Posts Tagged 'big ideas'

Disappointing at its own ends

Elvis Costello talked to NPR recently about what it takes to stay successful and satisfied in the music business for more than three decades:

I never set out with an objective that I had to, you know, invade Russia by next week or something.  That’s not a healthy way to carry on in music.  When I’m asked for advice by people whose children are considering music as a career, I say, “make sure it’s actually music they’re pursuing, and not fame,”  because fame on its own ends is liable to be disappointing, but music is very rarely disappointing.

In other words, don’t be a musician just to get famous; don’t sell widgets just to get rich.  You’ll let yourself down.

Thanks, Elvis.

It’s a spirit written into the the modern American dream — the hope that pursuit of passion will always lead to accidental profit and assured prosperity.  It’s also built into the foundation of brand consulting: companies inspired by big ideas will always be more successful over the long term than companies looking for a quick fix.  We turn this into convincing, sometimes even emotionally moving arguments for common rallying cries and higher callings.

But is it really true?  Is it really possible to sell insurance for the sake of peace of mind?  To parse endless lines of enterprise accounting software code in the name of productive efficiency?  Is that sense of ultimate purpose really what it takes to run a successful brand for decades?

Is, say, Nike really around to drive the essence of sport to the next level?  Like Mr. Costello, would they describe themselves as champions of sport first, and accidental business starlets second?

I asked their investor relations homepage.

nikeisagrowthcompany

I know, that’s a completely unfair conclusion.  Nike has nurtured an amazing brand from a backtop in Eugene, OR to a multi-billion dollar global business.  They stand apart in recognition and success because of their ability to nurture that brand, and to do so they take constant inspiration from a big idea that resonates.

But you won’t find much about that big idea in their 10-K.  The awkward reality that we brand consultants must come to terms with is this clumsy separation between big ideas and business models.  The fact that we believe in the power of brands but still struggle to quantify their value in balance-sheet terms.  The smirks we share when we take credit for bottom-line results.

If there are more than ‘intangible asssets’ at play, it’s time to find them.  Let’s make sure it’s actually brands we’re pursuing.

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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?


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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