WHAT IS A BIG BANG, ANYHOW?
These days, getting people to notice you isn't easy. The Information Age has morphed into Information Overload. Messages are everywhere: At the bottom of golf cups on the putting green, flashing on ATM screens, even posted over urinals (an excellent product placement for Budweiser). People gazing out the window when flying into O'Hare a few years ago couldn't escape the colossal rooftop sign advertising Altoids. Urban strivers can now turn to promotional high-rise video screens to avoid the ever-dreaded elevator eye contact. Come-ons decorate coffee cups, umbrellas, commuter train schedules, shopping carts, delivery trucks, lampposts. We even put an ad at the bottom of this page.
So how do you get heard? How does your company connect with the consumer?
You need a Big Bang.
When The Kaplan Thaler Group opened for business six years ago, we knew that everything taught in Marketing 101 is no match for this daily deluge of data. We'd spent almost two decades creating campaigns that were tremendously successful, but we weren't exactly sure why. We knew that they were well liked, communicated with our consumer, got rememberedeven entertained. But before we could go much further we needed to try to decipher the science behind our million-dollar ideas. We needed to understand what was unique about our way of thinking and working. We didn't want to feel that every time we approached a new campaign we had to reinvent the wheel.
Robin, who spends her spare time reading books that could top Mensa's advanced reading list, just happened to be boning up on cosmology at the time. "What about the big bang?" she suggested to me one day. "Isn't that the kind of work we do for our clients?" OK, so advertising isn't rocket science. It may seem like a pretty big leap from physics to promoting shampoo, but the more we thought about it, the more it seemed like the right analogy. After all, our best ideas often come from seemingly random events, we work in a pressure-cooker environment, and, once released, our work tends to expand exponentially in the culture. And so, unknown to the Nobel Foundation in Sweden, the KTG Big Bang Theory was discovered.
And it's worked. A Big Bang was responsible for nearly doubling the annual sales growth for AFLAC insurance company. A Big Bang took Herbal Essences from a nearly extinct shampoo to a $750 million worldwide brand. The Big Bang theory has catapulted The Kaplan Thaler Group from a small business in the top floor of a townhouse to the fastest-growing agency among the top 100 in the United States. Starting with just $27 million in billings in 1997, we now have a roster of blue-chip clients with over $350 million in billings.
So what, exactly, is a Big Bang in business? More to the point, how do you turn your company into a Big Bang factory? First, let's go backwaaay back.
In the beginning, say, 15 billion years ago, give or take a few days if you factor in leap years, there were no planets, stars, or galaxies. There was simply blank emptiness (think of the recent ABC fall line-up). One could interpret this state of nonbeing as a peaceful serenity, void of anything except, well, void. But nothing was further from the truth. In fact, this tabula rasa was seething with "all the pent-up energy of a primordial explosion," as the physicist Trinh Xuan Thuan put it in The Birth of the Universe: The Big Bang and After. But you probably couldn't see all this seething because it was happening in a teeny, tiny space about 1Ú3,000th of an inch in diameter (a size difficult to visualize unless you have ever rented a studio apartment in Manhattan). And it was really, really, hot, 1032 degrees Kelvin, which would make even tankinis unwearable.
Then, suddenly, a cosmic clock struck and the whole universe exploded onto the scene, hurling out electric particles, photons, and other matter every which way. When matter was created, it was neutralized by anti-matter, but luckily there was more matter than anti-matter, or we'd all be the opposite of who we are today.
But the universe didn't stop there. It just kept expanding and expanding and expanding. It spawned stars and planets and dark holes and eventually spit out billions and billions of other universes. And slowly certain chemical combos begat crude biological organisms, starting with the lowliest amoeba and working up to life-forms as complex as plumbers and used car salesmen. For those of you who cut high school physics to smoke Marlboros behind the tennis courts, this was the original Big Bang.
Well, a Big Bang in the marketplace is similar, minus a galaxy or two. The Real Thing. iMac. Just Do It. Gucci. Martha Stewart. The Sopranos. Starbucks. These are all Big Bangs. They all started out as an idea and rapidly went on to take over the cultural universe. In the early 1990s, for example, Gucci was a small manufacturer that had fallen out of favor with the fashionista crowd. Then they promoted a junior designer named Tom Ford. Now Gucci is a global synonym for fashion.
Our Big Bang theory has been so successful that we believe it is tailor-made for any company looking to increase market share exponentially.
Why does your business need a Big Bang? A Big Bang is designed to help make a brand explode onto the marketplace virtually overnight. In this world of shrinking timeframes and global competition, no one has the luxury of time to get the point across. Many clients are public companies, which means they live in a ninety-day world, under tremendous pressure to produce results before the next quarterly earnings statement. A Big Bang creates an ever-expanding universe for a product, and turns occasional users into fierce loyalists. A Big Bang cuts through the clutter and gets people to sit up and take notice. A Big Bang helps you to make the sale, close the deal, get the gig now. Here's why:
a big bang disrupts. At its core, a Big Bang idea is about taking the spotlight. It is about ideas that are simply too outrageous, too different, too polarizing to go unnoticed.
There is a sea of sameness out there. We're glutted with products and services. You can't go anywhere without seeing the same mind-numbing brands over and over again. Drive down the highway in California and you'll pass by a strip mall with Gap, Barnes & Noble, Old Navy, The Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, and a gas station. Go through a couple of stoplights, and the whole thing starts all over again. Was that last fast-food joint a McDonald's or a Burger King? Who can tell the difference anymore?
On a recent trip to Hong Kong, Robin, never one to pass up a shopping opportunity, brought backnothing. "Here I was in this exotic city halfway around the world," she told me when she returned. "I walked out my hotel room door, ready to load up on Far Eastern exotica, and all I saw were signs that said Gucci, Chanel, Escada. What's the point of lugging all that stuff back to New York?" Turns out that Hong Kong is just like New York, except that it has fewer Chinese restaurants.
A Big Bang bucks conventional wisdom and stops people in their tracks. According to The Economist magazine, people see over 3,000 messages each day, but like cooked spaghetti, only a couple of them stick to the wall. As a result, no one is sitting on the edge of his or her seat waiting to hear what you have to say. You need to disrupt the established paradigm to get through.
Let us give you an illustration of a recent campaign that was wildly successful, primarily because it was so unexpected. In the weeks following the World Trade Center attacks, when tourists were staying away from New York City in droves, Phil Dusenberry, former chairman of BBDO/North America, and Ted Sann, chief creative officer of BBDO/New York helped spearhead a campaign to convince people to come back to New York. "The BBDO team started with the idea that everybody has a New York dream," remembers Dusenberry. "So we wanted to say, 'Come find yours.' "
It only took the BBDO team a day or so to come up with an uplifting campaign, called "The New York Miracle," starring celebrities fulfilling their dreams: Woody Allen skating at Rockefeller Center ("You're not going to believe this," Allen breathlessly says after a series of spins and turns, "but that was the first time I was ever on ice skates!"). Henry Kissinger running the bases at Yankee stadium ("Derek who?"). Barbara Walters auditioning on Broadway. Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro arguing about who gets to be the turkey and who gets to be the pilgrim in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
"We knew we had a good idea," says Dusenberry, "but we didn't know that it would take off like a rocket." Moments after Mayor Giuliani aired the commercials for the press at Manhattan's City Hall, Dusenberry got a call from MSNBC's Brian Williams. Williams said, "If you come on my program tonight, I will play every one of these commercials completely, top to bottom." So Dusenberry went on the show. Most of the networks ended up donating time to run the spots. It played in countries all over the world, even as far away as Japan. Rudy Giuliani, in his book Leadership, attributes the campaign to restoring the spirit of New York, and getting people all over the world to come back.
The campaign was breakthrough because it starred celebrities who ordinarily refuse all requests to appear in a commercial. But just as important, the spots themselves grabbed the spotlight. At a time of national mourning and fear of the city, the spots relied on an unexpected bit of New York humor to take the spotlight.
a big bang is illogical. Edward De Bono, the father of lateral thinking, noted that problem solving involves abandoning accepted, logical thought processes and rearranging and reevaluating the status quo. Often the reason we don't come up with better solutions to problems is simply because the existing ones seem to work just fine. "Why would I want a VCR, when the movie theater is just around the corner?" might have been the response to the SONY engineer who designed the first home videocassette recorder. If we allow a little illogic into our thoughts, however, we can break through the prison of current convention. Somehow or other you have to embrace the idea that whatever business you are in, the most illogical course of action is often the most logical thing to do.
Plenty of American icons are perfectly ridiculous products if you think about them logically. Look at SUVs. Why would anyone want to drive vehicles that are too big for the garage, that guzzle gas, and that roll over when you turn too fast? It's totally illogical that white-collar city dwellers and soccer moms would want to drive "blue-collar" trucks. However, when you reorient your way of thinking from the "logic" of car as transportation to the "illogic" of car as fantasy, it's easy to understand that in a world where we often feel small and unnoticed, a big, 10,000-pound hunk of steel lets us feel important and impossible to overlook. SUVs are totally illogical, yet they are the most popular new car design in decades.
And who would have predicted the success of Starbucks? For years, all our caffeine cravings were fed by a fifty-cent visit to the local diner. Then along comes a place with concoctions such as "mocha malt frappuccino," and we can't stand in line long enough to blissfully shell out five bucks for it. And for that five bucks, you don't even get a waiter to give you a refill. Then they have the audacity to call their smallest cup of coffee a Tall, perhaps in the hopes that you won't notice how much you overpaid for it. But remarkably, Starbucks went from seventeen stores in 1987 to nearly 5,000 in 2002. No wonder they call it StarBUCKS.
Twenty-seven years ago, if you wrote a business plan on how to make money by selling water, you'd die of thirst waiting for the loan approval. For years and years people just turned on the tap and had a drink. For free. Then came Perrier. Some French genius thought, Hey, I'm going to fill a bottle with water and charge those Americans for it. And suddenly we were all convinced that expensive water made us better, healthier, smarter, more sophisticated. This is the most illogical thing you can think of! What's next, you ask? Well, in cities around the country, oxygen bars are now available to the discerning breather. Just what we need, more airheads.
Both Starbucks and Perrier used elegantly simple conceptsa cup of coffee and a glass of waterin a completely surprising way: to tap into our complex need to feel pampered and special. Scientist Stephan Wolfram, the author of The Foundation for a New Kind of Science, notes, "Whenever a phenomenon is encountered that seems complex, it is taken for granted that it must be the result of an underlying mechanism that is itself complex. But my discovery is that simple programs can produce great complexity."
The beauty of Big Bang marketing ideas is that they don't require Deep Blue and a roomful of Ph.D.s. They just take the insight to realize that very few things are exactly what they seem. You must forget about what makes sense and open yourself up to the real reason why a particular brand or product is appealing. Illogical thinking means that when you're asked to promote a bottle of water, you realize that water is the last thing you should focus on. Great, explosive marketing or advertising ideas will only rise to the surface when everyone at the company is able to reject what worked in the past and embrace this kind of counterintuitive thinking.
A big bang has a dramatic, immediate and irreversible impact. Big Bang marketing ideas disrupt because they are "discontinuously innovative." They reject the notion of incremental or evolutionary thinking and instead look for step-change solutions. They alter the landscape forever by introducing a way of thinking about a product or service that did not exist previously and that changes our entire pattern of behavior and attitudes about it.
It was exactly this kind of thinking that led to a brilliant marketing move by Mattel in the early 1980s. By this point, Barbie was a permanent resident of virtually every little girl's bedroom. This saturation naturally caused Mattel no end of grief as they realized their future sales would be dependent on mere clothes and accessories. Then Jill Barad, a lowly product manager at the time, came up with the discontinuous marketing concept that Barbie could be several different people at once. She could be a stylish executive, a dancer, or an ice skater, and little girls could have as many as their hearts (and their parents' wallets) desired. This brand-new way to market Barbie catapulted the creature from a $200 million product to a $1.9 billion brand.