Are brand ideas too big for advertising?


Do great brand ideas become shackled by advertising? Image courtesy of Darwin Bell

This my most recent column for New Media Age . In it I expand on the idea, that you will also find in the Battle of Big Thinking speech, that brand ideas now too big for advertising.

Oh by the way, should anyone suggest to you that brand ideas are not up to much or we are all suffering from the cult of the idea you might want to look up Dr Joe Plummer of the Advertising Research Foundation. I heard a sensational speech by him recently at WARC's Advertising Research conference, this was inbetween wondering why there were no UK advertising agencies represented at a conference on advertising research (come on plannerkind, time to engage with our specialist subject).

Here is somebody actually trying to build a model to help us understand the value of engagement to brand demand, and doing it with a consortium of brands from the US Postal Service to P&G. Lo and behold if he doesn't say the research indicates that "the most important part of engagement is the brand idea" - not the ad, not the widget, not interactivity, not Twiggy, not hours of UGC, but the brand idea. I feel I shall be returning to this topic in short order.

Rant over, enjoy article.

Big brand ideas are currently big news in marketing land. I mean really big brand ideas, not short-lived creative ideas that sparkle momentarily and then fizzle away as fast as they arrived. Nor one-dimensional advertising ideas that offer tactical responses to specific business issues. But whopping great ‘are you pleased to see me or is that a canoe in your pocket?’ brand ideas.

At their best these feel like the driving philosophy of the business rather than just the strategy for marketing communications. That’s how the Campaign for Real Beauty seems to me, as if it were the reason that Dove exists in the first place. The same goes for Honda’s Power of Dreams, Land Rover’s ‘Go Beyond’ idea, Vodafone’s belief in the power of now and Persil’s, much maligned, Dirt is Good philosophy.

And of course every Tom, Dick and Tarquin in the agency world thinks that they can muster a half decent idea when the opportunity arises. Well if this were the case I’d be able to quote rather more examples than this. Really big brand ideas are actually rather thin on the ground.

However, it is not the global shortage of quality ideas that concerns me most. It is the role that advertising plays in serving those ideas. In short, while a brand idea can never be too big, it may well be too big for advertising.

Advertising has always liked to see itself as the window onto the brand’s world. That’s what we mean by brand advertising – here is the whole of the brand in forty seconds. And that is why advertising is usually seen as the lead discipline - it’s the one that most succinctly sums up what the brand is all about.

That was fine when ideas were modest and adcentric, but really potent brand thoughts are often short-changed when forced into the format of an ad. More than this, the desire to communicate the entire brand experience can compromise advertising’s ambition to sell. This is the enduring criticism of the ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign -that the idea is far bigger than can be dramatised in an ad and attempts to do so have not converted into sales.

Maybe it is time to free advertising from the need to represent the entirety of the brand idea and recognise that other disciplines are capable of doing this in a richer and more rewarding way. In particular it is time to recognise that for many brands it is their online experience that should be delivering the big brand idea in all its technicolour glory. After all advertising, whether analogue or digital, is always sharper when it has latched onto a specific business problem rather than wafting around conjuring up beautiful brand worlds.

Of course the bad news for advertising agencies is the decline of the set piece ‘brand ad’ as the discipline gets back to the job of selling. Seeing advertising recast as the new below-the-line discipline is unlikely to be popular in Soho

However, the good news for advertising agencies is that few of the brand’s other business partners are capable of framing the big idea in the first place. And this remains the most serious challenge for stand-alone digital agencies in the era of the big brand idea.

Digital may be one of the very few marketing disciplines that can cope with the enormous bandwidth of today’s ideas, but unless those agencies have the intellectual and creative firepower to conceive of the idea in the first place they will struggle to usurp the traditional advertising agency as the primary brand partner.


Richard, you assert very confidently that a brand idea can never be too big, and yet I wonder if that is true. Maybe 'Dirt is good' is an idea too big for any brand of detergent, and 'now'is too important to be handed over to a mobile phone company. Maybe it depends on the 'fit' between the brand idea and the brand, i.e. whether the brand is trying to 'own' the idea, tag along with it, or slipstream in its wake. I think that in consumers' minds big ideas are too big for any one brand to own and planners need to be really clear about the desired relationship between the brand and the idea.

Posted by: Dominic S-M at October 18, 2007 10:23 AM

Here's a question: where do these big ideas comes from? Did The Power of Dreams exist as a fully formed "big idea" before anyone at WCRS lifted a pen and started to write? Back in 2000 I think I remember seeing a Honda brief that talked about Power of Dreams, but it was their company vision, not an idea. 4 or 5 agencies pitched to it as a brief but no-one came up with Hate Something.

Here's another question: if you have a big idea for a novel would you expect a publisher to give you an advance without seeing even a 1st chapter?

The role for ad agency (or any discipline) is as strong as it's ever been because ideas are realised through execution. There is no way of telling whether you have a good idea until you have tried to execute it across media. Ideas get honed and sharpened and revamped and deepened through the creative development process. They get enriched by other agencies as they apply it to their area of expertise. Along the way ideas get challenged by research and by client comment. The 'big idea' comes at the end of a process, not the beginning.

The power of the idea is in the execution. You may call Vodaphone's Power of Now a 'big idea' but is it any bloody good? Does it engage you? Does it move you? Or is it just some bland matching luggage filled with contrived messaging like 'the internet is now mobile'?

Until an idea has been tested through creative development it is nothing more than a concept statement. What ad agencies do is not framing, it is creating. Which makes it very difficult for anyone to develop ideas without access to a creative department of some sort.

Posted by: Phil Teer at October 18, 2007 10:52 AM

Richard, this is a really interesting subject and I think you're spot on with many of your thoughts. I've got a slightly different perspective that you may find completely irrelevant to this discussion, but I'll throw it out their any away. Hopefully I'll make some sense.

My only point is that brand ideas are still assessed from the view point of various marketing disciplines such as advertising, DM, PR, experiential and measured on parameters such as sales etc. To me they are bigger and transcend the whole organisation from consumers through to suppliers and employees. A true brand idea is one that affects an entire organisation and doesn't just sell more product in a variety of different channels and executions.

I work with both a recruitment marketing agency and a conventional advertising agency and one of the things that I've always found intriguing is that companies rarely bridge the gap between 'brand communications' and 'organisational/HR communications' for want of a better description. The 'Dirt is good' campaign is a great example of an advertising idea being turned into a real brand idea. It has been turned into a recruitment marketing campaign that is essentially focused on employing people willing to role their sleeves up and get their hands dirty.

So my questions are can these ideas be judged solely on parameters such as sales and are advertising agencies the best people to define the true brand idea? I know there is a bit of a chicken and egg issue here. What come first the advertising idea or the brand idea? You could arguably say that 'Dirt is good' and the 'Power of Dreams' were advertising ideas that have resulted in changing the way an organisation behaves and evolved into true brand ideas. However, I would argue as to whether it was intentional or not

Posted by: Carlm at October 18, 2007 12:42 PM

I couldn't agree withyou more. Real brand ideas are the idea behind the brand not the ideas the brand has.

These days we unpick brand idea that are stuck onto the outside of the product or organisation not central to it.

For innocent there will be no distinction between the consumer facing brand and what we used to call the 'employee brand'. And I can imagine how Red Bull's 'gives you wings' idea might work powerfully as a way of recruiting people and setting a standard of thinking and behaviour.

I think red hot and restless - the internal brand idea for Vodafone (there is another R I can't remember) - is cool but how much better if they had made the belief in spontaneity (the real genuis behind the make the most of now idea) an organisational belief of Vodafone. That the whole company values spontaneity over any thing else. We might have one mobile network brand we could get behind.


Posted by: richard huntington at October 18, 2007 12:53 PM

I agree with Richard when he says that 'real brand ideas are the idea behind the brand not the ideas the brand has'.

But that's also why Planning is, these days at least, an utterly futile activity (and a very dull career).

The instructive paradox is this: the brands that planners really admire (Innocent, Apple, Nike, Starbucks) do not and have never needed Planners to tell them what they're about. And the brands that Planners actually get to work on (the Vodafones, HSBCs, and BTs of the world) do not and will never care about any of this high-falutin' brand stuff anyway.

So if you want to work on a cool brand, go and create one. Or, as a second best, work for one. But don't 'Plan' on one or hope you that you will have any real effect on the brand you Plan for. It is a (admittedly frequently amusing and entertaining) waste of time.

Posted by: Sir Winston at October 18, 2007 11:32 PM

i attempted to reply back to this last night but had a bit of a brain fart and couldn't think straight. I'm not saying that things are clearer this morning, but I struggle with this whole concept of a formulaic approach to 'planning and creating' the idea behind a brand.

I just don't think you can do this.

Agencies (whatever discipline) merely shepherd a brand conversation in the right direction. We make sure they say the right thing at the right time and that's it. Sometimes that conversation is profound enough to change views and sometimes we are the catalyst behind a great idea. But more often than not, we are just one part of a collection.

The only person who owns this process is the client.

Posted by: mm at October 19, 2007 10:49 AM

p.s. How is commercially possible for multiple 'great brands' to exist in one category.

Surely greatness is exclusive?

Posted by: MM at October 19, 2007 10:50 AM

certainly it's commercially possible for multiple great brands to exist in one category

for example everyone has it that there are a number of great brands in the premiership

Posted by: jemster at October 19, 2007 03:45 PM

well I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder..?!

Posted by: mm at October 19, 2007 06:00 PM

I think what is happening is that we are overusing the word brand, and we are overhyping simple product names to be more than what they are. Is every name a brand? I just heard Christie Hefner, Playboy, speak and she spoke of the difference between a brand and a name (using Nike and Reebok (respectively) as examples) "To me a brand is an attitude about life that is sufficiently strong for the consumer -- that the brand can extend itself from its core product to an experience that consumers can self-identify with." And not all so-called "brands" fits this idea.

Posted by: Nicole at October 19, 2007 11:44 PM

Thanks for the thread so far people – really interesting

I must do my mandatory job of saying that brand ideas originate in culture. So I think that they’re basically cultural ideas that pre-exist ‘the strategist’s pen’ so to speak. Ideally the first task then is to identity the broader cultural tensions that sit behind, or indeed go beyond, the category.

Great build from Phil on the strategy/execution point. The fluffy geek in me has named this (in a distant post) the potential of representation. In other words, an abstract cultural idea only ever has potential until executed, and in this way a 'crap' one executed well can still do better than a 'good' one executed badly. Not that they're ever separable because even the way you share or represent ideas internally (e.g. post-its, powerpoint, video, verbal gravitas) shapes how well they're received to start with. Which leads us nicely onto Richard's point about internal brand culture - there is no doubt that this 'spills out' into the outside world in more ways than often realised.

Returning to some of the big cultural issues here – femininity (Dove), active life/work ethic (Persil), life optimisation & fulfillment (Vodafone), utopian quest (Honda) – I think it’s interesting how they’re all rooted in social action and change at an almost revolutionary level. So, maybe the crucial point is that today’s brands need to set out to change/(re)make culture. And to Dominic’s point, I don’t think it’s possible for any brand to own a cultural space entirely – Dove far from owns femininity in totality. Yet, every brand can make a modest contribution within their respective category and this makes it harder for the competition to join in the fun (unless they can take culture further in some way or use some kind of inversion strategy). And to MM’s question, I think multiple great brands can exist in a category in this way – it’s just a case of picking off different cultural issues that connect or approaching them from a different angle. For example, I’d say that Vodafone, Orange and O2 are all great brands in their own way ...

Posted by: Marcus | Culturemaking at October 20, 2007 01:13 AM

Yes, brand ideas are too big for advertising, but I believed that we had stopped defining our job as "advertising" a while ago.
A brand idea can be experienced throughout many medias, each with a defined purpose within the whole project: think at a tv commercial that is a trailer for a website where you can experience the brand message, join a social network and download discout coupons for your grocery store. Thinking that web is for brand ideas and tv is for sales is the kind of naive attitude that we can't stand in our clients.

And what about the brand paradox? Who said that Apple has never been planned as a brand? Apple has a brand planner (or a team of), and that's most likely Steve Jobs (and his mates). The only difference is that in some cases the brand planner is the company leader rather than some consultant from outside.

On the other hand, if we say that brand ideas are getting closer and closer to company visions, well, that's true. And that's simply because the boundaries between the corporation, the brand and the society are falling apart.

Posted by: Stefano at October 22, 2007 04:30 PM

Very interesting.

Shouldnt ads effectively be the trailers for the full brand idea 'movie'?

I dont think Dirt is Good was given enough time to let the message sink in properly. If you didnt get it right away it kind of vanished before you could.

As with everything, its dangerous to presume ads cannot get across whole brand ideas; just as it dangerous to expect them to do so.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at October 23, 2007 02:04 PM

Marcus makes a good point (and I'm not just saying this because he was nice about my point) about brand ideas originating in culture. Some would argue that they originate in consumer needs or in archetypes but I'm with Marcus. 'Needs' is so blatantly obvious that it gives you precious little help when it comes to developing ideas. Archetypes are, like semiotics, brilliant after the event when your looking for a fancy way of describing what just happened but pretty useless at the development stage. Great brand ideas feel part of their times, in many ways they help define the times (usually in retrospect on TV shows about the 80's or whatever). To be more precise, I think great brand ideas originate in cultural change. In change there is energy and friction, which are the photons and neutrons of ideas. Dirt is Good is about changing attitudes to parenting, Dove is about changing female attitudes to femininity, the power of dreams is about changing attitudes to motoring. They also originate in company vision. If there is no true vision then there is nothing authentic or true about the idea. Action without vision is a nightmare, according to the Chinese proverb. The third point of origination is emotional engagement. The answer to the question "how do we want to make people feel' is all important when developing ideas that get a true emotional reaction. Dirt is Good and Dove were very strong on emotional engagement. Vodaphone is not. Cultural Change, Company Vision and Emotional Engagement are the triangulation points of an idea. However they are not going to give you an idea itself, which comes in execution. Innocent is not a brand idea in its own right, it is only a Smoothie. However, the content of the label, the delivery vans, the free concerts, the ads etc these are the idea and very creative they are too. Just because they didn't originate in an ad agency doesn't mean that access to creative people wasn't essential for their development. Neither does it mean that you can no longer find the best creative executioners in ad agencies. Finally, it tells you nothing about which of the many types of agency there are out there should take precedence over others. Here's another thought I've been toying with for years: if brands only exist in terms of creative expression (and the corresponding reaction that creates in the consumers mind) then wouldn't agencies be better off spending their time thinking about campaigns rather than brands? Wouldn't a theory of campaign planning be more useful to us all than any of the numerous books on brand planning?

Come to think of it, the APG’s How to plan advertising, is the single most useful book I've read on the subject of building brands through the practical application of craft skills towards developing campaigns.

Posted by: Phil Teer at October 23, 2007 02:42 PM

Have ideas got too big for advertising?

At the risk of sounding terribly Old Skool and awfully un-2.0, I'd observe that Bernbach's 'Lemon' execution for VW (for example) managed to sum up an entire brand point of view within the confines of a single elegantly-crafted print insertion.

And it sells the shit out of the car.

Ideas haven't got 'bigger'. I think that's self-congratulatory tosh designed to inflate the needy egos of (mostly male and therefore obsessed with size) planners. Have we all become sooo much smarter? Please.

Ideas haven't got magically bigger. It's our channels of engaging consumers and delivering and expressing our ideas that have got bigger, broader and more varied.

Sorry, planners. Your ideas are no bigger than they used to be. Media is what's got bigger.

And if your idea really is "too big" for your ad, then I suggest that it's not that your idea is too big (you wish), but that your advertising is too small.

Posted by: Grumpy at October 23, 2007 11:13 PM

well said grumpy

Posted by: jemster at November 5, 2007 11:30 AM

"Maybe 'Dirt is good' is an idea too big for any brand of detergent, and 'now’ is too important to be handed over to a mobile phone company."

I strongly disagree.

I genuinely believe that brands have to make a positive impact in the life oft he consumer. Why else should they exist vs the unbranded commodity player?

Given that we now live in a consumption saturated world where most of us live very comfortable lives the only way brands can cut through the clutter is to connect of a deeper spiritual level. Big global brands like Persil(omo),Honda or Vodaphone have a huge impact on the planet, and the real point is that these brands are now far bigger than the teeny weenie world that is brand communications. The idea's that they stand for affect every part of there organizations, galvanizing factory workers and salesmen as well as the marketing department. The collective positive energy generated by all these people united behind the brand that they believe in is what creates social and economic advancement.

I was a Client at Unilever closely involved in the creation and implementation of the first wave of Dirt is Good. What sticks out in my memory is that country after country that I visited; Unilever marketers suddenly had the mandate and budget to get kids dirty. It was a clear and precise brief to help children develop, to sell more soap powder and to feel like you made a difference.

May the big idea reign for years to come! It sorts out the real stars from the wannabe pretenders who just want to tweak ads!

Posted by: Toffael at November 27, 2007 02:21 PM

I strongly agree that the most important part of engagement is the brand idea. In fact, this is what really connects people to brands.

Ad agencies have to rely on its capability of framing the brand idea while others brand partner’s are not so developed on doing that yet.

I don’t know if they think this way but at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, for example, they call their planners as Story Architects. When I knew about it, I already was thinking about our role in the creative process making a parallel with the process of a film creation.

There are many things in common between our creative planning and a film plot. A plot is the foundation of a story, is where resides the “big idea” behind a script, is the most direct mean to make a point and has all the elements that, when scripted, will make the right connections to a specific audience.

I see that, more than ever before, we are becoming valuable to create good plots for brand stories. Our creative people (no matter if advertising, DM, BTL) are and will be the ones who will develop the scripts, who will be aware to make the story interesting, seductive, engaging, etc. But, at the end, their major responsibility will be feed the story (as people who work with Axe or Lynx do from the time that BBH set the “plot” for this brand, for example).

We have to be in this earlier step when is defined the idea behind the story. Just to make sure that a certain story will have the power needed to unite people around it and in the way a brand needs it to happen.

I think planners are still the more trained people to think about a story with the “consumer’s” eye, not the “creator’s” eye. And this slight difference makes all the difference on how a story would reach, connect and engage to people’s emotions at the end.

Posted by: Ramiro Amaral at November 28, 2007 09:54 PM