Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What's the Big Idea? Part 2

By now I trust you’re beginning to appreciate the selling power of a Big Idea. Without one driving your creative executions, clever headlines, countless features/benefits bullets, and cutting-edge production techniques will all add up to advertising and marcom that just lies there gasping. Don’t get me wrong. Those things may be necessary, but they’re certainly not sufficient, because if you don’t have a Big Idea behind the magic curtain, you’re pushing water uphill.

A Big Idea gives you the leverage needed to penetrate the natural apathy Baby Boomers have toward your brand. Used clearly, concisely and creatively, it can help convince Boomers to carefully consider whatever you’re selling. So why are there so few Big Ideas in advertising and marcom today?

The reason’s simple. Big Ideas take guts to implement because they’re so fresh and innovative that they’re scary. Comfort-seeking marketers shy away from powerful Big Ideas without even realizing that it’s the tension that they create that makes them so effective. Big Ideas make people feel and think differently. They smash preconceptions, shatter indifference and dare people to try (or at least consider) something new. In the depths of their souls, Big Ideas are risky business. That’s what gives them spirit, and it’s that spirit that connects with people.

Going back to the last blog’s Marlboro® example, ask yourself, Is there any sensible reason why a smoker should relate to a cowboy puffing on a cigarette while riding a horse in God-Knows-Where, Montana?” I can think of no logical reason. I can barely come up with a semi-convincing subliminal reason. Yet the spirit of that Big Idea has resonated so profoundly over decades that countless smokers switched to the brand. And who knows how many started smoking because of it?

No one can deny that this Big Idea ultimately proved horribly harmful to millions (the original Marlboro Man purportedly died of lung cancer). However, that fact just puts an exclamation point on the overwhelming power of a truly Big Idea.

Is implementing a Big Idea worth the risk? Advertising history suggests it is. But playing table stakes with a Big Idea is never easy. Way back when, it took genuine courage for Bill Bernbach to tell Avis® that it had to overtly admit to being the number two car rental company. Of course, he didn’t sheepishly state this obvious fact, and then skulk off to oblivion. Instead, he made that fact—and the Big Idea that grew out of it—the brand’s most potent strength.

Bernbach’s insistence on using his Big Idea (various versions of: We’ve number two. We have to try harder) was so bold that he almost lost the Avis account, but he stuck to his creative guns. The campaign he created was so deliciously different at the time that it became an instant advertising classic. More important, of course, it also helped Avis carve out a unique share of mind that led to a nice, big share of the market. To this day, “Avis. We try harder®” drives the company’s advertising and marcom.

One of my all-time favorite Big Ideas was for Sears Diehard® Batteries. I wish I’d been part of the team that came up with it, but I worked on Sears Steady Rider® Shocks, instead. Anyway, the Big Idea was: “Diehard. Starts Your Car When Most Batteries Won’t®.” Nothing fancy about it. Simple, straightforward and powerfully memorable. It tells you exactly what the product does, and why you can trust it. Every Big Idea should be so good. And how about the name? It’s the perfect complement to the Big Idea. “Diehard” says it all!

Of course, after the Diehard breakthrough, Sears gave Foote, Cone & Belding (R.I.P.) the task of coming up with something just as good for SteadyRiders®. The Big Idea for that brand worked well with the name, but it was no Diehard. (For you advertising historians, it was “SteadyRiders. They named it right.” Good, but not great.)

Enough history. Now let’s take a close, critical look at your most recent advertising and marcom efforts. Spread them out on the conference room table, and ask, “What’s the big idea?” If it hits you right between the eyes, then it will rivet your audience’s attention to your sales message. On the other hand, if there’s just a lot of noise and flash and mind-numbing detail but nothing really compelling about the sum total of what you’re looking at, then it’s DOA.

The bottom line: Don’t expect your Big Idea to perform miracles all by itself. Like Marlboro, Diehard, et al, you’ll need a lot of professional help in terms of execution. This is especially true if you’re targeting Boomers. Then you’d be wise to find an advertising pro who’s also credentialed in gerontology counseling. That’s the kind of professional who can help make your Big Idea really come to life in the mind of the Boomers. And when that happens, your brand will be headed toward the Boomer Buying Center.

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