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The Draw(backs) of Using a Predictable Formula in Content Marketing

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It’s dark, even though the sun’s out—almost muted, as if the world lost the ability to display any hue at full vibrancy. But somehow that makes everything more real. The streets are downright filthy, and everyone speaks in a rough, distorted voice. Your parents are probably dead.

Is this The Twilight Zone?

No. You’ve just entered the gritty reboot of your own life. But trust Hollywood; this is what you want. Test audiences said so.

Whether you’re looking at movies, books, or even content marketing, it’s hard not to find ideas and tropes that seem as though they’ll be around forever. And while there’s certainly a benefit to following the content formulas these can provide, will it be truly beneficial to content creators in the long run?

A heavily graffitied underpass

Image attribution: Katie Barrett 

The Age of the Gritty Reboot

I think Christopher Nolan is an amazing director, but I kind of want to punch him right in his British face for bringing about the film industry’s current obsession with the so-called dark, gritty reboot. Obviously I won’t; for one thing, I have no idea how to find him. The idea of remaking an old story so that it’s grittier (read: more realistic) certainly wasn’t new when Nolan took on the Batman film franchise. But after the success of his take on the Caped Crusader, studios went wild trying to rough up their worlds.

Here’s a quick handful of things that have been rebooted, gritty style: the Daniel Craig-led 007 movies, the new Planet of the Apes series, the absymally received Fantastic Four film from 2015, and all the Netflix Marvel shows. I’ve even watched a gritty, horror take on the story of Sleeping Beauty—trust me, you don’t want to know.

There’s nothing wrong with the gritty reboot at its core—my favorite book series, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked Years, is arguably a gritty take on the story of the Wicked Witch of the West and the aftermath of Dorothy’s visit to Oz. People like seeing familiar stories turned on their heads and made to feel like they’re a little closer to home. What they take issue with is when it seems like they’re being fed the same content formulas over and over again.

Content by Numbers

As my intro would suggest, there’s a certain look and feel to a gritty reboot. You know it the second you see it. When you hear that a certain story is being made to be grittier, you can conjure up what the end result will likely be. You know the equation by heart at this point.

This is the draw of content formulas for creatives. They take a pre-built schematic, often one that has a certain grouping of characters and a certain setting, and flesh it out with their own ideas. This is how the concept of genre was arguably built. In a keynote speech at a literary conference in 2013, author Neil Gaiman brought up Westerns to illustrate how genre works as a means to the end. “If the plot exists to get you from the lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western,” he said. “If those are simply things that happen on the way, and the plot […] can do without them […], then it’s a novel set in the old West.”

By using these semi-established guidelines, content creators can feel secure in knowing that they’re delivering what’s tested positively in the past. That’s certainly a good strategy . . . for a while. But when it comes to repetition, audiences’ memories aren’t as short-term as you’d like them to be. Movie goers in particular are likely to start pointing out all the similiarities and cribbed tactics, wondering what happened to innovation.

While it’s harder to see the strings when it comes to content marketing, there’s definitely a benefit to companies breaking away from the traditional expectations to deliver something a little different to their consumers. In the same keynote speech, Gaiman said that genre’s advantage is that “it gives you something to play to and to play against.” It seems like content creators of all shades have gotten comfortable with the former, but they need a little help with the latter.

Hands gripping a wire fence

Image attribution: Mitchel Lensink

Don’t Become a Slave to Content Formulas

Doing something new, especially when dollar-dollar bills are on the line, is definitely scary. Content ceators often need evidence to support their left-field ideas; otherwise, they better get back to the program. But deciding to do something a bit more innovative can have big results.

Look at Your Man—Now Look at This Ad Campaign

Consider when Old Spice, a men’s grooming product company, introduced the ads starring a shirtless Isaiah Mustafa addressing women back in February 2010.

This was a fairly bold campaign. The product was undoubtedly for men—the campaign tagline was “Smell Like a Man, Man”—but when the company realized that women actually buy the majority of body products, they decided to forego their usual marketing by targeting women as well. And it worked. The first commercial was a gigantic success, garnering buzz and shares. Within the first three months, sales rose by 55 percent; in fact, in July 2010, sales jumped a staggering 107 percent!

Reflecting the Fluidity of Today’s World

In the way that Old Spice shook things up by addressing a group that didn’t even buy its product traditionally, Thinx, a company that makes “period-proof underwear” decided to shine a line on a group of invisible consumers: menstruating trans men. This blew the lid off the kind of gendered content formulas that gave us boy stuff = blue and girl stuff = pink. When Thinx began marketing to its entire consumer base, it started featuring ads with trans men sporting the product to not only normalize their menstruation but let them know there was something they could buy to help them out. While the company was recently facing bad PR surrounding workplace ethics, it can’t be denied that they shook things up by linking men with periods.

Flooding the Market (in a Good Way?)

Everyone knows the GEICO gecko. (Remember when he sounded vaguely Australian?) A few of you might even remember the GEICO cavemen—but I’m sure that ill-fated TV show has faded from the annals of our recollection, as it should have. But do you remember the time when the insurance company was running ads with not only these recognizable spokesmen but four other branded characters and/or gimmicks as well?

The talking pile of cash, miscellaneous objects that are apologizing for the accidents they caused, the rhetorical question guy—these are just some of the ad campaigns that were running simultaneously alongside the gecko and cavemen spots. Then there was the entirely separate campaign for motorcycle and RV insurance, and the “Good News!” one too. So. Much. GEICO!

It’s definitely a strategy for the record book: Just take a bunch of your standout ideas and do them all. The gecko may have been the one to stick the landing, but for a while there, GEICO was all over our TVs. This is obviously a technique that wouldn’t work for everyone—think of the costs!—but it certainly kicked content marketing formulas out the window simply by refusing to adhere to a single focus.

When it comes to formulaic content production, there is goodness built into it. The whole point of a formula is discovering what works, after all. But where content marketers need to stay vigilant is chasing the innovation factor. You can’t always guarantee that the reaction will be positive when you try something a little different, but hey—at least you’ll have given it a shot!

Just do me a favor and don’t go gritty.

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Featured image attribution: Alberto Triano

Nicole Lewis is a writer and editor with a fondness for young adult fiction and a background in journalism and education. Her work has appeared on the Barnes and Noble Teen blog.

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