Ad legend David Ogilvy wrote in Ogilvy on Advertising, “Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.” Big Ideas are essential to success throughout all of marketing and branding. That doesn’t mean they are without peril. Consider one of those helium-filled balloons in the Thanksgiving Day parade. Given a strong gust of wind from an unexpected source, it will tax dozens of handlers to keep the colossus on track. Big Ideas are not dissimilar.
It’s essential for top managers to embrace brands and to understand the Big Ideas they convey in an intuitive way. There’s a fine line of difference between caring for a brand as an inspired custodian and being an overly zealous proprietor. The trick is maintaining dedicated engagement without letting yourself be carried away with your personal ingenuity. Every brand has its own DNA . . . but don’t fantasize yourself into believing it’s your DNA!
Here are some guideposts in Big (branding) Ideas. Both CEOs and brand managers should be vigilant in addressing them.
Resist the genius trap. Many – perhaps most – great ideas are the result of a team’s collaborative stewardship. Even when an idea is the product of a sole entrepreneur’s sheer ingenuity, you lose traction when you possessively dwell on ownership of that idea. It’s oh-so-easy to be drawn into the limelight. Who doesn’t like to be celebrated for their originality and insight? Remember: Every inch you cede to ego reduces your capacity to be objective and agile in maneuvering a Big Idea to maximum potential.
Shun undue complexity. As CEO of Carter’s children’s apparel, Fred Rowan was an astute team builder. When we worked with him in brand development several years ago, he would regularly remind us and his colleagues to “Trust in few things.” Carter’s has prospered as a brand because they have commanded the category of layette sets for newborns. Sustaining that clear idea has required discipline and focus. Over decades, it has also anchored Carter’s with an extraordinary strategic cornerstone.
Be a loyal, but relentless diagnostician. Any “natural” talent in the brand management business gets a shiver of pleasure from seeing opportunities in the market and aligning them with the authentic nature of the brand. Done well, deconstructing and reconstructing the parts and pieces of the brand identity form the heart of brand competence.
As in a good conversation, you discover things as you go along. Fresh ideas become experientially authentic in the moment. A good diagnostician must be a keen and vigilant observer. Maintain that stance and solutions become self-evident. Detached, rigid analysis – no matter how thorough – can never match feedback-centered diagnosis of a brand’s constantly changing vital signs.
Carefully pick the right details in which you immerse yourself. CEOs in particular conclude if they can tinker with any one brand detail, then all details are fair game. What a dangerous premise! Constantly immersing yourself in small-scale issues is a surefire way to lose brand perspective.
Working with David Sculley in preparing the sale of Waterford crystal to KPS Financial Partners impressed this key distinction on me. David was scrupulous in intervening in just those few crucial details that would make the brand viable for new generations. As you can imagine, bridal sales are the heartbeat of Waterford’s merchandise positioning. But today’s consumer wanted glassware that went beyond museum pieces – e.g., wine glasses that could celebrate the “good moments” of their lives with authenticity. I recall the attention David focused on giving the Waterford Lismore signature just the right contemporary flair. This touch was incomparably right, strategically significant, and one of the few brand-identity details where David allowed himself to become involved.
Keep it simple. Christopher Johnson – a naming and branding consultant – has just published a worthwhile new book titled Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. His first paragraph opens with the words “We don’t always have to be clever, thank goodness. Often simply being clear is enough.”
So many brand nuances would be easier to resolve if people confined themselves to plain-speak. So many conceptual words – and “concept” may be the worst one of all – now mean so many things to different people that they have become unintelligible. Especially at the outset of any branding project, stress clear and simple terms.
Stay visceral. For me, distinct personal and experiential icons have unmatched power. The scent of finely tanned leather . . . a mane of wind-blown hair flowing over a beautifully tailored blazer . . . a confident hand sweeping across an iPad screen. These images are not a journey into poetry for its own sake. And words are always a poor second-best to hard-boiled experience. Know both the good and bad of your brand’s physical profile. That may include empathy as you watch your customer struggle with your product labeling in a grocery aisle or attempt to navigate sizing information on your website.
Don’t believe you are engaged in brand intimacy, when you’re just mouthing jargon. Media immerse us in supposedly intimate experiences everywhere. Don’t lip-sync the rhetoric. It’s so easy to fabricate “Big Screen” intimacy into the brand experience. For example, do we delude ourselves to think that attributes like care and warmth are hallmarks of a brand when the real enticers might be the solidity of the stitching or the clarity of the contents labeling? Keep tangibles first and foremost.
Know what you can do. For so long, seduction has been the dominant dynamic of marketing, rather than straightforward communication. Isn’t the side-effect predictable? When we finally land on a Big Idea with plenty of steam and staying power, we think it can do anything! Well it can’t. Brands live in sharply defined, constantly changing spaces. Know the inherent operational issues of your company to make sure the goals are clear and realizable and that the necessary execution can take place.
Big Ideas have indispensible utility. The risks come with that enticing equation: Big Idea = Big Manager. Immerse yourself into every inch of the brand experience, but be ever-cautious about projecting yourself into the brand. Reprising David Ogilvy’s experience with Big Ideas in the advertising world is pertinent. Late in his career, Ogilvy tallied the number of Big Ideas he had generated as not “more than 20.” Further he described a Big Idea as an experience that “wells up” over “the telephone line from your unconscious.” Unconscious and authentic. The more a Big Idea starts and stops with the Big I, the greater your risk of shipwreck.