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June 10, 2019

Rebranding as a business case for smart content (podcast)

In episode 53 of the Content Strategy Experts podcast, Elizabeth Patterson and Bill Swallow discuss rebranding as a business case for smart content. How can you make sweeping branding changes as quickly and as painlessly as possible?

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Elizabeth Patterson:   Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 53 we discuss rebranding as a business case for smart content. How can you make sweeping branding changes as quickly and as painlessly as possible? Hi. I’m Elizabeth Patterson, and I’m joined today with Bill Swallow.

Bill Swallow:   Hello.

EP:   We’re going to talk about smart content and rebranding. Rebranding is a business case for smart content. Bill, can you describe a little bit about what that business case is?

BS:    Sure. Rebranding happens when you either have a merger, acquisition, you are taking your company in a slightly different direction, modernizing the look and feel, or you might just have a new content marketing officer who comes in, decides that sweeping changes need to be made. Then all of a sudden all of your content is in the wrong color, wrong size, wrong font, wrong logo, wrong taglines, what have you.

BS:   Usually what this means is that you have to go in and replace them all, but in a traditional content shop you generally have thousands of word files, thousands of FrameMaker or InDesign files. This is all technical content that, while it’s not going to be as flashy probably as your marketing content, it still needs to have a lot of this information applied. Whenever you do make these sweeping marketing changes, you also have to be mindful of all of the supporting documentation that your company has that’s going out to customers, going out to field people, and what have you.

BS:   How do you rebrand all of these things when you have all of these many, many, many files distributed probably across your company, being accessed and used by a variety of different people? It’s very, very time consuming and expensive to rework all of these static files. Replacing logos in word files, resizing them, applying new fonts and so forth. You’re lucky if you have templates to drive this, but generally what we’ve seen is that a lot of people do have these one off files that have ad hoc formatting in there, and everything needs to be redone by hand.

BS:   When we talk about smart content, we’re really talking about separating the formatting, all of that busy work, to get the content to look right, from the content itself. That way you can use the budget that you would have spent redoing all of this stuff to update tools and processes to make things flow a lot more smoothly.

EP:   Okay. With all of these files, you were kind of going into this some. But, rebranding can definitely be a very large undertaking, and you started touching on this a little bit, but what methods are companies and authors currently using to do that rebranding, and how can that be improved so that it is working most efficiently for them?

BS:   Well, a common method that actually shows a best practice is that on the web side. All of your web content is generally stored in some kind of a content management system, and that system is powered by HTML. Some of them use other technologies, but generally speaking we can say that they’re powered by HMTL. So, all of the content is in there as text, and it’s the CMS’s job to organize that information, and present it in a certain way. If you need to go ahead and make those changes, you make the change on the CMS side via templates, style sheets, and what have you, and you generally don’t touch the content itself. So, if you need to change all of your colors from green to red, you go in and you make a style sheet change on the CSS side. Just a couple lines of code max to make that change, and then you republish your content, and it’s in that new color.

BS:   Same thing with applying logos, or redesigning the look and feel of what the published page looks like. All of that happens outside of the content within the system itself. That is generally the best practice you have when you’re looking at what these unstructured environments might look like. I know I might get flack for saying that a web content management system’s unstructured, because it really isn’t. It’s kind of a hybrid. But, generally that’s what we’re talking about, is being able to move to that type of environment. That is the best case scenario, if you have an unstructured situation.

BS:   But, everything else, it comes down to how that content has been written, how that content has been managed, if it’s been managed, and what type of changes you are making, and how extensive it’s going to be when you start trying to fix them. That’s where we get into more of the need for smart content.

EP:   Speaking of smart content, can you kind of go into a little bit more detail about what exactly smart content means, and why is that going to make something like rebranding easier for companies and authors?

BS:   Sure. Smart content very, very basically is structured content with tags and metadata. What that means is that, you have this content that has a lot of information in it that is not formatting based. When we talk about smart content, we’re talking about separating the formatting of the content from the content itself. This way we’re writing without formatting. We’re not applying fonts, we’re not applying colors, we’re not applying spaces in between, we’re not tweaking the alignment. We’re just focusing on what’s being written, and we’re tagging it in a way that your system, depending on what you’re using, will understand, “Oh, this is a list,” so we’re going to publish the list looking this certain way. Here’s a table, and this is a certain type of table, so we’re going to present it in a particular manner that has, let’s say alternate shading. And, this other table, we’re going to present it without alternate shading.

BS:   We’re not doing that formatting within the content itself, but we’re providing information that a publishing system can understand, and then render it a certain way on the output side.

EP:   You were touching on this a little bit when we were talking about the formatting, and writing content without that formatting. But, when we’re thinking about specific branding assets that a company has, what would a typical branding asset look like structured versus unstructured?

BS:   Sure. In unstructured, and when we talk about branding assets I want to step back a little bit and say there’s the actual files and such that constitute your branding, and then there is the actual documentation itself, or the content itself. In unstructured you might have word files, FrameMaker files, InDesign files, and you might be fortunate enough to have templates that utilize, or basically are considered those branding assets, where they contain all the correct fonts, all the correct colors, the correct use cases for them, the correct layouts with all the images that you need for the background, and so forth intact and ready to go. They might have your copyright statements and other boiler plate information already presented in the templates, so all you have to do is open those files, and update the template.

BS:   If your content is, I should say well formed and you are adhering to the templates, in theory all you would have to do is make those template changes once, and apply that template to all the files that use it. That would make the update as quick and painless as possible.

EP:   Yeah, save a lot of time.

BS:   It would, but at the same time you still need someone to go in there and, whether it’s via a script if you’re lucky, or whether it’s via brute force, open a file, apply a new template, see how it looks, make sure it was applied correctly, and then save the file with the new look and feel. With structured information, or smarter content, what you’re essentially doing is you are taking all of that busy work out of the equation.

BS:   You would basically have these text files, and they are void of all formatting, but they have specific semantic information built into them that says, “Hi, I’m a table.” Or, “Hi, I’m a list.” They might have specific properties around those that say, “I’m this type of list.” But, it doesn’t actually format the content itself. What you then have is a series of style sheets, just like you would have in a web CMS.

BS:   You’d have a series of style sheets, you’d have a series of instructions that say, “When I publish for this specific purpose, do these things with the content, and apply these style sheets appropriately, and then publish to this location.” That way all of your content doesn’t need to be touched, you just need to tweak the pieces that publish the content in order to set the rules to say, “Hey, we’re now changing the color over to blue. Hey, we have a new logo so let’s drop that in, and we want to place it at the bottom of the page instead of the top of the page,” for whatever reason.

BS:   All of those rules are applied at the publishing side, rather than someone going in and making that change to every single page of content, or every single topic that you have if you’re publishing to the web, let’s say, and making those changes by hand.

EP:   Oh, it sounds like structured content is definitely the way to go to save you some headaches.

BS:   It definitely is. We’ve worked with a lot of clients on rebranding for this very specific purpose. One in particular had such a strong business case from rebranding alone, they actually calculated out the amount of time it would take them to apply new fonts, new colors, new logos, new taglines to all of their content. They looked at that total cost of time and effort, and it spanned years to update all of their content.

EP:   Wow.

BS:   We’re talking a very big company here. They looked at it and said, “You know what? It’s going to be more cost effective, it’s going to be more time effective to go ahead and just move this stuff over to a smart content format, and do it all that way.”

BS:   Rather than taking a few years of time to get all of this done, and using many, many, many human resources that could have been used elsewhere, like updating content, making further improvements, documenting new products. They decided to outsource and say, “We’re going to covert all of our information, and we’re going to move from our current format to this smart content format,” and they had a third party just go ahead and convert all that stuff. Then, they sat down and they worked hard on how they want this branding to look in their new output.

BS:   We’re talking months of time versus years of time, in order to rebrand all of that content. Again, it was something ridiculous like a few hundred thousand pages worth of content.

EP:   That’s just crazy, definitely something to talk about with your company and look into, to make sure that you’re being efficient. Alright, you were talking a little bit about how structured content is void of all formatting. I wonder if you can define this picture a little bit more on what content without formatting looks like.

BS:   Sure. In this situation you have a series of text files, and these text files are, you can open them up in a text editor. They are not flashy, they’re not proprietary. They could be something that is structured, so some type of XML maybe. Or, they could be even something a little more simpler. They could be something like Markdown. I wouldn’t necessarily call Markdown smart, but it does afford you a lot of the same capabilities, you’re just lacking a lot of metadata that you would get in an XML based solution.

BS:   Generally all of these smart content formats, they are void of all of that formatting information. Instead of saying, “Here’s a heading one, and I’m going to select it and make it 16 point blue, with 24 points of space underneath it.” And, being able to save that to a template and apply that every single time you’re just saying, ‘Hey, I’m a heading.” In a smart content situation, all of the understanding of how to format that heading is on the publishing side.

BS:   If you’re going to one particular format, you might have a series of rules that says, “Okay, this is blue, this is 24 points, this is … it has, it’s centered,” what have you. Then, you go to another target and it says, “Okay, this one is for a particular rebranding effort, or if it’s for a separate product, or it’s for our partner company,” so this one needs to be read, and it needs to be in this different font, and it needs to be offset this way, and handled in a different manner.

BS:   You’re not making those changes to the content.

EP:   Mm-hmm.

BS:   You’re making those changes over on the publishing side based on those rules for where that content is going.

EP:   Okay. Companies right now that are thinking it’s time for them to rebrand, and they’re trying to make decisions. You’ve touched on this a little bit, and the time saver. But, why is migrating to smart content the right choice?

BS:   Well it really affords you the ability to manage a lot of the, again, the look and feel processing of your content separately from the content itself. You’re able to do a variety of different things, publish to a variety of different mediums, without having to change the content. If the specs for your published output changes, then the content itself is unaffected. At that point all you need to do is make those changes on the publishing side, and then run the content through again. If you have different look and feel requirements based on where the content is going, whether it’s going to the web, whether it’s going to PDF, whether it’s going to a third party to be consumed by them. If it’s going to some OEM partner, you can go ahead and process that content differently without having to modify the content itself. You have all those rules built into the publishing side of things, and not in the content storage side.

BS:   The other benefit is that when you start thinking about smart content, things get a lot more modular. Your content is written in smaller chunks.

BS:   Those chunks can be assembled, reassembled, remixed, removed, and you can produce new things with that content without having to rewrite it, without having to go in and physically reorganize it from a source point of view. You’re just saying, “Hey, I have these five talking points and I’m going to arrange them in the output, in any variety of ways.”

BS:   Some other things you can do is that, you can externalize a lot of the branding elements in your smart content environment. Things can be swapped in and out as you need them. Not only do you have the look and feel, and the organization of the content. But, you can swap logos in and out, you can swap screenshots and other images in and out depending on what you need to show. This particularly comes in handy with localization, where you don’t need to go ahead and replace a bunch of images, you just reset the pointers.

BS:   Other things like company names, product names. If those things change, if they change often especially, those can be externalized and managed separate from the content itself so all you have to do is swap in and out a new name, and republish. Swap a new name once, and republish in all of the areas where it’s being used. Things like taglines, copyright statements, and other boiler plate information that generally would require you to rework your content and then republish, you can just make that change once. It could be as easy as flipping a flag on the publishing side to say, “Okay, we’re going from publishing scenario A to publishing scenario B. Now, run the content through.” It saves you a lot of time by being able to externalize all these things, and be able to remove that formatting from the content itself.

EP:   Which then allows you more time to work on other things that your company needs to.

BS:   Exactly, exactly. Because, the worst time sink that you can have is formatting content. It adds a visual value, but the amount of time it takes someone to do it by hand is nearly excruciating. That time could be better spent doing other things, like developing new content, or working on new projects to be able to further leverage the existing content that you have.

EP:   Alright, well I think we are going to go ahead and wrap up. Thank you, Bill.

BS:   Thank you.

EP:   And thank you, for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit, or check the show notes for relevant links.