inspire and help people.
You pulled back from paid promotion while you worked on redeveloping the content strategy. How have you measured the success of your results in this phase?
We did pull back on paid promotion for content in the social space, because I didn’t feel like we had a refined strategy and because I didn’t feel like we were producing the right kind of content.
We had to ask ourselves, “How do we know if a piece of content is successful?” Deep data is obviously hugely important, but as we’re rebuilding this strategy from the ground up, to me, the biggest metric of success is as simple as someone choosing to share something we create with their friends and followers. As simple as that sounds, it really is the ultimate cosign. Our community members have a million things to choose from across platforms at every second of the day, with hundreds of brands screaming for their attention. Our content has to compete in that universe. That means if you do click on something we’re asking you to pay attention to, it has to deliver some sort of value to you or else we are going to lose you. And if you do click on it and you think enough of it to put it out to your people? That means we did our job. It’s a very easy test, and I think a lot of people who read this will say ‘That’s ridiculous,’ simply because it’s not the detailed analytics that everyone is trying to figure out. But if you think enough of something that we created to share with your communities and vouch for it to all of your followers, that’s success.
For the most part, I don’t care if content is selling sneakers at that very moment. What I do care about is creating brand consideration and using our content to help us access new micro communities where we were not previously playing. We want to be a part of the “right” consumers’ lives, something that they always click on, something that they want to be a part of, something that they want to celebrate as well. The sales will come. Great content - the right content – is a slow burn that is a long-term strategy to build loyalty and consideration.
Is inspiration the key to great content?
Yes, absolutely. And that takes different forms. People are celebrating what they are accomplishing in their New Balance gear en masse every single day around the world and it’s an amazing thing to see. Whether it’s an athletic achievement in their New Balance sneakers or if someone just feels great about how their New Balance ties together their style for that day, there’s a point that they are moved to share that with their friends in organic, authentic ways, and that inspires other people. It’s a pretty incredible thing to see and that’s the type of content we are surfacing, celebrating and mimicking on our own in-house.
To that point, the highly stylized “brand marketing” assets have almost all, for the most part, disappeared from what you see from us in the social media space. Those images aren’t real. The most powerful thing about content is authenticity–stories that people can relate to. They can’t relate to a model running, perfectly lit, on a beautiful day without a hair out of place. This is not who we are and it is not representative of our communities.
You’ve been successful at building different relationships with different types of users. What advice would you give to other brands who are trying to create those types of relationships?
We have this amazing global business that is on fire around the world, and we have various types of customers that we need to talk to, like the various segments of the running community. We have a quickly-expanding baseball business and a great tennis business that’s just getting off the ground. They all have certain types of consumers who are looking for content within those bases. And it’s been my job to figure out how we tell all those stories to the right people on the right platform at the right time.
We are trying to service and provide value to all of these people around the world in smart ways. For example, there are certain things I’ve learned about sharing lifestyle content: I know by looking at a photo how it’s going to perform by the way it’s lit, by the way shoes are positioned, by the angles of the shoes. Is it a shoe on-foot? Off-foot? Does it show the shape of the shoe in a way that certain consumers can see and react to it? People react really well to shoes that are laid out in geometrical patterns. They react really well to contrast in color. There are certain times of day when people are going to react strongly to some of our tech, glow in the dark stuff. So it’s really a daily evolving science of figuring out what works best and when.
How do you make sure your content stands out from the rest?
If you look at our Instagram, still the vast majority is pictures of shoes or pictures of feet in shoes. That’s great and that’s what people want right now and that’s what I know will hit when we launch pieces of content. But how do we give people more, so that they value our content and New Balance as a brand? How long can we share pictures of shoes before people get bored? The only way is to focus on evolving the content strategy. So at the beginning stage, you might see photos just of New Balance shoes on Instagram, on Twitter and Facebook. But down the road, we need more stories and organic content, campaigns and collaborations. We need to empower more of the people in our community to work with us, to create great, unexpected content. You will see various things that we are trying in a very public way, and some of it will work, some won’t work. But we are going to be pretty relentless in finding what works and we’ll continue to evolve our content strategy.
What content from other brands has inspired you?
The easy answer is Red Bull; they’re the kings of content marketing. Beyond them, I’m inspired by brands who don’t have a lot to lose and are daring and try new things. I love a company like Shinola. They are coming out of Detroit with hand-crafted bicycles, watches and leather goods. With every photo they post, you can see they are clearly crazy about the way they present themselves. They have invested in their content and developing a clear POV. Everything they put out there brings a sense of craftsmanship and that it’s a premium product.
The crazy thing is, the way social media has evolved, the way content has evolved and the way technology has evolved, you don’t need to have a billion-dollar budget to make great stuff. It’s creative individuals who are figuring out how to get the most of their iPhones. There are small, independent sneaker stores who are only going to survive and thrive if their content is better than others. So by sheer will and determination and need, they are creating great content.
What’s next for New Balance’s content in 2015? How do you think the content marketing world as a whole will evolve in the future?
I’m creating the internal structure to fuel what we talked about: “always-on, real-time content.” We tore down NewBalance.com and rebuilt it to bring us forward, closer to where we need to be to tell and celebrate these stories. That means having the ability to produce real-time content combined with conversations throughout our digital presence, especially on NewBalance.com. If one of our athletes wins a major race, that’s going to be live on the site in some fashion, immediately and in a smart way. Or if social media creates something that’s trending, we can capitalize on it in the moment. The seeds are being planted now and it’s going to happen and happen quickly in 2015.
Then, how do we build out that system globally? We have almost 40 New Balance markets around the world. We are going to bring this new design, this new capability to all these markets. The blueprints are laid to create this content ecosystem with New Balance around the world so the content from my developing global content team will be distributed easily to these other markets in other regions so they can adapt what we send them to what is meaningful to their communities. And we’ll be working with them to create the tools to create their own content in the same way that our global content team will be producing content. The vision I am working to bring to life is three or four years from now, globally, New Balance will be a unified system of always-on content creators. It will be flowing out of our headquarters in Boston, but empowering and giving the tools and the structure to other markets and newsrooms to make that a reality.
To answer your second question, I come from the media/print background, focusing on great, long-form stories. At some point, people will want more than just mindless slideshows and lists. I think the value of content will really come back in a strong way. It might not work exactly the same as spinning a great story, profile or whatever it is on a print page, but content of value will have a place at the table again in the near future with the mediums that are driving our social conversation.