They huddle around a conference room table. The lights go dark. The 35 mm slide projector floods the screen. Its backlight shines an eerie glow on the presenter’s lower face. This is not just some ad man (or woman). It’s the sermon from the mount. Or maybe Dracula.
The pitch is delivered, building to a crescendo – the “a ha” moment in which the idea comes into focus. More than just selling laundry detergent, the presentation is about emotion, story arc, and transformative life experience. Grown men and women well up and cry.
Most who are familiar with the concept of a Big Idea know it from the world of advertising. The TV show Mad Men won it an indelible place in popular culture. Usually delivered via the pitch, the big idea captivated agency clients and brought each episode to a climax.
PR is not as well-known as advertising or associated with glitzy pitches or Mad Men style theatrics. But as any good PR person knows, big ideas are incredibly important to the field and can be a game changer for your communications program. This article takes a closer look and describes several examples that can transform your PR.
WTF is a Big Idea?
So, what, really, is a Big Idea? And how is it different than, say, just a clever idea?
The phrase has specific meaning in advertising – and PR too, as we’ll learn. It’s about marketing that transcends products and features to tell a more meaningful story. The best ones connect brand values to the needs and desires of the target audience.
As ad whiz David Ogilvy said in his book On Advertising (related in this Fast Company story):
“You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product…”
Examples are all around us. Just think about ads that break through and make an impression: e.g. a gecko that sells car insurance; or the AFLAC duck. In the world of business, IBM’s use of Watson to compete in Jeopardy and show AI leadership. GE’s mantra: “We Bring Good things to Life.” Apple’s “Think Different.” A Big Idea delivered in some agency conference room likely spawned these campaigns.
Big Ideas in PR
We talk about big ideas in PR too, although not in the same hallowed tones as in advertising. But they are now more important than ever. In a noisy media landscape, evasive journalists, and markets crowded with competition, big ideas are just the thing needed to help you break through. Like in advertising, they transcend routine product and company promotion.
Some may find this confusing, and wonder how this is different than just smart PR, or a well-written pitch, or a flawless campaign? I agree that it’s not always clear cut, or an exact science. In fact, big ideas are more art than science (a good thing, since it means that great PR is high touch, and won’t be replaced by an AI bot anytime soon).
They can be as small as a fresh approach to a pitch, and as large as reinventing a product category, or pioneering a new one.
Here are a few examples to illustrate:
A Whack on The Side of the Pitch
I first got excited about the potential of big ideas in PR when I dreamed up one that reinvigorated a campaign. This came soon after I started here at Fusion PR close to twenty years ago.
It was my first PR job and I had gotten off to a rough start. The boss was a hard charging guy with impossible expectations. The clients all needed attention, and it wasn’t always clear how to get them results.
One day I was pulled into a hot project – a large voice recognition company was launching tech that helped users navigate websites via a phone call, with voice commands (pretty advanced for late 90s tech). Unfortunately the team’s pitches went unheeded. The media just didn’t care.
In my previous role in enterprise software sales and consulting, we dealt with similar tech, and pitched it to prospects as software that turned your phone into a web browser.
I suggested this angle. The team took the advice of the new guy, since nothing else was working, and rejiggered pitches accordingly. Soon results started pouring in – the media were biting!
The boss gave me kudos – actually picked me up and hugged me in front of the team! I was off to the races, hooked on PR and eager to find that next big idea. In this case the breakthrough was nothing more than a different take that used a metaphor to simplify and entice.
Helping Tech Companies Play Bigger
Sometimes the idea involves novel product positioning.
Many tech solutions don’t fit neatly into a category – they either disrupt the existing landscape or are a totally different beast. Here, the opportunity is to craft the label and description that packages the innovation in just the right way and takes the market by storm.
Admittedly, this is not just about PR – it involves product engineering and other aspects of marketing. But the PR team’s knowledge of the buzz in a space and playing field can help in coming up with the right words. And PR campaigns do the heavy lifting of telling the market about the innovation.
The book Play Bigger (authored by the consulting firm of the same name) popularized the approach, which they call “category engineering”, and explained how companies like Salesforce, AirBnB and Uber became kings in each of their categories.
E.g, Salesforce did not invent CRM – but they pioneered enterprise software in the cloud. Their motto “No more software” neatly captured the value prop, and creative PR campaigns grabbed attention and explained why people should care.
At Fusion PR we have helped numerous startups break from the pack and achieve their potential through opportunistic positioning.
Building Bigger Stories
The media don’t want to write puff pieces about products and companies. Sure, they may cover truly breakthrough innovations, but these are few and far between. A way to earn ongoing media attention and coverage is to tie your offering to a broader topic or trend. It’s about building a bigger story.
Here are a few examples:
- This NY Times story was about the cultural differences between workers in the U.S. vs. India. It put offshore outsourcing company Sierra Atlantic on the front page of the Times business section.
- How do you get major media recognition for a provider of deep tech for insurance companies? Tie them in with a consumer-friendly story, like the Pokémon Go craze. The angle got Valen Analytics into Money magazine and other top outlets. The connection was the increased risk and insurance implications of people walking the streets, heads-down, immersed in the game.
- This B2B tech vendor got coverage in HelpNetSecurity by drawing an analogy between cybersecurity and the wildly popular Game of Thrones TV show.
In each situation, the PR team put themselves into the mindset of a journalist and crafted a pitch that rode an idea bigger than any single company or product.
The Art of the Stunt
In an era when our digital worlds are so noisy, a good old PR stunt can be just the thing to shake people out of their heads-down device stupors and grab attention.
Behind every PR stunt was a team that went beyond the usual press release or pitch to make something exciting happen. They’re not all successful or sparked by a big idea, but it’s easy to find the ones that did work – as they tend to jump out when you read or watch the news.
Publicity stunts can be particularly effective because they surprise and engage. Not just limited to the physical world, they can work online too. Here are a couple of recent examples:
- The power of computer generated imagery was dramatically interested in this CNN story about Lil Miquela, an influencer who is really just a bot. It also got some good PR exposure for Brud, a Los Angeles startup that specializes in AI and robotics, and also the company behind the campaign.
- Pancake chain IHOP recently got attention via a social media campaign (described in Forbes) that kept people guessing about the meaning behind their rebranding to IHOb.
- The TV show Westworld created a real robot to promote its news season, reported in The Loop.
How can you come up with a big idea-style stunt to promote your news? First, study what others have done. The best ones send a clear message that sync with the attributes, values and benefits you’d like to promote. They can align with other big ideas, such as the ones referenced above.
They can fail too, sadly, in disastrous ways that also make the news. Some believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity – I disagree. Check out this story. Suffice it to say that your stunt should be safe, legal, and inoffensive.
The Big Idea is not just for Mad Men style brand advertisers. They can and should be used in PR to help you break out of the box and get attention and results.
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