Content Marketing

How Early 20th Century Businesses Got Big With Content Marketing

Early 1900s CM

badge-guest-post-FLATTERContrary to what many digital marketers think, the emergence of the Internet did not give birth to content marketing – it just enhanced its accessibility.

The truth is content marketing has been around for a long time – since the late 19th century to be exact.

It can be as simple as sending out an educational publication to a target audience. That’s what some businesses have done to reach sales in the millions and billions of dollars. The goal of this blog post is not to just inundate you with historical context but to show you what we can learn from the business giants of the past that not only used content marketing but succeeded with it.

The Earliest Content Marketing Pioneers

In 1895, John Deere started publishing a magazine called “The Furrow”. The purpose was to educate farmers on how to better manage their crops (as opposed to publishing purely to promote John Deere products).

It was published during a time when there was no television, radio, or Internet. The printing press was starting to be used and applied across the world, and magazines were a great way to reach out to your audience with something tangible to read.

John Deere published this magazine for the purpose of educating and not selling. By providing this content to ordinary farmers and ranchers, John Deere wanted to be a thought leader and used content marketing to closely align farming with their brand.

Intrinsically, people don’t like to be ‘sold’ on a product. ‘The Furrow” spoke to farmers and homeowners about farming and producing with the assumption that they either had the tools to farm or were in the market for them.

“The Furrow” is now published in over 40 countries and in 12 languages. It has been fully built out online and related content is published over their social media channels. John Deere established their brand as synonymous with farming and that helped grow sales.

Michelin’s Guide To Everything Cars

For another great content marketing allegory, let’s keep our pages turned to the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. For contextual purposes, let me offer a few data points:

  • There were only a few thousand cars in all of France
  • Tire manufacturers could not advertise the purchase of tires because their product was tied down by the growth of the car industry
  • They could only grow their businesses if more cars were on the road

In 1900, Michelin Tires created “The Michelin Guide”, a 400 page document dedicated to educating car owners about the best ways to take care of their vehicles and maintain their tires. It even offered travel and accommodation tips, encouraging people to use their cars. The publication was distributed for free but was later sold for a price.

How did this publication drive sales? By encouraging people to travel more by car, deep down, Michelin was encouraging people to wear out their tires and, consequentially, replace them with Michelin tires.

Content brings prospective customers closer to a brand. (tweet this)

The content itself does not need to sell directly, but it does play a role in eventually providing value that creates sales in the future. Michelin’s goal was to build long lasting relationships with customers so that when they were ready to replace a related part, they thought about Michelin.

Jell-O’s Last Hope: Content Marketing

In 1904, Jell-O owner Frank Woodward was having a tough time managing his gelatin company. The business was on life support and struggling to break even. He had tried everything.

What was his eleventh hour idea? Content marketing.

Well, I’m sure he didn’t say those words exactly, but he created a publication of Jell-O-centered recipes. Suggestions on how to creatively make a masterpiece using Jell-O were given and sure enough, people used them.

These recipes became a success and company sales grew to $1 million by 1906 – a large amount of money at the time!

To this day, people still consume Jell-O in a variety of ways. People still use those recipes and they’re synonymous with the average childhood. Jell-O’s content marketing strategy has passed the test of time with flying colors.

Based on early history, we can learn that content marketing works. If it worked for the biggest of companies in the early 20th century, it can work for you in 2014.

Facebook Comments


  1. says


    Nice historical perspective on “content marketing”.

    Im curious, do you have any studies to support the assertion that “intrinsically, people don’t want to be sold to”?

    I ask because I can think of a number of companies who sell prolifically without the aid of educational content.

    Is Inbound or Content marketing more of a philosophical preference than a method proven scientifically to be better than other tactics? And does it also depend on the segment of the market you are targeting?

    • Ramesh Ranjan says

      Hi Vincent,

      Thanks for the comment. The “don’t want to be sold” point was a sales psychology reference. People don’t want to be sold to – they want to be autonomous in decision-making. They want to feel confident in making a purchasing decision. That’s simply a sales comment.

      Tying in content marketing, offering prospects useful, valuable content either builds trust or directly helps them make that decision. These are things that companies like John Deere and Jell-O have succeeded in doing. That’s not to say that companies can’t sell without educational content.

      Regarding your last question – it’s a bit of both. There are a bunch of instances where companies are ditching some of the traditional ad spend in favour of Inbound channels. For example, in a study done by Inbound Marketing Agents, 32% of brands polled are decreasing their spend on outbound marketing solely to increase their spend on content marketing.

      Here’s the source plus more facts indicating this trend:

      What has your experience been like with content or Inbound marketing?

      • says

        I personally am a HUGE fan of Inbound and Content marketing as a whole. I am totally bought into it, and that is what I do for my clients.

        Sales, however, is where I spent the majority of my over 20 year business career.

        So, I know there is a shift. Buyers are certainly becoming more aware of things. But I have also experienced directly, both selling for, and being sold to, companies that could care less about the prospect and still sell a ton.

        I think it is getting harder to do. But I think people consciously would say they don’t like to be sold to, but subconsciously are fully capable of being “influenced”.

        My comments and questions are centered more around the notion that things like trust and educational content are prerequisites for profit. Sadly, I don’t think either are.

        But that is why I made it a philosophical choice vs a business imperative. More and more, we are coming closer to it being a business imperative, but for now, it is a simple matter of good vs bad profit.

        I appreciate the response.

  2. simonsanders says

    Nice contextual point….though in fact, the Old Testament was probably the earliest form of content marketing. Certainly, along with the follow-up – cunningly titled the New Testament – the Bible went p-r-e-t-t-y viral. Not only that, but since packaged together, I believe the combined work is still year-on-year the best-selling book in the world. Attests to the awesome (literally) power of story-telling.

    • Samuel says

      Great point! And in the centuries following to present day we see content campaigns around specific principles delivered by the bible.

    • Ramesh Ranjan says

      You’re spot-on, Simon! It certainly was the first example of content marketing. I did notice it in my research for this post but opted to focus on companies that started where many Convince and Convert readers are currently – to show where they can go with content marketing done right! No question that the Bible was and has been an extremely successful content marketing campaign.

      What have you tried or done content marketing-wise and which of the campaigns in the post did you find most interesting?

  3. rvobrien says

    Excellent post Ramesh. Insightful to see the history behind content marketing and that it is not just an invention of the past few years. Who would you point to as an example of doing content well today? Are Adobe’s and red bull example of firms doing content well?

    • Ramesh Ranjan says

      Thanks for the comment! In our industry, I see HubSpot and Moz as companies doing content marketing extremely well. Adobe’s CMO is a great example as well. Great content can come in a variety of forms. Obviously, books and magazine-type publications were big back in the days of John Deere and Michelin. But companies like HubSpot and Moz do e-books, whitepapers, on-site guides, and webinars REALLY well, in my opinion. Both companies cater to slightly different audiences but the quality of the content they produce is very high and valuable to their buyer persona(s).

      • says

        Super super agree. There isn’t a Digital marketer alive who doesn’t use HubSpot of Moz as a resource eventually and thats due to excellent content and resources. When you become a source for other sources, you know you are doing content marketing correctly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *