The fallacy of brand fame and ‘the big idea’

by Jed

Before I begin, I’ve been wrestling with this idea for almost my entire career. I’m still not sure I have it clear, but see what you think. 

Every agency loves the concept of ‘the big idea’. It feels like the original Pokemon Go. Planners, suits, and creatives all hunting it down, with sketch pads and PowerPoint as their tools. These rare ideas are seen as a route to brand fame. Brand fame is important because famous brands are memorable. People are more likely to buy something if they remember it.

The logic is pretty simple.

How often is a ‘big idea’ an actual Big Idea, though? Most of the ‘big ideas’ I’ve worked on, seen, or read about are often just a clever idea executed well, in a suitable channel. The insight is usually based on mainstream culture (and usually called a ‘universal human truth’), and the story is told well.

How do they make brands famous though? Fame is about being known by many people. You can be famous for good reasons. Bad reasons. You can have sustained fame. 15 minutes of fame. Presumably, most marketers want to be famous for good reasons, for a sustained amount of time. They want to mean something to people.

In my experience, often, marketers equate fame with exposure. Impressions. Eyeballs.

“It’s a killer ‘big idea’, we just need people to see it and it’ll take off like a rocket.”

So we whack an enormous media budget behind the campaign, and make sure it’s as visible as possible. As many people need to see this as we can afford. The X-Factor final, the Olympics, the Superbowl. Next year; Great British Bake Off. These are all opportunities to create brand fame.

Sometimes this works. But almost all the time, it doesn’t. Even more rarely does that ‘big idea’ create sustained brand fame.

There are few ‘universal human truths’

I spent much of my early career being asked by clients to write a strategy that would send some content ‘viral’. By viral, they meant famous online. Shared by millions. After a few requests like that, I thought I should try to learn a bit more about what made things famous online. I studied network science, picked apart case studies, and tinkered with my clients campaigns.

I figured something out, most viral ideas had one of two things. They had a huge media budget (Old Spice), or they’d started in a small network of friends, and then spread from friend to friend (ALS Challenge). Those that had a massive media budget were usually shocking or entertaining. Those that spread from friend to friend usually had an amazing subcultural insight. What’s interesting is when you look at the difference in results of these two types of campaign. Huge media budget famous usually generates a fair bit of ‘earned’ media – shares and word of mouth – but little in the way of sales. Networked, culturally resonant famous often generates sustainable actual impact.

“I was there at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in ’76”

There’s a decent analogy for explaining the differences between these two – musical artists. Manufactured pop artists often produce a series of hit singles, and maybe a couple of albums. They gain tabloid fame, and produce singles that fit within a meticulously planned framework. Through marketing and media spend, they buy their fame.

Grassroots artists tend to toil away for years and years, with a loyal fanbase, but not much more. One day a spark of magic happens and they ‘crossover’ into the mainstream, and become famous. They ‘earn’ their fame through authenticity and cultural resonance. That fame tends to be much longer lasting.

What I think many brands desire is cultural resonance that results in a mainstream ‘crossover’. They want to be authentic. They want to have a loyal fanbase. To steal from the Stone Roses, they wanna be adored.

Grassroots artists don’t begin with a mainstream audience in mind. They don’t start with multi-million pound media budgets. They definitely don’t start with focus groups. They start making stuff that they think is culturally important. They make things that they think contribute to their culture. They tell actual stories, and create things that make people feel something. They don’t do this for everyone though, they do this for themselves and people like them. They do it for their cultural network.

They are additive, not derivative.

Where this becomes interesting, is when you apply network thinking to culture. Cultures are just networks of people who have a shared interest. They all contribute to the development of their own culture. They have their own language, totems, celebrities, and moral codes.

The idea of the subculture was made most famous in the 1960s with the culture of ‘the teenager’ and the explosion of ‘Beatles Mania’. Art, music, literature, fashion, sports, religion – these are the DNA strands of different cultures. These strands of DNA often make the leap from one culture to the next. There are many, many talented people who spot things in one culture and transport them to another. Hedi Slimane. Jony Ive. Le Corbusier. Banksy. To get to that point though, you have to be a part of a culture, to understand it, to respect it, and to contribute to it.

Culture is a place for brands. Many cultures use brands as an emblem of their membership. The Nike Air Max (Grime kids). The Ford Fiesta XR2 (90s boy racers). The CHANEL clutch (the Knightsbridge fashionista). The AMEX Centurion Card (elite businessmen). Red Bull (extreme sports). Lurpak (the foodie).

Cultures elevate brands. Networks make them famous.

Brands that become famous in this way, become famous with the right people. They become authentically part of a culture. They sustain that fame for much longer.

So where does this leave us?

Well if we go right back to the start, brands want fame.

Create something meaningful

Sustained and authentic fame (that hasn’t been manufactured or paid for) is about contributing something to a culture. That doesn’t have to be a big idea, but it does have to be something that adds something. That demonstrates an understanding. That isn’t driven by the idea of fame. Cultural advancement is the goal, fame is the side effect. You can’t mean something to everyone. You can mean everything to someone though, but you have to pick who.

The way we advertise is going to force us in this direction too. Soon most media channels will be addressable and programmatic. When that happens, the opportunity to impact on and contribute to specific cultures will be huge.

When I first started researching network science, I found that if you could isolate people within a network, it was easy to propagate an idea. The catch was that the data wasn’t granular enough, and we didn’t have sophisticated media technology available to reach them. Those two things are now available. We have access to the culture, the network, the individuals, and the data. We have the means to communicate with them. We no longer need to pepper the airwaves with a ‘big idea’ in the vain hope that the members of the culture that might make us famous maybe see it. Now we can use a scalpel and a paint brush.

If marketing is a battle for mental and physical availability, then the balance has tilted. Physical availability has changed dramatically. Now almost everything is physically available within 24 hours. Yet mental availability has gone crackers. People are now exposed to more than 14,000 brand messages every single day. It has never been so important to mean something to people.

Fame is important, but who you’re famous to, and how you achieve that fame has never mattered more.

Strategists need to learn how cultures and networks operate. Whoever understands the networks, understands the culture. Understand the culture, and you can create ideas that build it. Support the culture and it will support your brand. That’s how you become famous.

This post originally appeared on AgencyVoices on LinkedIn.