Inbound marketing. Conversational marketing. The subscription economy. Growth hacking. Each term, now ubiquitous, had humble origins but a profound—and profitable—impact.
The phrases have defined brands. Those brands, in turn, have nurtured and sustained the intellectual capital of the phrase.
So how do you create one? Reverse engineering the origins of brand-owned terms is not a breakdown of the step-by-step planning that led from term identification to widespread acceptance. That didn’t happen.
Instead, the process is best understood as a narrative: each term born of deep expertise, attuned to the language of consumers, tested in various forms, and told persistently yet patiently—until it clicked.
Brand-owned terms: The long play
In retrospect, brand-owned terms feel inevitable: What could modern marketing be other than inbound marketing?
The reality, as detailed in later sections, is more complicated. The process isn’t formulaic, and it may take years to separate success from failure. What is clear is the close tie between the rise of term usage and brand awareness:
BrandBrand-Owned TermCorrelation in Search Interest
Note: Omitted from the table is Sean Ellis’ “growth hacking,” which became a well-known term before it was associated with a brand.
Getting there requires patience, internal buy-in, and supporting content. Animalz’s Jimmy Daly, when describing content that could support a brand-owned term, uses the phrase “movement-first content.”
In contrast to “distribution-first content,” movement-first content is a conscious sacrifice of reach: “it isn’t beholden to any SEO tactics like word count and keyword density.” Instead, it is opinionated, often contrarian content that “has to pack a very real punch.”
Movement-first content, at least initially, prioritizes potential impact over reach. Image source
Notably, that investment in movement-first content may largely follow, not precede, the growth of a brand-term.
Here are the paths that four companies took—and the implications for those seeking to do the same.
HubSpot and “inbound marketing”
- Quick identification of the term doesn’t translate into quick adoption.
- Picking a term with a well-understood foil (“outbound marketing”) makes it easier to understand and differentiate.
- An eponymous book (e.g. Inbound Marketing) can help push a term into the mainstream.
As detailed in a co-authored book, Brian Halligan, a recent MIT grad in 2005, observed startups failing with “‘tried-and-true’ marketing techniques that he had seen work throughout his career; techniques such as trade shows, telemarketing, e-mail blasting and advertising.”
by That realization coincided with his observation that Dharmesh Shah, Halligan’s future co-founder, was earning visibility with a personal blog:
We started describing the way companies were traditionally marketing as “outbound marketing” and the way Dharmesh marketed OnStartups.com as “inbound marketing.” Our conclusion was that interruption-based, outbound marketing techniques were fundamentally broken.
The term “inbound marketing” benefitted from its natural contrast with outbound marketing. (Historically, both terms had narrower definitions related to telemarketing, which differentiated outbound versus inbound calls.) Additionally, Shah told me, “It was more specific than ‘Internet Marketing.’ More than just ‘Content Marketing.’”
While the term was new, many of the ideas aligned with “permission marketing,” which Seth Godin brought into marketers’ consciousness in 1999 and contrasted with “interruption marketing.” By the mid-2000s, however, its influence had already …read more
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