Why and How to Build a Media Company Around Your Brand

How challenger brands drive disruptive growth by thinking and acting like media companies

Building a business is hard. There’s so much that goes into getting people to part with their money and hand it over to you. First, you need a great product (which by the way, everyone says they have and most do!). I always like to say that the best marketing IS a great product. But usually, a great product just isn’t enough. It’s 2022 – you can’t just build something good, even great, and expect that people will come. There are SO many options for people to solve the needs and wants they have. How do you stand out in a sea of sameness?

You stand out with a great brand that supports and furthers the great product you’ve built. One of my pet peeves is what I call marketing for the sake of marketing. I’m an accidental marketer. I fell into this industry and this role. And actually, I wouldn’t even call myself a marketer! I’m fascinated and motivated by how businesses grow (or don’t). I love to build businesses – the ones I’m in and the ones I work with. I love and have learned a thing or two about marketing because marketing is a means to an end for how you grow a business. Great businesses, the ones that realize their full potential and maximize growth, are the ones that have great products and great marketing (see Monzo, Wise, Deliveroo, etc – really any of the ‘household name’ challengers out there – they’ve succeeded because of product AND brand).

I believe marketing is simple: it’s about a few fundamentals done well over time. For all the talk and trends about new marketing models and methods, they’re just different versions of the same tried and true principles. Marketing is about changing perception and behaviour to drive the growth of a business. And while media, technology, culture and competition have all changed tremendously in the last decades, human beings haven’t. If you have a strong story to tell and you tell it in ways and in places that people care about, you can shift perception and behaviour. But simple doesn’t mean easy….

Delivering business results through marketing is harder than it’s ever been. Consumers have more choices than ever before, which means they have higher expectations, not just for the quality, accessibility and price of products and services, but also for the purpose, promise, and experience of brands. Your offering needs to do more, but your brand does too. And before you can even have a chance to tell your story, you need people to pay attention to you. Good luck with that! Every brand (and person) is now pumping out huge volumes of content. Fun fact, 1.5 quintillion bytes* of content is created online (not to mention all the offline stuff) every day. That includes 682 million tweets, 4 million hours of YouTube videos, 67M Instagram posts, and 4.3B (that’s a B) Facebook posts**. User and brand-generated content bleed together in digital feeds so that it is easy to ignore, skip or avoid paid advertisements. You still need to deliver the right message at the right time, but now you can’t even count on having the attention of the consumer, even when you pay to get in front of them.

For all the talk and focus on brand purpose, creative campaigns, viral stunts and all the other buzzwords most marketers (and certainly agencies) want to throw at you, there’s one fundamental truth that doesn’t get talked about enough: attention is the scarcest, most valuable, and by far most important commodity in the modern marketing marketplace. If you don’t have the attention of the audience you’re trying to reach, you have no shot at influencing them. Attention needs to be the focus of the modern marketer and growth teams.

Here’s where the media company model comes in…Media companies are attention businesses. Their entire business model is built on being able to attract, retain, and then monetize attention. If you need attention, why not take and apply the model best designed to deliver it? And if you look closely, this is exactly what the brands that are winning in this new landscape are doing. Looks at all the free content that Hubspot puts out. And/or the massive marketing conference they throw every year. They even acquired a media company last year (you can build it or you can buy it). Or how about A16Z? A big part of how they’ve differentiated themselves as a VC is through the content they produce and distribute at scale. This is more than just content marketing – they literally created a separate media company around the business. Or of course, my previous role as CMO of 11:FS. If you’re in the world of financial services, you’ve likely heard of 11:FS, but I’d bet you’ve heard more about our content and events than our work! We had a separate media team within the business that ended up being bigger than the marketing function. So I’ve done this first hand! 

Challenger brands are thinking and acting like media companies. They are finding ways to add value to the audience they’re trying to reach by developing stories, content and experiences that people care about and want to spend time with. The biggest difference between a ‘media company’ model and a traditional or inbound marketing model is the focus on value exchange. Media companies are focused on adding value to the audience they’re trying to reach. Their business is about attracting and engaging an audience by producing content and experiences they want to spend time with. Traditional marketers are focused on extracting value from an audience by getting them to take an action that benefits the business.

The media mindset is what wins in the hyper-competitive landscape of today. If you’re a B2B business, 95% of buyers aren’t in the market to purchase your product at the time you’re trying to reach them. (And if you’re B2C, sure maybe we make more impulse decisions, but just think in your own life – how much of the marketing that you see is trying to sell you something you don’t want?). The vast majority of consumers, regardless of industry or market, are not interested in a sales or product message, but everyone is interested in things they find valuable. If you focus on adding value, you will bring the audience to you. Your content will stand out and earn attention instead of blending in and being ignored. You will own your audience instead of having to rent it in other advertising channels (which, by the way, is increasingly important in a post-cookie, first-party data world). Once you have an attentive, engaged audience to whom you’ve delivered value upfront, you can then get to work changing perception and behaviour to deliver your own growth goals. But you need to compete and win for attention first, then convert.

Here are five steps to get started building a media company around your brand

  • Define the relevant but differentiated POV you have in the industry. You likely already have a brand strategy. And it’s likely relevant to what you do and who you do it for. But be honest with yourself, is it differentiated? It’s no longer enough to just be relevant, you need to offer a purpose and promise that’s different from everyone else. Here’s one gut check you can use to see if your brand is truly differentiated: If you took your logo off your marketing campaigns, could it be any other brand? (You want the answer to be no). 
  • Hire or assign a “CEO” for your media company. You don’t need to give someone this title (here at Rival, we have an Executive Producer who plays this role), but you do need to make sure someone is responsible for thinking and acting like a media company, not a marketer. If you’re the CMO or head of marketing, maybe you need to wear that hat, but the media company agenda (adding value to your audience) is different from your traditional marketing agenda (extracting value from your audience) and you need to make sure you’re doing both.
  • Map the attention of your audience You know who your audience is, now think about how and where they currently spend their time and attention. Which media companies do they consume content from? What is it about those sites or outlets that add value? How can you find a relevant but differentiated way to add value through your content
  • Identify the “sources” of content that you can tap into on an ongoing basis. Just like a journalist at a media company, you need to think about the sources you can go to for quality content. They could be employees, customers, or external partners. But someone or something needs to be the well of ideas, insights, and inspiration for the pipeline of value you’re looking to bring to market.
  • Produce one piece of media content. You’re going to need a heck of a lot more than one of course, and quantity of content matters just as much as quality (yes, really). But the biggest reason most companies fail at adopting and executing this model is that they don’t even start to begin with! Get started getting started and create the vision and rituals to get other people on board with producing content consistently. You need to be in it for the long-term if you want this model to work, but a ‘journey of a thousand miles and all that…

If you do one thing differently after reading this article, sit down and think about the value exchange that your marketing offers between your business and your customers. The more you can focus on adding value, the better your marketing will be. Make value your North Star and you will always find ways to make marketing people want to spend time with and build a brand people care about. Media, not marketing.

About the Author

Eric Fulwiler

Eric is the co-founder and CEO of Rival, one of the fastest-growing marketing consultancies in the US and UK. Rival specializes in building challenger brands, strategies, and marketing capabilities to disrupt and change categories. They work with scale-ups like Autobooks, Omnipresent, and Bud, as well as incumbents like Reebok. Over the last 15 years, Eric has been lucky enough to help build some of the biggest brands in the world, from billion-dollar start-ups to Fortune 50 enterprises.