What’s the big idea?

A broken bulb that illuminates via theletter.co.uk

My ongoing quest make nice between the worlds of green and brand usually involves finding places where these disparate disciplines can learn from each other.  But more and more, I find myself focusing on common problems instead of shared solutions.  There’s one conundrum that’s been nagging me for a while; it reared up again while debreifing Sustainable Brands ’09 with a co-worker who attended last week:

Do good ideas have to have ‘big ideas’ behind them?

Within both fields, this is almost a blasphemous question to ask.  The stalwarts of sustainability are deeply invested in a culture where any product not directly contributing to planetary salvation is to be publicly stoned with accusations of greenwash.  This separates the committed from the casual.  It gives rise to a plethora of standards organizations from the USDA to the USGBC who exist to put labels on legitimacy.  It justifies price premiums and creates superiority quotients.  It’s what keeps sustainability a movement.

Likewise, a global congregation of brand strategists and agency planners has invested four decades in building an industry around the ritualistic worship of the big idea; the doctrine that design is conceptual, that culture can be distilled to concepts, and that concepts can and must be mapped along abstract axes in cryptic PowerPoint slides. This is how work is sold.  It’s how creative is inspired. It is, ultimately, the justification for expensive answers that are rooted in common sense but can’t be empirically tested.

Certainly, organizations need a reason to exist.  Movements need a method of quality control.  Great brands need to make a promise beyond products.

But when you silence the rhetoric, shut down the projector, and step out into the front lines of both green and brand, cracks emerge in the omnipotence of the big idea.  It’s time we stopped ignoring them, and asked some introspective questions instead.  A few problems worth chewing on:

  1. Research is only one part science. The other ingredients are performance art and artful hogwash.  Social research isn’t about coldly-rational validation; live human subjects won’t ever just tell you exactly how your carefully-worded positioning statement or colorful stimulus board will impact their purchase behavior.  They don’t know yet.  Research — especially that of the qualitative variety — is about producing knowledge in the moment as much as measuring facts.  It’s about inspiration and ideas.  Similarly, the popular reporting of scientific discoveries, be they of the marketing or climate-science variety, is about politics and framing as much as collaborative learning.  Every answer is incomplete, loaded, and manipulated.  It’s just part of the game.
  2. Pop culture runs on a chaos of small ideas. Part of the fallacy behind the rationality of research is the fact that culture and nature can only be empirically measured in the past.  Big ideas are assembled by looking back and stitching together a retroactive narrative from a sea of micro observations.  All history is a story; all stories choose which details to include and leave behind; all histories fundamentally change the past.  Every forward-looking statement, strategy, and product based on that historical revisionism is a theory, not a proven fact.  An educated guess or a blind gamble, depending on how much homework you’ve done.  The big ideas we sell are guesses based on the pieces of the past we’ve stitched together.  Meanwhile, culture marches on as a disorganized mess of fads, trends, products, and people.
  3. The real world is messy. This chaos of small ideas is where the majority of people make purchase decisions and express their everyday identities.  It’s an environment that is inconsistent, unpredictable and only so controllable — an instability that will only be more pronounced as brands become more social, movements more decentralized, and customers more empowered.  The tendency toward metabrands mean that the big ideas are created from the decentralized sum of small ideas; the uncontrollable democracy of billions of decisions made by millions of actors.

Big ideas, in short, are chosen.  They build from the small ideas we offer and they evolve as the terms of those ideas are altered by the people who put them into action.

Why, then, do we invest so much time, money, and pomp into the big ideas?

Could we have a truly post-environmentalist ‘green’ movement?  Would it be a movement?  What would a small-idea brand strategy look like?   Could it build a brand?

Am I crazy?

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5 Responses to “What’s the big idea?”


  1. 1 Grant Canary June 8, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    which starts first, the movement or the advertising for the movement? And if they inform each other?

    From my perspective as one of those small ideas, you’ve got two ideas going at the same time, a binary (big vs. small) and a rate of rise (small to big). If you were thinking in physics, you’d ALMOST be talking about the amplitude of an idea vs its wavelength. This is your first problem.

    I think your real question is, would people do small things if they didn’t get a brand benefit or movement benefit or social status benefit out of it. I’d say yes, as long as its cheaper, its quality is better (which is subjective), or it is required (i.e. regulated).

    Most of those things are subjective. Even the fact based ones as you’ve amply pointed out.

    If it doesn’t make you cooler, isn’t cheaper, isn’t longer lasting, and isn’t required–why would you do it? The answer of course is that b/c its better for everyone environmentally. Jared Diamond’s Collapse finds some cultures that avoided the tragedy of the commons, but that was through legislation and mutual agreement.

    So to the original question, Which comes first, the movement or the advertising to start the movement and influence decision makers? If you’re a movement and you have an agenda, your order of operations and order of priorities is:

    1. legislate for the common good (lightbulbs/whaling/etc)
    2. convince people its higher quality/cooler (organic)
    3. convince people its cheaper (smart meters/lightbulbs)
    4. convince people its longer lasting (wind energy)

    If you’re an ad agency with a product, you differ in your priorities b/c your base doesn’t know they want your product so…

    1. convince people its higher quality/cooler/cheaper
    2. convince people its longer lasting/sustainable
    3. legislate and drive market to your product

    what happens when you have products and movements…the producers try and co-opt the movement, the movement tries to co-opt the producers and the priorities and orders of operations vary according to organization. Who comes out on top? whoever has the most successful combination and alliances.

    Survival of the fittest…all about cooperation to compete, not competition.

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  1. 1 Disappointing at its own ends « preparsed Trackback on June 14, 2009 at 9:22 am
  2. 2 Arthur Falcone Trackback on February 28, 2015 at 12:35 pm

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thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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