“Ideas are scary. They come into this world ugly and messy…” The first time that I heard the opening of this GE commercial, I was immediately intrigued. As the ad progressed, showing the odd looking creature meant to represent the less than attractive form in which ideas often come, the narrator goes on to explain how with care and nurturing, these ugly and scary ideas become “something beautiful.”
The commercial itself may never win a Clio. In all honesty, the “scary idea” character is not even very scary (more like a distant Muppet cousin of Mr. Snuffleupagus or Grover). The value and importance of the ad is in its message. As superficially simple as it may be, big ideas are very scary and for that reason we often fail to act on them.
I am sure that the GE ad resonated with me because I am probably one of the worst offenders of stifling my scary ideas. I can’t count how many late night or “in the shower” business epiphanies that I have had over the years. Some of them have not been truly ugly or scary; they would be better classified as “mildly unattractive” and thus easier to rationalize and nurture into reality. It has been my truly scary ideas that often remained undeveloped, summarily dismissed or simply ignored as I opted to keep it simple and safe.
At the onset of 2016, I made a resolution: This would be my “Year of Scary Ideas”. I would not only embrace my scary ideas, but manufacture as many as possible: The more frightening, the better. Though I have to credit the GE commercial for providing momentum for this resolve; history shows that you can literally change the world when you give birth to, feed and nurture these scary creatures.
Imagine the grotesque presumption of two brothers in Kitty Hawk, NC, who in the early 1900’s thought they could build a machine that would allow humans to slip “the surly bonds of Earth” and fly through the air. Our history books are full of those undeterred by the scariness of their concepts. Names like Franklin, Banneker, Edison, Curie, Bell, Jobs and Madame C.J. Walker remind us that scary ideas transcend gender, circumstances and time.
As a marketer, scary ideas are almost a career prerequisite. The very premise of marketing is to deliver messaging and imagery that incites consumers to “choose you.” As the public becomes inundated with messaging and imagery from a variety of sources and platforms, scary ideas in the form of innovative and disruptive campaigns represent a marketing audacity that is essential to standing out and pulling the profits in.
Once the premier showcase for football fanaticism and gridiron glory, the Super Bowl has now morphed into the premier showcase for some of the scariest ideas in marketing. Marketing and advertising agencies represent their clients with unbridled creativity, utilizing controversy and celebrities to “out scare” the competition with unpredictable and unprecedented messaging (think about the frightening mind that produced “puppy monkey baby” for Mountain Dew’s Kickstart). The price to produce and run these spots may be hefty, but the audience reach and earned media gained in the ensuing “Best Super Bowl Commercials” reviews are the payoff for embracing scary ideas and executing with audacity. By the way…check out how sales for Mountain Dew Kickstart are doing now.
What we deem as a scary or disruptive marketing concept is relative to the times in which we live. One of the scariest marketers for his time was Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American business mogul who cut his marketing and retail teeth in the early 20th century as the General Manager of Marshall Fields department store in Chicago.
Identifying a void in the retail industry of London, Sefridges department store was founded there in 1909 by Selfridge as a cathedral dedicated to shopping and socializing. Determined to upend the status quo shopping experience in post-Victorian England, Selfridge ushered in disruptive concepts that we now take for granted as part and parcel of standard retail marketing and operations.
- While Selfridges was still under construction, Selfridge published print ads teasing the coming store as “something more than merely shopping” which effectually initialized the concept of shopping for pleasure and not just for necessity
- Selfridge secured the single digit “1” as the phone number for the department store so customers could easily connect and engage with Selfridges’ operators
- For the first time, products were on display for customers to see, feel and touch as opposed to the typical sales model of the time where products were tendered by clerks and kept behind glass enclosures
- Selfridge fitted his store with the then unique accommodation of women’s bathrooms. Prior to Selfridges, women out shopping would have to leave a store to relieve themselves. Selfridge’s attention to customer needs allowed him to keep these valuable consumers on the premises
Are you running from your scary ideas? If so, think about Selfridge and all the others that have changed the way we think, behave and consume because of their diligence in producing and executing their scary ideas. Those of us that make a living in marketing, are especially beholden to the concepts of disrupting the mundane and cultivating the uncommon. To really stand out in today’s cacophony of marketing messages, business professionals need to encourage disruptive thought and scary ideas to ensure progress while realizing profits.
As for me, when it comes to my commitment to the “Year of Scary Ideas”, I still remind myself on a daily basis; “Be afraid…be very afraid.”