Column: Aperture -- How Big Is Your Idea?

Hey, what’s the big idea? How do you move from insight to action, from ordinary to extraordinary? What will distinguish your brand’s communication from a myriad of others in competition for the consumer’s mindshare? Advertisers have taken their cue from Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message” as they seek ways to marry message delivery and contextual environment. Wheaties represents one of the best and earliest “big ideas” in advertising. The “Breakfast of Champions” married the brand’s essence — achieving physical excellence — with the product itself, the cereal box.

Some “big ideas” lay an egg, literally. When CBS placed laser-printed logos on 35 million eggs to promote its fall programming lineup, the intent was to reach people in an unexpected way.  The messaging was certainly clever —“Crack the Case for CSI” — but the connection with consumers was not ideal. When NBC used the same approach for “The Today Show,” the connection was clear: morning, breakfast, eggs, “The Today Show.”

Developing the best big ideas is a multilayered process. Understanding consumer motivation is the starting point. We need to know why consumers behave as they do, their relevant moments for connection, and how they receive and respond to various concepts and messages. Often great ideas are born out of “idea generation” sessions, the most productive of which involve participants from varied disciplines and perspectives.

Marketing innovator Procter & Gamble recently took on the challenge of energizing the laundry process and its mid-priced brand Gain. To ignite the “idea generation” process, the team shared research-based insights around the laundry behavior of young African-American women with local media partners. After learning that these young women consider the task of laundry a social opportunity conducted in laundromats, the team created “See Ya at the Laundromat” parties advertised on local radio and attended by on-air personalities. The parties helped win over new Gain customers and increased shipments in the local market more than 10 percent during the promoted period.

In developing the big idea, it is also important to understand the desired impact and consumer action. Sometimes the idea is big but the impact less so. New Line Cinema’s “Snakes on a Plane” generated huge Internet buzz, largely driven by online trailers, blogs, and contests. Based on the hype surrounding the film, opening box office projections ranged from $20 million to $30 million. But the opening weekend take was far lower than estimated, and by the second weekend, the movie was in 6th place, at $6.4 million. What went wrong? Too much hype and too little information conspired to dampen the anticipation, rather than increase the suspense. If the desired impact was Internet buzz, mission accomplished. But if it was to put butts in movie theater seats, not so much.

Sometimes the big idea involves less communication rather than more. When Ford sponsored the network premiere of “Schindler’s List,” it did so in a commercial-free format, as a gift to viewers.

Philips Electronics has taken this approach to a new level with a multimedia effort that supports its “Sense and Sensibility” campaign. This campaign was the result of research uncovering consumer frustration with the complexity of electronics. On select dates during the campaign’s run, readers of and who clicked on premium content were directed to the content without having to pay. In return for free content, they encountered online brand messages from Philips.

And last year Philips purchased all the commercial time during an episode of “60 Minutes,” turning back some of that time to lengthen the show’s segments. Similarly, the company inked a deal with Hearst to eliminate subscription cards from an issue of each of four magazine titles. In return, the company received prominent ad space. These examples represent big ideas, making a real connection between consumers and brands.

The next time someone asks “what’s the big idea,” remember to connect that big idea to consumer need and brand benefit. The results will be better than big — they’ll be successful.

Steve Farella, president-CEO, and Audrey Siegel, executive vice president and director of client services, are cofounders of TargetCast TCM. (

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