Despite its prevalence, the power and purpose of content marketing still perplex many business owners. They equate content marketing with blogging, and they just can’t see how blogging could help any business grow, let alone theirs.

Content marketing is far broader than blogging—though blogging is sometimes included—and the goal is to build and strengthen relationships between your brand and your target audience. The best way to do that will vary dramatically from brand to brand and audience to audience, but the core of content marketing comes down to leading and participating in conversations that are emotionally important to your audience.

Though we do content marketing for nearly all of our clients, businesses are rarely willing to jump into content marketing with both feet. We often start slow, gradually building out a strategy and slowly implementing new tactics.

Inverted Gear did not start slow.

The Foundation for the Launch Pad

This case study will focus primarily on how we used a documentary to connect with our target audience in a meaningful, compelling way, but first, let’s establish some background on the business.

Inverted Gear makes uniforms, t-shirts, and training gear for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, a martial art similar to Judo or wrestling. Inverted Gear has been in business for several years, and has a strong U.S. presence and a growing international presence (with established distribution centers worldwide and more in the works). Their products are well-designed and durable, and they provide spectacular customer service.

The magic of the brand, however, is in how the owners connect with their audience. When we started working with Inverted Gear, Nelson and Hillary—the husband and wife team behind Inverted Gear—were already well-known in the jiu-jitsu community. Both have a strong competition history, and they regularly travel to visit new gyms and meet new grapplers. It was clear to us that Nelson and Hillary were what some business gurus describe as an “unfair competitive advantage.”

In other words, Nelson and Hillary created a special experience for their customers. If you were buying gis from Inverted Gear, you would probably meet Nelson and Hillary in person at some point, or you would meet one of their sponsored athletes who could easily share a few laugh-worthy stories about their adventures with the Inverted Gear owners. That component of the brand, the faces behind it, was something that no competitor would be able to mimic.

So, we doubled down on that from the beginning (and to be fair, there was a great deal of momentum in place before we were ever in the picture). While we won’t give away every ingredient of the secret sauce, we can say that we made Nelson and Hillary as individuals a component of virtually all of the brand’s communication. For example, small adjustments like signing off marketing emails as being directly from Nelson or Hillary (or both) mattered, and our testing proved it. But big things mattered to, like filming video responses to newbie questions about the sport and sharing more personal stories from Nelson and Hillary on the Inverted Gear website.

Our audience already loved Nelson and Hillary. We just made them more accessible.

What a Brand Stands For

Relationships are compelling because they inject a greater meaning into every interaction. When you equate the Inverted Gear brand with Nelson and Hillary, having your question answered or problem solved by Nelson or Hillary themselves immediately elevates that experience. Not only did you find a solution, but that solution was delivered by someone you respect and might even admire, which is completely different from a faceless customer service rep walking you through their conflict resolution script.

As we poured more energy into strengthening the brand’s relationships with its audience, we opened the door to tell deeper and more powerful stories about the brand because our customers weren’t just buying products, they were joining a community, and we had the opportunity to lead that community and establish what it stood for.

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Panda Nation, as Inverted Gear fans took to calling themselves, was the anti-meathead community. Launched at a time when other fight brands covered their products with skulls and angry sequins (yes, there is such a thing), Inverted Gear featured a goofy panda. The people the brand attracted tended to be friendly, laid back, a bit goofy themselves, and probably a bit nerdy too (many Inverted Gear sponsored athletes are also avid Magic: The Gathering players, a competitive card game). These were martial artists who saw the potential for good in the sport and who work in their own ways to make themselves and their communities better through the art.

And this was in line with Nelson and Hillary’s character as individuals. Long before Inverted Gear was an international brand, Nelson was asking Tap Cancer Out—a jiu-jitsu themed nonprofit that uses tournaments and events to fundraise for various cancer charities—if he could help in some way. Not only did Nelson believe in giving back, but his mother had faced breast cancer, and that made the cause doubly important to him.

That combination—a genuine passion for a cause coupled with a brand that already promotes friendship and community—is a treasure trove of content marketing opportunities.

The Anti-Commercial

In its efforts to support the jiu-jitsu community, Inverted Gear sponsors athletes and events. One of those events is Polaris Pro, a UK-based professional grappling organization that flies in grapplers from around the world for its competitions, which they then live-stream online. For their most recent event, Polaris struck a deal with the UFC to stream the event through the FightPass platform, which is essentially the combat sport equivalent of Netflix.

For Inverted Gear, this was another opportunity to grow their audience and to deepen connections with the fans they already had. We signed on as a sponsor, which meant that our logo would be on event materials and two 1-minute commercials would play throughout the event (airing probably 10 to 15 times a piece over the course of all the matches).

We hit the drawing board and started to brainstorm commercial ideas. Should we promote a product? How about a sale? How about a highlight video of a few of our sponsored athletes wearing our products set to some upbeat music?

No, no, and definitely no. There are hundreds of gear brands catering to jiu-jitsu athletes, and the top brands would also be sponsoring Polaris. If we wanted our commercial to standout, we had to strike off in a completely different direction from our competitors. And we knew that we should continue to build on the goodwill that had drove the brand’s success thus far.

We went back through our most shared and most viewed blog posts for ideas, and one stood out: The story Nelson told about his mother facing cancer and how that inspired Inverted Gear’s partnership with Tap Cancer Out. Right there we had the makings of something unique and on brand: Nelson’s personal family stories were there, the content was emotionally engaging (downright tear-jerking), and the cause spoke to something far bigger than t-shirts or shorts, talking instead about real problems that many Inverted Gear fans faced themselves directly or indirectly.

What if our commercials were not an advertisement for products at all. What if they were trailers for a documentary about Inverted Gear, Tap Cancer Out, and their fight against cancer?

Yes, that was definitely an approach that no other brand would take because it was something only our brand had the ingredients to pull off.

The Execution

We hired a videographer, roughed out a framework for how we would tell the story—interviewing Nelson, his mother, and Jon Thomas, the founder of Tap Cancer Out. We drove around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut to get the material we needed, and then we cut two trailers and a mini-documentary.

And here is the documentary:

The trailers aired during Polaris Pro 5, and then we shared them again on our social media the week after, followed by plugging the documentary to our email list and uploading the video directly to Facebook (taking advantage of Facebook’s algorithmic preference for video hosted natively on its platform). When a new shipment of co-branded products lands at the Tap Cancer Out warehouse in the coming weeks, Tap Cancer Out will use similar tactics to share the documentary through their channels, sparking a third wave of interest in the content.

This is content marketing at its best, and it exemplifies why content marketing not only matters but is often more effective than conventional marketing tactics:

  • Prospects and customers can sense sincerity, and they respond accordingly. If your brand does not truly believe in what it attempts to stand for, the messaging will fall flat.
  • People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it (Simon Sinek’s Start with Why). Brands are powerful because consumers want their purchases to mean something and to be a part of their identity.
  • Partnerships and collaborations open new doors. Content marketing is driven by interaction and conversation, which means that you often have to work with people outside of your brand to develop something compelling, which can also mean doubling your audience when you do.
  • Being different means taking risks. The safe bet is to follow the status quo of your space, but if you want to standout and rise above you have to be okay with the fact that some ideas might flop.
  • Good guys do prosper. If your brand is actively trying to do the right thing, your content will naturally reflect that and customers will notice.
  • One primary piece of content (like a documentary), can be used in multiple ways. You can cut it into smaller videos, pull out stills, share it with your email list, share “making of” photos, share material that didn’t make the final cut, and share the content through partner channels as well.
  • Organic marketing tactics might be slower, but the roots run deeper. When a customer comes to your brand because of what you stand for, they will be more loyal than the customers who came to you because you ran a great sale.
  • Layers matter. To get to the point of launching a documentary, we had to do a lot of audience and relationship building. That can take time.

Again, as we said at the top of the case study, how exactly your brand executes content marketing will be unique to the brand, but these principles will likely play a role.

Other Brands Doing Good

We are fortunate to work with multiple clients who make giving back to their communities a part of their brand and a part of their work. We aren’t necessarily driving the activity or strategy behind all of the following examples, but they are still worth highlighting.

  • The PT Services Group recently fundraised to purchase back to school supplies for area children in need.
  • Dugan & Associates is encouraging their fans to contribute to Harvey relief.
  • Dr. A is also supporting Harvey relief, using his role as co-founder of Optavia to drive awareness.
  • RedTree Web Design developed a community website, pro bono, to help local businesses.

What can your brand do?

A Cause Close to Me: Washington County Watershed Alliance

In the spirit of doing good, today (9/12/2017) is Washington County’s “Day of Giving,” which is an opportunity for nonprofits to receive matching funds for donations made between 8 am and 8 pm today. I’m on the board for the Washington County Watershed Alliance, and if you have a few dollars to spare, your donation could go a long way toward protecting the rivers, streams, and lakes in Washington County.

Go here and donate to the Washington County Watershed Alliance if you’d like to give.