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Conventional wisdom says the secret to great advertising is developing a big idea for a campaign. In reality, the trick is developing a campaign for a big idea.
Mere semantics? Not at all.
As a young company takes root and expands, it begins to establish its brand. With each passing day, the things it does enhance (or detract from) the value of that brand. Over time, that equation begins to work in the opposite direction as well, and branding can be used to enhance the meaning and value of the company. But for this process to be effective, the business and the brand must remain intertwined.
The world's best marketers understand that as valuable as their products and services are, products and services come and go. Brands, however, live on indefinitely. As a result, they invest in and celebrate and protect their brands in every way they can, wrapping them around big, everlasting ideas.
Apple's (AAPL) animating idea is innovation. Whether it's the design of the iPhone, the functionality of iTunes, the customer experience in the Apple Store, or the light humor of the "Mac vs. PC" ads, the company is all about providing pleasant surprises to its customers. As a result, Apple has a legion of loyal followers and is able to command premium prices for its offerings.
Intel's (INTC) big idea is performance. The chipmaker is determined to never be outperformed by competing technology on things like speed, energy efficiency, and adaptability. That's why when a computer sports an "Intel Inside" badge, people are more apt to trust it, even if (or perhaps because) they know little about the workings within.
For Wal-Mart (WMT), the idea is savings—a concept the company has so effectively owned over the past 48 years that it became the world's largest retailer. Occasionally it loses sight of its originating idea, but it always returns to the core.
What these and other dominant companies know is that sustainable success is built on the foundation of a singular idea, around which everything they do is oriented. Advertising is just one of those things.
Sometimes, as in the case of General Electric (GE), the company is closely associated with an actual word ("Imagination"). In other cases it's the underlying concept that's important. You won't see Nike (NKE) highlight the word "motivation" in its advertising, but motivation is what the brand ("Just Do It") is all about. Leading companies like these filter their strategic decisions around their evergreen, animating ideas, which enable them to sustain success over time.
Why do people drink Coca-Cola (KO)? For some, it's a matter of taste. For others, it's how well Coke quenches their thirst. Still others like the jolt they get from the formula's unique combination of sugar and caffeine. How can Coke effectively market to all the different people who choose its product for their own personal reasons? By planting its flag in an idea with which no one will take issue: happiness.
It's hard to argue with happiness. It's hard to be against happiness. And it's hard to find anyone who doesn't like happiness. Coke has decided to equate its brand with happiness, and orients its product, packaging, and promotion in that direction. (Ever see a "Happiness Machine"?). In a fast-paced, pressure-filled world, anyone can take a moment to "Have a Coke and a smile." (If that old slogan sounds familiar, it only proves the point.)
GE puts its commitment to imagination this way on its Web site: "From jet engines to power generation, financial services to water processing, and medical imaging to media content, GE people worldwide are dedicated to turning imaginative ideas into leading products and services that help solve some of the world's toughest problems." As awkward as the company's major initiatives (Ecomagination, Healthymagination) sound, they further reinforce the idea around which the company is based. "For GE, imagination at work is more than a slogan or a tagline," CEO Jeff Immelt says on the site. "It is a reason for being."
Happiness. Motivation. Innovation. Performance. Imagination. Savings. These aren't advertising ideas; they're business ideas that have advertising implications. If you want your advertising to be more effective, ensure that it's rooted in the idea that animates your company. If you're not sure what that idea is, it's probably related to why you got into business in the first place. Rediscover your animating idea, make sure it's still sound (see "How Solid Is Your Brand?"), and orient everything you do around it—including (but not limited to) your advertising.
If you can prune away everything else and sharpen the point on your animating idea, your advertising will do its job better than you ever imagined.