If you’re in content creation as I am, you hear some words a lot. “Brand” is at the top of the list (since “content” has become so ubiquitous as to become DNA), and it is the one that produces the most confusion.

Even though the custom industry, and marketing in general, has been about The Brand since time immemorial (quick, who has a better brand: Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great?), there are still pockets of uncertainty about how big the word really is. Does it only refer to the most superficial aspects of an organization? Or does it literally mean everything?

I’m in the “everything” camp. Laziness in one tiny corner of a brand can have direct repercussions on the larger picture. Let’s call that the Butterfly Theory of Brand Management. Just for fun.

But in an industry as relatively new as content marketing, the brand remains slippery, if only because everyone now concedes that the public, in the end, controls the brand and not corporations or marketers or ad agencies or content creators.

We may “curate” information, and we may throw content out into the public and hope it sticks, and we may repeat the words “content is king” until we’re blue in the face, but let’s face it: The consumer is king. And queen. And everything else.

Against this backdrop, members of the Custom Content Council spent a few days in Charleston, S.C. trying to figure out how to harness brands and create a sense of cohesion in a “content-driven marketing world” (the conference subhead). Did the conference make any sense? Kind of. Here are five things we learned:

Custom Content is getting the love from CMOs

For any content marketer, this was good news. A study commissioned by the Custom Content Council, and conducted by Roper GfK found that more and more CMOs see the value in content as opposed to traditional advertising.

No one is suggesting that advertising is dead. Far from it. But the value of content is now seen as inherent, with 35 percent of CMOs strongly agreeing that custom content is the future of marketing overall. Not a bad number. Another great number (and perhaps one that is moving the needle with CMOs): 73 percent of consumers prefer to get their information from content rather than from an ad.

Everyone needs to be a rock star

More than one speaker made this point, none more explicitly than Robin Fisher Roffer, the dynamo behind Big Fish Marketing, who said, “When we make our clients rock stars, we create our own loyalty.” Pass this down the chain and you can see where this ends up. The audience. Make them the rock star. Make them special.

David Gwozdz of mobile advertising agency Mojiva said, “The audience is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen and is unstoppable.” And in perhaps one of the most successful cases of making rock stars out of everyone, Dana Williams, Director of Marketing, Communications and Brand Integration at Southwest Airlines, said “Content is king. But people are king, too.”

And then, when we had enough rock stars, Kristi Adams, Marketing Innovation Manager at Dell, threw a new group into the mix with the line, “Content isn’t king until it makes your salesperson sing.” Finally, we heard (more than once) that “data is where the money is.” And data is about customers. Who are, of course, rock stars.

We’re hung up on Old Words

Hangovers from a world dedicated to print include words like, um, “readers.” As Steve Ennen of Social Strategy1 said, “Stop thinking of readers, think about users.” Drug connotations aside, the idea of x number of readers is irrelevant in a world where engagement is all that matters.

Another word Ennen said should go: “circulation.” Instead we need to think in terms of “reach” and “frequency.” A case in point: Jeremy Murphy, VP of Communications of CBS spoke about his network’s custom magazine, Watch!. Initially, published as a give-away with a circulation of 400,000, CBS (and its custom publisher, McMurry) found that a better tracked subscription/newsstand model, with half the circulation not only made more sense but was a better fit for advertisers.

Sales people have been saying this for years. But it’s still interesting to see this in practice. Mazda’s David Harris followed up on this by saying, “It’s not good enough to publish; we have to think about paid, earned and shared media – stories that can be found (on the Web) to keep the conversation going.”

Mazda's David Harris, Aetna's Melissa Jones, and Southwest Airline's Dana Williams

Successful brands are lived inside and out

This might seem obvious but it takes a successful brand like Southwest to bring it home. Dana Williams said that at Southwest brand and content are the same thing. Meaning that in the content they push, whether it be in their ads (which use employees exclusively), their livery (messages are often painted directly on to aircraft) or in corporate communications, messaging never strays from their core message.

And in what was perhaps an indirect swipe at Ford, David Harris, Group Manager: Digital and Alternative Media at Mazda said, “Our brand is our personality. It’s bigger than one person.” Meaning even in social media, Mazda’s brand was bigger than any one individual.

Maybe context is king

Hunter Sebresos, Founding Partner at Dyvergent, said “If there’s no context, there’s no point to creating content.” This was a theme that kept coming up, even if most people didn’t use the word context.

Researcher Diana Derval presented the idea of “Wait Marketing” – the notion that people are most receptive when they have time. Sounds obvious but advertising doesn’t really work on that premise (which is why content marketing offers up so much engagement). “If a brand calls you at the right moment with the right content” you will be receptive to it,” she added. What is that but a point about context?

Melissa Jones from Aetna proved as much when she played voice messages from customers happy with their service – even happily answering robo-calls on their birthdays.

It’s interesting to see the evolution of these events. What started out as a conference about basic marketing principles is now tackling the biggest questions in the (media) universe: the nature of The Brand. We live in an age of such flux that our very notions of language are evolving. It makes the role of content provider both challenging and extremely rewarding. If you do it right.