What’s The Big Idea?

Help me out here.

Businesses make substantial investments in product development, manufacturing, packaging, promotion and more. Some estimate the average cost of producing a television commercial to be $500,000 or more. The top 10 advertisers spent over $15 billion on media in 2010.

And if you watched the Super Bowl, you saw 30-second spots – single commercials – with price tags well over $4 million each for production and media.

Yet when it comes to the foundational work of creating the most compelling of all possible business propositions – the concept development process that ideally evolves into irresistible, proprietary, motivating and relevant brands – it continues to shock me that this work often gets short shrift.

Concepts are the building blocks, the basic ingredients for success, mediocrity or failure. Virtually all marketing departments of large consumer-oriented companies start here when developing new products, line extensions or brand positions. The goal is to develop a range of single-minded ideas that describe “brand essence,” or more simply put, “why should someone buy our product?”

Ideally, these concepts are used to stimulate vigorous internal debate about the practical and emotional appeal of a brand proposition, then continue that dialogue with target consumers.

Any competent chef will tell you that a delicious dish is only as good as the quality of its ingredients and will go to great lengths to let you know precisely what goes into his creations. Consider an menu item at the iconic Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago: “Whole Roasted Squab with Heirloom Beets, Pistachio & Alaskan Licorice.”

Of course there’s some marketing going on in this description, but Charlie Trotter’s squab would not be the same had he substituted Good & Plenty for that Alaskan Licorice. Even Papa John’s tell us: “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.”

Yet a do-it-yourself, “junk food” mindset often seems to prevail when it comes to developing concepts – the essential DNA of brands. Where a relatively minor investment in time and talent could pay off exponentially, marketers are using too many canned goods and frozen foods instead of fresh, high quality concept ingredients.

It’s not that companies don’t spend a good deal of money on developing and testing new products and brand positions. They certainly do. Most of the consumer-oriented businesses with whom I work invest in multiple stages of concept testing, often culminating in BASES or other “real world market simulations” that are predictive of awareness, trial, repeat, sales and other measures.

I have always been fascinated by language, and we start here with what I feel is strong case of rhetorical discrimination. While the “Big Idea” is the Holy Grail in marketing, “concepts” are cheap. The dictionary definitions are virtually interchangeable the words carry very different feelings as used by marketers.

Think about it. Your company has a positioning format, mostly likely derived from the classic P&G template of “For (target), (product) is (feature) that (benefit). Or something like that.

There is a lot to be said for the roles of process and standardized formats in facilitating communications and I am a fervent believer in developing detailed creative briefs. However, not enough attention is paid to who writes these briefs and the quality of thinking that goes into their writing.

It is not too difficult to see how standardized forms can easily lead to the dumbing down of ideas.

This issue is far more complex than meets the eye. The writer and the writing matter, but by almost by definition, forms tend to make us followers rather thanleaders. We are following instructions when working within a format, not blazing new trails.

Indeed, formats are intended to make things easier, not to promote creativity. So when faced with a form rather than a blank computer screen or clean sheet of paper, it might seem that anyone can fill in the blanks.

Marketing budgets might be adequate in some areas, but cost consciousness reigns supreme in these demanding times. As a brand manager or consumer insights manager, you need to rely outside help for tasks such as building websites, filming commercials or creating new artwork for packaging.

But concepts? You might say, “I can fill out this form myself. If I don’t have time I’ll send it over to the ad agency. They’re on retainer and they’ll do it for me.” Of course you have to accept the fact that the “creatives” will never see the assignment. It will be delegated to the most junior account person.

Will all due respect to my many bright and talented friends in brand management, consumer insights and agency account management, this is no different than asking Shaquille O’Neal to play point guard. Sure, he’s a future Hall-of-Famer, but his strengths were never speed, passing, ball handling and outside shooting.

What we should be demanding here – at the outset of the process where creativity is more important than any subsequent stage – is the vision, leadership and expertise needed for this very specific and critical task.

Better ingredients do make a better pizza. So if the concept alternatives we develop are going vetted, reconfigured and eventually focused down to the “big idea” or final brand position and personality, the tagline of every marketer should be, “Better Concepts. Better Consumer Offering.”

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