Exploring the Past, Present, and Future of Content Marketing History: 100 Years of Evolution


As the saying goes, “Those who don’t remember the past are bound to repeat it”. When it comes to content marketing, history can tell you a lot about what the future may hold.

Exploring the past can help you spot new trends quicker while showing you what works and what doesn’t. Investigating your predecessor’s strategies gives you a more comprehensive understanding of how content marketing has and will evolve.

Ready to discover the history of content marketing?

Let’s dive in.

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Key Takeaways

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  1. Exploring the past of content marketing can help identify new trends and understand what strategies have been successful in the past.
  2. The history of content marketing can be traced back to 1732 with Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” which was created to promote his printing business.
  3. One of the earliest and most successful examples of content marketing is John Deere’s “The Furrow,” an agricultural magazine that gave farmers business advice and included relatable stories.
  4. In the early 1900s, brands such as Michelin and Jell-O used targeted ads in specific publications to appeal directly to their target audience with practical and relevant information.
  5. In the 1920s and 1930s, radio became a new medium for content marketing with brands such as Sears and Proctor & Gamble using it to broadcast helpful information and sponsored radio programs targeting specific audiences.

A Brief History of Content Marketing

Content marketing involves creating and sharing written, audio or visual material that’s relevant and valuable.

Unlike the traditional marketing model, it pays particular attention to the latter aspects.

Instead of explicitly promoting your brand with unhelpful material, content marketing focuses on generating interest with useful information.

How did this practice begin? What can we learn from it? Here’s a breakdown of the history of content marketing:

The Pre-1900s

After the invention of the printing press in 1440, advertising via brochures and pamphlets was possible but not too common.

It wasn’t until three centuries later that content marketing really came to life.

In 1732, Benjamin Franklin released Poor Richard’s Almanack, an annual book aimed at promoting his printing business.

It’s one of the earliest known pieces of content marketing.

The next attempt came 150 years later when the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Insurance Company published an industry magazine titled The Locomotive. It still runs to this day.

Then, in 1895, John Deere published the first instalment of The Furrow, an agricultural magazine that gave farmers business advice.

Apart from containing a wealth of useful information, it also included engaging stories that readers could relate to.

This out-of-the-box strategy helped The Furrow amass an enormous following that still exists today.

These examples demonstrate the core principle of content marketing: sharing valuable information with your audience helps them see why they need your product or service.

The 1900s to 1920s

Dozens of brands took notice of John Deere’s approach. One example is Michelin, a French tyre company.

In 1900, it released The Michelin Guide, a publication focused on car maintenance and travel. It contained pages of attractions, restaurants and accommodation facilities in the UK.

Although few people owned a vehicle, the company believed the guide would encourage automobile sales and travel while wearing out the tyres faster.

They were right.

Today, The Michelin Guide has evolved into a five-star restaurant manual, a testament to the brand’s innovative marketing methods.

Other publications also became popular during the 1900s, including:

  • Advertising World
  • Architecture Magazine
  • Popular Mechanics

For the first time, many brands ran targeted ads catered to specific audiences. This strategy quickly proved to be a winner.

One famous example is the Jell-O promotion in Ladies Home Journal.

The company’s sales skyrocketed after it placed ads describing how to make tasty desserts with its products.

Since the magazine was aimed at homemakers, Jell-O could appeal directly to its main target audience with practical and relevant information.

The 1920s to 1940s

This era saw the introduction of an entirely new content marketing medium: radio.

One of the earliest examples is Sears, Roebuck and Company. In a revolutionary approach, it broadcast helpful information to the farming community via radio.

The campaign was so successful that the company launched its own radio station in 1924, the WLS (World’s Largest Store).

A few years later, Proctor & Gamble sponsored a radio serial drama with its new soap product.

The program aired during the day and targeted female listeners, quickly becoming a popular name. It even led to the coining of the term “soap opera”.

Another famous example of radio content marketing in history occurred on 31 October 1938 in New Jersey.

Actor Orson Welles told thousands of US listeners that an alien invasion was coming. The gig garnered a massive audience, with many believing the story was true.

The goal wasn’t to cause chaos but to promote the CBS radio station. The campaign worked, and the brand became a household name.

The 1940s to 1960s

This period was relatively quiet, with no significant breakthroughs. The only exception being child-friendly cereals.

Advertisers thought the best way to appeal to kids was through friendly and cute animal mascots. This idea resulted in figures like Trix the Rabbit and Tony the Tiger.

Why did this approach work? Because children developed an emotional connection with the brand, while their parents remembered it more easily.

A familiar face makes it easier for consumers to connect with a brand. This method did what it was supposed to, as evidenced by the many kid-friendly mascots that exist today.

Another landmark moment occurred when Pan American World Airways launched the first-ever in-flight magazine in 1952, Clipper Travel, named after the Boeing aircraft.

It was packed with excellent reading material that helped passengers pass the time and contained fun, useful, and engaging content.

Readers could learn about the destination they were visiting, catch up on the latest global news or browse the eye-catching adverts.

This move allowed the airline to build a community centred around travel and made passengers form a more emotional connection with its brand.

Around the same time, David Ogilvy, also known as “The Father of Advertising”, launched his New York-based advertising agency.

His approach was similar to modern-day content marketing, focusing on customer research, education, and engagement.

Here are the six principles of marketing David Ogilvy believed in:

  1. Talk about the facts and benefits, not the features.
  2. Always be honest and direct.
  3. Offer valuable information and helpful advice.
  4. Stand out from your competitors.
  5. Understand your customers.
  6. Stay true to your brand.

The 1960s to 1980s

Most households owned a TV by this period, giving rise to one of the most popular forms of content marketing in history: multi-channel media.

This method allowed brands to push a single message over various channels and media.

One of the most prominent examples is Exxon, the American petrol and oil company.

During the early 1960s, it launched a campaign centred around the logo, “Put a tiger in your tank”. This iconic line implied that the product gave your vehicle the power of a tiger.

Exxon marketed heavily across print, radio and TV, eventually making the slogan synonymous with its name. The company even released a range of tiger-themed auto accessories.

This massive success spurred other brands to follow suit.

Multi-channel marketing campaigns proved more effective than separate campaigns on different media.

The 1980s to 2000s

The 1980s experienced a surge in content marketing, particularly with comic book superheroes.

Companies like DC and Marvel produced stories around famous action figures like Spiderman, Batman and G.I. Joe.

The resulting content brought these characters to life and created powerful emotional connections that still exist today.

Around the same time, LEGO was making moves of its own.

The popular toy brand kicked off its Brick Kicks magazine in 1987 with informative content like games, comics, contests and tips. It instantly made the company more accessible.

Fun fact: LEGO achieved its most famous content marketing stunt in 2014 with the release of The Lego Movie.

When the 1990s hit, marketers experienced a new challenge: the internet. Naturally, this piece of content marketing history came with plenty of exciting opportunities and innovative ideas.

Agencies quickly started promoting brands through websites and email newsletters, today known as digital marketing.

Companies offered users instant access to their content. They also created targeted subscriber lists and sent regular emails with the latest updates.

The 2000s to Today

The 2000s brought on an entirely new set of challenges, defining the last two decades of content marketing by three core elements:

  • Multi-channel marketing
  • Social media
  • Search engine optimisation (SEO)

The primary marketing media are no longer radio, television or print. Everything is online, and a brand without a digital presence only hurts itself.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and LinkedIn are a few social media platforms companies use to interact with their audience.

Virtual domination requires a highly-specific and strategic approach to content marketing. Brands need to do more to set themselves apart from competitors.

One of the earliest examples of successful social media content marketing was BlendTec’s Will It Blend YouTube series in 2006.

Its videos of blenders destroying common household items achieved millions of views and helped it become a leader in its niche.

Besides social media, websites also play an important role in online visibility. Blogs, ebooks, reports, case studies and whitepapers offer different ways of reaching your target audience.

The increase in search engine usage led to the rise of SEO, an entire industry dedicated to creating content that ranks. Keywords, backlinks and well-written material became a must.

4 Takeaways From the History of Content Marketing

The history of content marketing has come a long way since the days of print and radio broadcasts.

Or has it?

Recently, there’s been an increase in brands publishing magazines and airing podcasts.

Does this mean history is actually repeating itself? Can we predict the next big thing in content marketing? What can we learn from our predecessors?

Here are four things the history of this marketing method teaches us:

1. Quality Counts

The quality of your content is more important than the quantity.

In other words, one or two high-quality pieces can boost your brand more than a dozen shoddy ones can.

Here’s how you can produce top-of-the-line content:

  • Create material that’s relevant to your target audience and focuses on your industry.
  • Form an emotional bond by telling engaging stories and connecting with your consumers.
  • Offer helpful and valuable advice, tips or information.
  • Explain how you can provide a solution to a problem through your product or service.
  • Ensure your material is error-free and grammatically correct.
  • Incorporate the latest social media trends.

2. Stand Out From the Crowd

How do you stand out in a saturated environment? By giving people something they can’t get anywhere else.

All landmark achievements in the history of content marketing transcended traditional norms. These successes were the result of courage, creativity and unconventional thinking.

What’s the takeaway? That valuable content needs to be original and daring.

Steal the show by offering different perspectives, providing better experiences or presenting new information that nobody else is talking about.

3. Stay Ahead of the Curve

The most successful content marketing examples came from companies that were the first to try something different.

Searching for new channels, marketing trends, and technological improvements can help you develop innovative ideas and bold strategies.

Remember, every reward has a risk. But as history has shown us, you need to be brave to achieve your goals.

4. Create Emotional Connections

Spurring an emotional reaction makes it easier for your consumers to keep returning, as your product means something to them.

Mascots and other familiar faces help your audience connect with your brand on a deeper level. Choose relevant characters to represent your brand and send the right message.

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Stay Hip

Trends may come and go, but history has shown us they have a funny way of repeating themselves.

Content marketing is far from static. It’s a constantly-evolving industry that interacts with technological advances and societal changes to create new ways of doing things.

The only way to keep up is by moulding and shaping your brand along with the times.

Want to ensure your business stays on top of the latest developments? Contact Hippo Thinks to find out how a solid content marketing strategy can help your company grow.


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