“It’s getting very, very difficult for product companies and services companies to differentiate … Content allows you to do that. That is the biggest opportunity.”
I often think about this view that Robert Rose shared in the documentary, The Story of Content: Rise of the New Marketing.
Do you market a product or service that is a commodity? I can’t think of a better example of a commodity than a white T-shirt. How much is there to say about a white T-shirt? Is it even possible to make it different?
You may be surprised.
One approach to differentiate your products and services is to be transparent, which is disclosing – and, even better, telling a story about – some aspect of your brand. Take Everlane, an online clothing and accessories retailer whose tagline is Radical Transparency. (Hat tip to our marketing VP, Cathy McPhillips, for passing along the example.)
Be transparent to differentiate your products and services from your competition via @michelelinn #storytelling
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When you look at Everlane’s About page, you see how deep the story is behind the basic white T-shirt – and how compelling it makes the product.
Let’s walk through Everlane’s story to see what a powerful role transparency can play as a differentiator. And, read on for other examples of transparency as well, from brands both big and small.
Transparency about sourcing
Transparency about where products are manufactured has grown in importance over the last 20 to 30 years since the global problem of sweatshop labor was exposed and consumers became more concerned about the origin of their purchases. However, transparency (think: Patagonia Footprint Chronicles) is still a rarity – and it’s something Everlane is executing really well.
Every item on the website includes the story about the factory where the clothing is manufactured. The shopping page includes a brief description of the factory, as seen below.
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You also can read more about every factory Everlane uses. In fact, where the clothes come from is such an integral part of Everlane’s story that it’s a main navigation item on the website:
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And you can dig into all of the factories. Here is information about the factory that manufactures the white T-shirt.
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As you read the story, you learn details about how long the factory has been in existence, how Everlane came to work with it, what materials it uses, information about the owner, and how many people work there. There are also more than a dozen photos that show the factory in operation.
Why this type of transparency works: Socially conscious consumers actively look to purchase products whose origins they feel good about. Being up-front about where items are sourced is useful in industries where there are ethical or health considerations. In fashion and consumer goods, there’s a lot of pressure to use labor and materials responsibly. In foods/restaurants and beauty products, there’s the pressure to disclose ingredients, if/how animals were used in testing, etc.
Other examples: Here are a couple high-profile brands that leverage sourcing/ingredient transparency in their operations and marketing:
- Panera includes calorie counts on the menus, has a plan for “cleaning up” ingredients in the food, and publishes a Responsibility Report that details its values.
- McDonald’s has a site devoted to answering tough customer questions such as those about the origins of its meat.
Transparency about pricing
Not only does Everlane show where the clothes come from, but it also is transparent about price. It breaks down how much it costs to make each product – and even reveals the company’s profits. Here is the example for our basic white T-shirt.
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Why this type of transparency works: Customers believe businesses that are transparent about pricing are not taking advantage of them. They want to work with a company that’s honest and forthright.
Another example: While being transparent about pricing may see like it is something more easily achieved by consumer brands, B2B companies also can be transparent about costs. For instance, Buffer’s transparency extends to famously disclosing everyone’s salaries.
Transparency about experiences
While Everlane is one of my favorite examples of transparency in business, there are many other ways to be transparent.
For instance, you can share what your audience truly thinks about your brand. Why would you want to do this? It shows your readers that you really care about all feedback – and that you’re always interested in making strides to improve.
One great example of this is the Moz Blog reader surveys. After asking its readers for their opinions and looking at the analytics, the Moz Blog reports on its blog the findings– not only reader demographics, but how much time people spend on the blog, and how satisfied readers are with its content. Pretty impressive that Moz publishes what so many other companies would keep private.
Why this type of transparency works: People want to buy from brands and people who are relatable and trustworthy. By sharing what works – and what doesn’t – your audience feels like part of an authentic experience.
Another example: Buffer does more than share salaries. Its blog is devoted to transparency in its business, discussing what has and has not worked. Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne even shares his perspective on the ups and downs of being transparent. As he says, a lot can be gained from sharing your authentic experiences, but challenges arise as your thinking evolves and earlier transparent stories may no longer accurately represent the current brand.
Sounds great in theory but doesn’t seem feasible?
Is transparency a solution for every brand? Not necessarily, but chances are you have an opportunity to build transparency into your story more than you may think. You may not be able to share things such as revenue and salaries, but think about what you can be transparent about – and build stories around those topics.
Just as you should not share all aspects about your personal life on social media, chances are you shouldn’t jump into sharing every detail about your brand. Here are some ideas on getting started:
Be deliberate: Ask what should be shared and what value transparency brings to your readers and company. What specifically should you share, and how does it help your readers? How can you improve your customer experience? In the Everlane example, the experience has gone from a simple checkbox of “I need a white T-shirt” to “I feel good about how much I am spending and who it is supporting.”
Have a contingency plan: How do you want to continue to tell your story in a transparent way if something changes? For example, detailing pricing including profits is admirable, but what happens when the cost of goods changes or the procurement team hears from unhappy vendors upset that their pricing was revealed publicly? Note: You can’t simply sit with the marketing team and decide to go transparent. Involve others and get executive sign-off.
Be authentic: Sharing everything isn’t necessarily valuable to the audience or to businesses. For example, only share salaries if there’s a point. Perhaps you want to show salary equality or responsible compensation, which can be a great way to engender support for your brand. But, if you are simply doing this as “click-bait,” chances are it will be seen as a marketing ploy and you’ll lose support for your brand.
Brand Backstory: Where Your Content Marketing Strategy Is Born
What other examples can you share of brands that are transparent with their content? The more examples we can learn from as a community, the more we can differentiate our brands.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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