Lessons Learned from the Great Content Marketing Pioneers


Whether you’re a B2B or a B2C marketer, content marketing all boils down to one thing: engagement. You want to pull consumers into your brand, with the ultimate goal of turning them into customers or brand evangelists. While most marketers understand this, the real struggle is putting it into practice. What kind of content do consumers want to see? How can you improve brand image through content? What does it take to ensure that your content will break through the clutter and find the right eyes and ears?

Okay, now breathe. When you first start brainstorming a content marketing strategy, sometimes all you need are a few good examples to help light the way. Luckily, content marketing is actually nothing new, and there are well over 100 years of examples that we can pull from for inspiration. Looking back at some of the “content marketing pioneers” can give us some remarkably relevant insight into modern-day content marketing strategy.

Let’s take a look at two important examples in the history of content marketing: John Deere’s The Furrow magazine and United Colors of Benetton’s Colors.

The Furrow

If you want to talk about a content marketing pioneer, you can’t go much farther back than John Deere (unless you want to get into the whole caveman-art thing, which has been argued by some to be the first instance of a custom “publication”). In 1895, John Deere began publishing The Furrow, a magazine designed for farmers and ranchers. The reason this was so revolutionary was that the magazine was aimed not at selling John Deere products, but at educating farmers about new technologies and business ownership.

Sound familiar? You’re looking at the birth of content marketing as we know it today. The magazine was met with great success, and was eventually accompanied by a second magazine, called Homestead, which was created to help people get the most out of country living and contained articles about horse care, landscaping, and more. The two magazines are now published in 12 languages in more than 40 countries, and are available in print and digital copies.

If we’ve learned one thing about content marketing from John Deere, it’s that a good (and agile) content marketing strategy can last. The key is to really nail down what your consumers will find beneficial, and what medium will be the most attractive to them (which would explain why The Furrow has also been made available online). If you’re a B2B marketer, consider doing some research into which topics your consumers are most interested in, or the pain points that they struggle with the most. It may be that a series of webinars would be the best way to engage with your audience, or perhaps a video library, white paper, or even an industry publication of your own! Find out what works best for your audience, and do what you can to cater to their preferences. After all, content marketing is about your audience, not about you.


Let’s fast forward to a more recent (yet still pre-Internet marketing) example: Colors magazine. First published in 1991, the magazine examines social issues around the world through photography and first-person interviews. Each issue of Colors is free of bylines, news, or celebrities, and is instead populated by the stories of everyday heroes across the globe. And the most interesting part of it all? Colors is funded and produced by United Colors of Benetton, a clothing company.

While Colors has been both praised for its candid approach to social issues, and criticized for the same reason, it has never been described as “ineffective” as a marketing tool. In fact, the magazine has been translated into 15 different languages and has become a point of reference for advertisers and marketers alike.

What can modern-day marketers learn from Benetton’s Colors magazine? The key takeaway is the importance of having a powerful message supporting an even more powerful brand identity. While Colors has undoubtedly alienated some people who are uncomfortable with its content, it has also developed a loyal following of brand evangelists, who see the company’s willingness to cover social issues not related to their business as a positive reflection on their brand. To achieve the same kind of following for your company, consider coming up with a content strategy that’s completely transparent, and give your consumers a real glimpse into the people and emotions that drive your brand.

While these are just two great examples of content marketing pioneers, there are many more out there that today’s marketers can learn from. What other parallels can you draw between John Deere, the United Colors of Benetton, and content marketing? Let us know in the comments!

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