Marketing Bootcamp

What's the Big Idea? 10 Qualities That Set Big Ideas Apart.

Entrepreneurs and established companies alike continually search for the next “big idea” to turbo-charge their marketing. But what makes an idea “big” and separates it from its “not-so-big” peers?

Before we go there, let’s start with a definition. This one from British brand consultancy Millward Brown is a good place to begin: “. . . a big idea is the driving, unifying force behind a brand’s marketing efforts.” That’s a good starting place, but there is much more.

Related: Should Your Idea Pass Go?

In three decades of working with emerging and established companies, I’ve uncovered 10 qualities that define big ideas and differentiate them from “not so big ideas.” Use the following list to evaluate ideas on their merit. While an idea can certainly be “big” for your brand without possessing all 10 of the criteria, every big idea I’ve been associated with absolutely met the first three. The more criteria your idea fits, the better it will be, and the more likely it may be a truly big idea.

1. Transformation

Can the idea change attitudes, beliefs and behaviors? Open up new ways of seeing and thinking? Alter the course of customers, markets and companies and be a “game changer” on a grand scale? If yes, then it’s a big idea and the transformation it causes should affect the market (customers, prospects, competitors, influencers) and also your company and its people.

2. “Ownability

How tightly can the idea be linked to your brand and only your brand? The idea behind ownability is: “only from us . . . only for you.” For instance, you can’t own the idea: “We have the best people.” Every competitor probably says the same thing. But an idea like, “Our aerospace company was founded by the first two human beings to land on the moon,” is hard to copy.

3. Simplicity.

When marketers remove the excess and simplify, intuitiveness, clarity and the “I get it” factor emerge. A lack of simplicity goes against human nature. Today all audiences have more choices than ever, so don't risk confusing them and turning them away. Truly creative ideas never confuse. They clarify, reveal and eliminate. Any suspicion that an idea may confuse demands testing.

4. Originality

Humans are hard-wired to focus on the novel, unique and original. Indeed, we are programmed to habitually and automatically ignore the familiar and direct a laser-like focus to newness and originality as we go about our ordinary routines. That’s why a pedestrian in the street, an accident or even a new billboard along your commute will capture your attention without conscious thought. Brand marketers questing for big ideas should always be on the lookout for ways to harness this powerful universal truth.

5. Surprise

A cousin of originality, surprise is unexpected but not absurd. Surprise, as it relates to a brand, could mean hyper-elevating your level of customer service in a tired “the customer is always wrong” industry so that the customer feels appreciated and cared for. Good surprises make people feel special.

Related: Idea Evaluation Checklist

6. Magnetism

Magnetic ideas have an allure or an attraction that pulls people toward them. They’re easier to stumble upon than to engineer through any specific process. Be attuned to customers’ reactions. What do they gravitate to in your office? What words or phrases catch their attention? What topics are generating discussion in online communities such as LinkedIn groups?

7. Infectiousness

Big ideas grab you to the point where you can’t forget. Maybe it’s a song, taste, smell or novel solution, but infectious ideas stick in our consciousness and never leave. Infectious ideas can exist in even the most arcane and complex industries.

8. Contagiousness

A brand can infect, and that’s good. But an idea becomes even more powerful when it spreads to others. Whether you call it “viral” or “buzz-worthy,” big ideas compel people to tell others.

9. Egocentricity

People have an innate interest and fascination with themselves. You can empower a brand simply by appealing to the self-interest of people. American novelist John Steinbeck may have captured this idea best when he wrote in The Winter of Our Discontent: “For the most part, people are not curious, except about themselves.”

10. Likability

In advertising communications, one factor contributes to effectiveness more than any other: likability. A study that included approximately 300,000 observations of nearly 3,000 print campaigns to identify the factors that account for an ad being effective, based on recognition and attribution. No brand names were mentioned. The four factors that most affected the ad’s effectiveness were: likability, originality, informative and suited to the environment. Eighty percent of the variation in recognition and more than half of the variance in attribution could be linked to ad-liking.

Related: Beyond the Big Idea