What Girls Aloud’s Biology taught me about content strategy

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Trust me, this is a blog about content strategy. But before we get to that, I’m going to talk about Girls Aloud.

Spotify addict that I am, I’ve been working on a playlist of my all-time top 100 songs.  My only criteria for this are that a) I have to be completely, utterly in love with each tune, and b) there’s a one song per artist limit.

For some artists, this presents a problem. I’m still deliberating over which Nick Cave track to include.  I can’t decide between Never Ever or Pure Shores. I think I might have chosen the wrong Smiths song. However, sometimes, you just know.

Girls Aloud might seem an unlikely candidate for an avowed indie kid. But I genuinely love the group. I even saw them live. Biology remains their masterpiece, a striking piece of pop all the more unlikely for coming from five girls smushed together by a talent show.

Or – and this is where the content strategy comes in – is it really so unlikely?

Yes, a girl group can have a content strategy

From the start, Girls Aloud were different. Cast your mind back to 2002 and Simon Cowell’s pre-X Factor venture Popstars: The Rivals. Unique amongst such shows, there were two winners, two groups, two songs, which then went head-to-head for the Xmas No 1.

It was one of the most unfair, one-sided contests in history.  Can you even remember the boyband who dawdled to #2 in the charts and unceremoniously split the next year? I couldn’t; I had to look it up on Wikipedia before typing One True Voice.

Then there was Girls Aloud, with Sound of the Underground. It remains, by some distance, the best Xmas 1 Simon Cowell had a hand in (unless, by ‘having a hand in’, you count the Rage Against The Machine protest vote of 2009).  Girls Aloud’s follow-up, No Good Advice, proved it was no fluke.

At this point, it’s worth introducing Xenomania, the songwriting and production team behind both songs.  Realising they had something special, Xenomania bosses Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper started to provide more material for Girls Aloud. By their second album, Xenomania was in full control. The songs, duly, kept getting better: The Show, Love Machine, Deadlines & Diets…

What Xenomania was doing was to give Girls Aloud something that none of the group’s peers had grasped. No matter how much effort was put into manufacturing the personality of the people in the group, what really matters is putting the personality into the songs.

How Biology breaks the rules and gets away with it

Which brings us to Biology, the lead single from third album Chemistry.  It remains one of the most preposterous pop songs ever recorded. As pop critic Peter Robinson noted, it is “at once avant garde and relentlessly, demented mainstream.”

I’m no musicologist, so I refer to the song’s Wikipedia page for a breakdown of its constituent parts.  But what’s important is that the song even has constituent parts.  By all agreed conventions of pop songwriting, Biology is all over the place. Yet that’s the point.

The through line from No Good Advice to The Show to Love Machine was its eclecticism: post-punk, to electropop, to rockabilly. No other group of the era was this unpredictable. You’ve heard one Westlife song, you’ve heard ’em all. But Xenomania created a musical palette for Girls Aloud that reflected – and subverted – the very nature of a manufactured band.

Compare this to, say, Motown, where the use of the same songwriters and backing musicians ensured that, no matter who was behind the microphone, you knew it was a Motown production. Girls Aloud were the opposite: the same singers, a completely different sound very time.

In Biology, the experiment reaches its logical end game: several totally different songs, all fighting for space.  The chorus doesn’t arrive for nearly two minutes. What you assumed was the verse is never returned to.  And the song comes to an abrupt halt by repeating the riff that kicked things off three-and-a-half minutes earlier. 17 years later, it still sounds thrilling.

What does this have to do with content strategy?

Thanks for bearing with me this far, because this blog does have a point beyond girl group fandom. Beyond my writer’s interest in the unusual structure of Biology, the study of Girls Aloud and Xenomania is a lesson in how to develop a brand.

Just about every business I can think of has, at its core, a vision and values.  At their best, these are inspirational, passionate and emotive.  You just wouldn’t know it too look at many companies’ content.

Too often, everything has been ground down to the same polished but passionless sheen: a generic corporate grab-bag of insincere platitudes and meaningless jargon. Like a radio station that only plays Westlife.

The antidote to this, is to make sure that your content reflects the full diversity of your vision and values.  Everything you say, do or post should emanate from the core of your brand – but that doesn’t mean it all has to sound the same.  Be more like Girls Aloud, in other words.

We work with our clients to create content strategies that build upon the top-level brand work: the vision, the values, the mission.  Typically, this will result in multiple content pillars, allowing us to express the full palette of the brand’s purpose and personality.

Even this blog is an expression of Nielsen McAllister’s own brand. We have several pillars – about our work, our areas of expertise, our home in Derby – but we also embrace the fact that each member of our team has their own hobbies and passions. One of our content pillars is called, simply, ‘personal choice.’

I just don’t think anybody expected this content strategy to lead to us publishing a 1,000-word blog about Girls Aloud.

You can't escape our biology...