What's The Big IdeaL?

For most corporations, what seems right ethically does not always make good business sense. Although conventional thinking has it that business and idealism make uneasy bedfellows, corporate history has nonetheless been shaped by the quest for the higher purpose as much as it has thrived on the hunger for commercial success. Indeed, many great modern businesses and brands have flourished on the ideals of their founders. Thomas Watson Sr. of IBM promulgated the slogan “world peace through world trade” and advocated “the exchange not only of goods and services but of men and methods, ideas and ideals.” Many Japanese companies have long placed societal benefits at the center of their philosophies.

Robyn Putter, late leader of the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Creative Council, advocated in 2006, “The brands we most admire are built not just on big ideas, but on big ideals.” Robyn believed that vital as ideas are, great brands tend to be built on underlying ideals that provide guidance to all aspects of brand and company activity. These ideals are driven by goals beyond the next set of figures. They engage people both within and beyond the organization and they radiate the values and commitment needed to bring that ideal to fruition. It is a “big ideaL”, not a “brand ideal”, because it has the potential to affect the way whole organizations think and behave rather than just the way their brands are being marketed.

Better results start with stronger beliefs

As counterintuitive as it may seem, a firm’s ability to generate strong and sustainable profits is supported by its core philosophies and beliefs. The proliferation of Internet usage means it is now easier for people to express and communicate their opinion, thus drawing an obvious line between companies with strong values and attractive goals, and those that feed solely on greed.

Modern consumers exhibit an increasing awareness of environmental and social issues, compelling businesses to replace the “profit at any cost” attitude with a need to make money responsibly. Businesses want their objectives, and those of their brands, to be attractive and easily defensible. While the economic crisis has tested some companies’ resolve, it has also raised awareness among consumers of the need for “substance” behind business.

John Kay’s book on “Obliquity” makes the point that “the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented.” Aiming at a higher goal not only pays dividends for stockholders, it directly impacts a firm’s ability to attract talent. The best people want to be part of a respectable corporate culture, and people are more productive if they are able to attach meaning to their work. In a world where employees are more than ever the public face of brands, both online and offline, this is particularly important.

The big ideaL helps define a brand’s purpose

The challenge, of course, lies in the execution. Visions may sound good but fail to be acted on in practice because they are too complex or inhuman to connect with people. The big ideaL provides a practical tool for companies to connect with the real people who can make it come to life.

Imagine someone in your organization meets a stranger in a pub and they get talking. The stranger asks, “What’s that like? What do you get out of that?” Most people are not going to recite the company’s mission statement or brand values at this point. But ideally, they’ll be in a position to say something positive and anecdotal, and put a smile on people’s faces.

A well-written big ideaL can help here, simply by giving employees an easy-to-remember purpose that is as suitable for the pub as it is for the boardroom or the shareholder meeting. The big ideaL is best expressed in a short phrase that captures the company’s or brand’s point of view on the world, or on life, or on the country in which it operates. Despite being short and memorable, the big ideaL is not a tagline. It is a highly structured form that conveys the ethos of the brand or company to people from different cultures and to employees and consumers. It can be said in just seconds, but doing the necessary thinking to get it absolutely right can take months. It is simple, but not simplistic. Just because it’s called a big ideaL doesn’t mean it has to be really serious. A big ideaL should not be entirely frivolous, but it can certainly embrace humor. Not every brand can hope to achieve world peace, and while you may have wanted that from Coke, you’d likely flee from a similar approach from your credit card.

The structure of a big ideaL is:

“(Brand/company) ________ believes the world
would be a better place if ___________.”

It would be boring if all brands share the same goal, but a brand’s big ideaL should be at least a little uplifting. An ideal is a shared and easily articulated understanding of what the company or brand believes in. A strong big ideaL makes employees feel good, gives stakeholders a feeling of momentum and focus, sets expectations for business partners, and gives consumers a reason to think, talk and maybe even get excited about the brand or company. The big ideaL should not be confused with a corporate and social responsibility program. The big ideaL is there to help a brand define an interesting and attractive worldview that will help it gather widespread support.

The value of a big ideaL

The business value of big ideaLs has been demonstrated in two consumer research studies carried out by Ogilvy. In the first study, which covered 2,000 consumers in eight countries through Added Value Research, several pairs of brands such as Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Microsoft were contrasted to determine the degree to which people saw each of them as having a big ideaL.

Clearly, there was a correlation between having a clear big ideaL and brand consideration, positive opinion, and salience. Eighty-two percent of brands with a high point-of-view/big ideaL rating were seen as being the best, or one of the best, brands in their category. For those with a low rating, the corresponding figure was only 52%.

In the other study, Ogilvy explored the relationship of big ideaLs to brand dynamism and predicted purchase behavior. We compared the strength of a brand’s big ideaL with brand strength as measured by the “Brand Voltage” metric on WPP/Millward Brown’s BrandZ, a predictor of brand share growth or decline. The study found a strong correlation between the extent to which a brand is seen as having a big ideaL and its Brand Voltage. Although many factors contribute to a brand’s propensity to grow market share, there is no doubt those brands with big ideaLs are in a better position to do so. The big ideaL isn’t the answer to everything, but it sure can help.

This is the age of the big ideaL

It is a time of uncertainty and stress for global businesses. We need to deal with vast complexity while still collaborating across functions and cultures. Be it a huge corporation or a small brand, big ideaLs can help generate enthusiasm, commitment, creativity and profit.

It wouldn’t have been fair of us to advocate the big ideaL for our clients if we hadn’t developed our own, so we did. The Ogilvy big ideaL is:

“Ogilvy believes the world would be a better place if we could bring out the inner greatness in brands, companies, and people.”

Please find unabridged version of “What’s The Big IdeaL?” in The Red Library

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