Great Ideas Come From Those Who Are Willing to Experiment

Stop Mining the Past for Inspiration

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Most go-forward business decisions are made based on examples of the past: case histories, models of what worked. It's certainly the case for branding and marketing strategies. "I want to do something like that" is the quality that usually differentiates one option from another.

Only great ideas aren't so great the second time around, especially in our business. In today's tough economic climate, trying to repeat the successes of the past could be riskier than hoping to avoid its shortcomings.

M.B.A. degrees and Hollywood movies get churned out based on a premise of repeatability. Success is a recipe, and innovation is the process of buying the ingredients and cooking up the meal. Expectations are based on reasonably common and shared memories of taste and smell, and they constitute the proposals you're likely reviewing right now.

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin is the author of "Branding Only Works on Cattle" and blogs at Dim Bulb.
Only things don't work out that way. The food never tastes as good as we'd hoped or remembered. A better analogy would be a copier making a copy of a copy: Every iteration is less distinct, more imprecise. In our world, it means less return on investment by any measure that matters (such as sales) and more metrics invented simply to support our copying, or cooking, habits.

Why? Consumers get smarter, more cynical and more demanding over time. They learn to deconstruct the next campaign, and the technology exists for them to share their conclusions instantaneously. Repeatability, especially among competitors in an industry category, is not a sequel or homage but just one of those bad copies, isn't it? Worse, our natural inclination is to "improve" whatever worked.

And there's the rub: Ultimately, we can't know why something succeeded, and there's no guarantee that it will work the same way again even if we could.

The circumstantial variables that combine to yield experience are infinite and ever-changing, so any case history or example is just that: a "picture" of a moment in time that is separate and discrete from the moments that preceded and followed it, much less from now. Forget cooking or copying, and think quantum physics. Reality occurs as it occurs, and those circumstances can't be controlled any more than they can be repeated. Each marketing campaign is a science experiment.

So our opportunity is to truly experiment, not just emulate or copy. Forget "how" and focus on "what." Campaigns should start with objective, measurable goals and then work backward to yield the necessary tactics. They should use language that matters to business operators, and redefine "doing something like that" as a question not of form or content but of outcomes.

If you target a result, chances are you'll find yourself constructing a new way to get there. Let your competitors copy you and fail.

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