Rethinking the Big Idea

Back in January, I attended a panel at the Advertising Club’s Great Debate.

To kick things off, the moderator correctly observed that pundits have declared “the death of advertising” every year since the turn of the century. The 20th century.  The ad industry, he suggested, would never die, though it would have to evolve to survive.  The 400-pound gorilla in the room was how that would take shape.

As I listened to the panel, certain key words surfaced in almost every answer: “engage,” “interact” and “converse” – all words that refer to a two-way communication.  And yet, at the same time, the panelists continuously referenced a creative process that focused on delivering “messages” or “big ideas.”  It struck me as strange that advertisers would talk about what they want consumers to do, by focusing entirely on what advertisers should say.  How can these two very different concepts be reconciled?

Short answer?  I’m not sure they can.

I’m inspired by the thoughts of game designer, Pekko Koskinen who has turned the idea of game design on its head.

“Can’t we then think of game design as an art of fictional behavior? You can think of game design as coming up with a pattern of behavior and then creating a game that brings that behavior about.

Can we design a player in the same way we design a game? Can we make the player the product, in some instances, as well as the game? I think we can.”

(via MTV Multiplayer)

Quite simply, Koskinen’s games cause a player to think, understand and act in a way they wouldn’t normally.  In this way, Koskinen is acting not only as a game designer, but rather, as an architect of consumer behavior.

So how does this relate to advertising?  Applying Koskinen’s principle of game design, we can refocus our creative energies, not on the message itself – but how we want the consumer to behave.

Traditional advertising isn’t dead, but it does need a serious refocusing.  After all, at their core, most TV ads boil down to behavior suggestions that happen to incorporate a Brand or product.  Digital has the potential to shortcut this process by creating behavior, not just suggesting it.

An example of what I mean: for many years, we’ve been lucky to be involved with a wonderful project for Bacardi called BacardiDJ (check it out in our portfolio section).  The premise was an online mixing board that allowed aspiring DJ’s to mix pre-sampled loops (drawn from various styles) into a song.  By designing the interaction (the DJ experience), consumers were allowed to become club DJ’s, precisely the lifestyle we were hoping to associate with the product. Was there a brand message here? Implicitly, there absolutely was, but the key to this campaign’s success was its emphasis on creating a branded behavior, rather than a branded message.

See related post: How Gaming Can Change Lives and Brands

Applying this model, we can begin to move the goal posts for “great” advertising.  For example, Dove’s successful “Real Campaign for Beauty” worked, not because it delivered a poignant message (it did), but because it sparked a conversation.  It got people thinking, talking and telling their friends.  It’s these interactions that can build affinity, loyalty and, most importantly, sustainable Brands.  The moral of the story is, in today’s marketing and advertising world, it’s less about what you say and more about what your target consumers do with it.

The big idea isn’t dead – but the message is only the beginning.