Finding The Big Idea

We talk about the “idea” in advertising. And whether it’s marketing podcast pundits, like those on The BeanCast, or the average creative director toiling away to bring originality to the work, we all agree that big ideas are central to what we do.

But in our striving to position the brand as central to a customer’s life, I’ve been unsettled for years by a tendency to favor the big idea of the creative vision at the expense of the big idea of the brand itself.

Revealing a Core Brand Truth

Let’s use the Super Bowl for starters. The big winner in the ad race this year was Doritos with what I’ve heard both Bill Green and John Wall refer to along the lines of “shot-in-the-crotch” advertising.

Admittedly, the ad with the boss taking it in the groin is funny. It might have even made you favorably disposed to buy the product. Maybe. But does it do anything to enhance the brand that invented the flavored tortilla chip? Does it reveal any core truth of what the brand means or represents? Quite simply, no it doesn’t.

It’s not that this ad or the hundreds of other beer and fast-food and soda ads are bad ads. It’s not that these type of ads are ineffective either. The problem is that if we believe in ‘branding” as the reason behind doing measured media in the first place, it seems to me that everything we communicate should be enhancing that value. And doing that takes more than just running a wacky commercial that gets attention for a brand. A brand ad also needs answer a basic truth about what the brand means.

I’ll agree that maybe each ad doesn’t need to tell the whole story of the brand. Maybe individual ads can also be funny or otherwise entertaining. But if a print ad or a TV spot or online banner is not revealing some core truth about the brand, it isn’t truly branding. It’s essentially nothing more than a direct response ad without a response device. It’s a wing and a prayer that builds nothing except the hope that it will stimulate sales. And that runs counter to why we brand in the first place -- to build something that lasts beyond the campaign and gives us a firmer foundation from which to launch the next campaign.

Real Branding Builds Equity

The way to best understand what I’m talking about is probably to consider ads that actually brand well -- Apple, VW, Burger King, just to name a few.

Every Apple ad, from design to script to casting to font, reveals a basic truth that the brand stands for simplicity. It may be great, it may be cool and it may be less prone to viruses, but it’s essentially still the computer that you can actually use and the phone that makes life easier or the music player that puts it all literally at a fingertip.

VW is clearly trying to be the “people’s car,” with their name literally means in translation. So they show people, warts and all. Even when they get wacky, they do so in terms of personifying a core brand theme that people have a hard time understanding. “German engineering” sounds impressive, but it becomes memorable in the hands of a crazed German engineer.

And Burger King, for all the crap it catches, does a fantastic job of personifying the brand, without losing focus on the food. They stopped trying to “me-to” McDonald’s are carved out a kingly niche where McD’s would never dare to tread.

In all of the above examples, the work is building equity in things that matter to the brand, as much as they are getting attention for the brand. Even if the campaign were to radically change, they have established core truths like designed simplicity or a car built well for me and my life, that can serve as a starting point for future efforts. They have a foundation built on a core truth, not a trendy fad, passing fancy or humorous gimmick. And that is infinitely more valuable to a company over time than any promotional sales spike. Just ask McDonald's, Coke or Disney about that one.

The Company/Product is the Idea That Matters

I’ve gone to great length here to paint a vision. Whether you are a marketer considering your agency’s work or an agency person bringing ideas to bear on your client’s market, always remember that the work itself is not “THE” big idea. It’s “a” big idea. The real Big idea with a capital “B” is what put that brand on the market in the first place. It's the product or service you offer. It's the drive that pushed someone to address an unmet need. It was the imagination that reinvented a market. It was the effort that defined a new space. It was the inspiration that caused your engineers or developers or service personnel to work over-time and forgo weekends to get a new idea out the door.

Don’t let all that passion go to waste! No matter how good a creative advertising idea is, it is meaningless if it doesn’t call upon the things that define the product in the marketplace. It says nothing. It means nothing. It builds nothing.

So as you look at your own work or evaluate the work in front of you, always be asking the question, “Does it speak to a core truth about my brand?” Believe me when I say that this is not a death sentence to creative ideas. Asking this question will simply help us get past the chaff, reach deeper and find those ideas that do it all. And that’s what we all want anyway, right?

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