King Content Is A Southpaw

Marketers Need New Trainers To Help Unlock Their Potential
In 1969, in a Brockton, Massachusetts gym, a middle-aged boxing trainer, and former welterweight, would teach a young contender a valuable skill. This skill would ultimately help the younger fighter become one of the greatest middleweight champions of all time. In doing so, the trainer provided modern marketers a simple blueprint for effectively achieving marketing innovation.

Guerino “Goody” Petronelli was born into a close-knit boxing community that included Goody’s close friend, Rocco Francis Marchegiano — a.k.a Rocky Marciano. But Goody’s own legacy became established not by what he did in the ring, but what he did beside it.

The destruction caused from the 1967 Newark Riots would force many families to abandon their tenement housing. One family in particular, the Haglers, relocated to Brockton. Two years later, at the tender age of 13, a young Marvin Nathaniel Hagler — a.k.a Marvelous Marvin — joined the Petronelli Gym and became Goody’s project.

From Orthodox to Southpaw
Upon arrival, Marvin was an orthodox boxer, but Goody saw a potential in him that would make him virtually unbeatable. And Marvelous Marvin was. He lost only three bouts out of 67, with an astonishing 84 percent of his wins coming by knockout. And some, including Marvin, still contend it’s really only two defeats.

Marvin was naturally right-handed and, as an orthodox boxer, his instinct was to lead with his recessive left foot and hand to set up his more power-packed right. Goody introduced Marvin to the southpaw method. Southpaw forces a right-handed boxer to become equally effective, if not more so with his left hand.

This required Marvin to lead with his dominant right foot and right hand. But even more challenging, he had to develop the ability to deliver a decisive blow with his recessive left. Southpaw arms a boxer with more than just another punch. It instills an unpredictability that is exponentially potent. Marvin learned to switch from orthodox to southpaw instantaneously, exactly when his tactics called for it.

But learning, or rather unlearning, isn’t easy. When was the last time you tried to throw a ball, write your name or even brush your teeth with your recessive hand? Now imagine boxing with that hand. Marvin had to adjust the polarity of his entire body, from the unnatural feeling of cocking and uncoiling his entire left side to the ability to accurately deliver that wrong-sided power to a moving target.  It took time and training before Marvin could successfully harness this new ability. But Marvin Hagler would go on to become one of the greatest ambidextrous boxers in history.

“Don’t Call It a Comeback”
The story of Goody and Marvelous is particularly relevant to our current world of marketing and advertising. Modern content marketing is challenging the methodology highly-orthodox marketing organizations are currently employing to persuade their consumers.

2012 has been THE YEAR of content marketing by far. Whether you agree, or you feel there has been too much hype over something that has been around for years, you’re right. But the true spirit of content marketing had been put into a catatonic state for more than four decades by the birth and institutionalizing of the “Mad-Men-style” advertising format. The Madison Avenue right hand grew so dominant, our industry almost entirely forgot how to use the left. But “King Content” is back with a vengeance. And here’s the real news flash that can no longer be ignored — it’s back by popular audience demand!

Conditioning Can Be Exhausting
Goody didn’t teach Marvin so much as he reprogrammed him. Goody understood that the capability was there, but he had to help Marvin recondition a reflexive process, which required a focused regimen. But trainer and pupil possessed the courage to commit. The insight here for marketing professionals is this — the very conversation around the process of modern content marketing can be fatiguing and debilitating for institutional marketers who have become “hard-coded.”

It’s fundamentally no different than trying to teach a mature right-handed adult to now do everything with the left hand. Try this experiment. Pick up a pen and write your name with your dominant hand.  Now switch the pen to your other hand and prepare to write your name. The awkwardness is instantaneous. It’s like you just brought the positive poles of two magnets together and they want to repel each other. Your inner polarity is disrupted, and you’re compelled to put the pen back in the correct hand with as much velocity as a stretched rubber band snapping back to shape.

Initial conversations around content marketing with orthodox marketers are often just as instantaneously awkward. And the instinct is to discontinue, to put off the awkward conversation, or to move the pen back into the hand in which it feels best.

Rewiring Marketers
How do orthodox marketing organizations overcome this institutionalized aversion to content marketing? How do they build up the tolerance to the awkwardness, to sustain the commitment to just understand content marketing? The solution is no different than how Goody helped Marvin become a Southpaw.  It requires two things:

  1. A New Context
  2. Focused Repetition

Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith’s character in Rocky) rewired Rocky Balboa in “Rocky II.” Mickey tied up Rocky’s dominant hand and forced him to punch the bag with his weaker hand — 500 times.

Tying Rocky’s dominant hand instantaneously reframed Rocky’s context. The organizational equivalent would be to tie down a brand’s first-person narrative. NO MORE COPY! None. Zero. Zilch. No product benefits, no claims or features and NO LOGO. Can you feel the instantaneous awkwardness? It’s utterly debilitating.

So how does a brand connect with consumers with its first-person narrative tied down? With a story. Brands tend to default to copywriters to craft that story, but copywriting should be tied down, too. It’s time to turn to a professional storyteller.

Successful storytellers place 100 percent of their focus on the audience. Strangely, this simple concept feels unintuitive to orthodox marketers. When marketers take a Southpaw stance for the first time, the confidence drops precipitously. Immediately it becomes difficult to understand how a “non-branded” article or video will be able to persuade. But it’s stories that consumers want. Seventy-three percent of consumers prefer to get information from a company in the form of articles versus ads. It’s ironic that providing consumers what they’re actually looking for can be perceived as ineffectual.

Once the first story gets consumed and then shared, the awkwardness subsides. Indeed, it starts to feel normal. The left hand starts to look just as effective as the right hand. It just goes about doing the job differently.

Brands Need New Trainers
It’s obvious when your dominant arm is tied down. Balancing orthodox, “Mad-Men” copy to content marketing’s Southpaw editorial often requires new skill sets, new methodologies and new partners.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fight Southpaw with an orthodox mindset and resources. You need a new trainer. A chief content officer. You need a new mission. An editorial mission. You need a new creative director. A journalist.

And the organization must commit to this new regimen. “Hard-coded,” orthodox marketing is difficult to unlearn. Organizations can’t put it off until tomorrow, or enter into the editorial space half-hearted. Storytelling requires an everyday, twice a day, focus.

The Right AND the Left
Some prominent marketing organizations have learned to be content marketing Southpaws. American Express, Kraft Foods and Liberty Mutual Insurance, are just a few of the brands that, to varying degrees, are incorporating Southpaw into their marketing strategies. They’re using content in the form of copy AND editorial to engage and persuade their audience. And organizations such as Coca-Cola and Red Bull have switched almost entirely to Southpaw to reach their strategic marketing objectives.

The retraining and ongoing regimens these organizations have each undertaken were similar. At some point, they all tied their right arms to their sides. And in doing so, these brands became comfortable with an editorial approach to marketing. It’s enabling their organizations to become ambidextrous marketers.

Whether it’s boxing or marketing, a balanced approach can be unbeatable. Regardless of whether or not you lead with your right, having two options brings marketers many new opportunities to connect with consumers. Although, if Goody Petronelli were here today, I’m sure he’d say, “lead with your right.”

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David Germano
David Germano

David is the VP of Content Marketing for Empower Media Marketing, and runs Empower's Content Marketing division, Magnetic Content Studios. For more than 14 years, David has been helping brands develop sustained content marketing strategies and operate like media to build their own audiences. David is often speaking on the topic, and is a guest contributor to Content Marketing Institute.