What You Missed at This Year's Idea Conference

With Innovation as Cornerstone of Their Message, Industry Influencers Inspire at Ad Age/Creativity Event

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NEW YORK ( -- The fifth annual Advertising Age/Creativity IDEA Conference, held in Manhattan last week, looked at how a variety of industries -- from music to fast food to education -- are tapping innovation and using creativity to build their businesses. Here are nine inspiring takeaways from the day.

Tim Westergren, founder and chief, Pandora
Tim Westergren, founder and chief, Pandora Credit: Gary He
Rana Sobhany, 'the iPad DJ'
Rana Sobhany, 'the iPad DJ' Credit: Gary He
Design drives profits
Kimberly-Clark Brand Design Director Christine Mau literally thinks outside the box. For decades, the company sold Kleenex in rectangular-shaped containers, but a few years ago she thought, why not other shapes? And thus were born triangular, watermelon-wedge boxes for summer and metallic ovular boxes during the holidays. For years, "Kleenex brand had learned how to make vanilla wafers: 300 choices in store that were ... OK," she said. By going from OK to wow, Ms. Mau was able to get consumers to pay three times as much for Kleenex.

Focus on the extreme user
By watching the extreme user, you can find the game-changing insights to help you differentiate in a sea of sameness, Ms. Mau said. "You've got to listen with your eyes -- consumers can't necessarily lead you to the next big innovation [by talking]." That strategy is similar to Coca-Cola's in its quest to find the next potential billion-dollar brand. "Plenty of products at Coca-Cola play in the middle of the distribution curve," said Mary-Ann Somers, VP-strategic and operational marketing at Coca-Cola, who works on the ventures and emerging brands group. "At VEB, we really live on the left. We will develop things that not everybody will like, and that's OK."

Build community by listening
Pandora has fostered a devoted fan base by listening and responding to listeners -- real people answer 30,000 emails a month, and it has hosted more than 250 town hall forums. (In fact, after Tim Westergren, founder and chief strategy officer of the service, spoke at the conference, he was heading to Hoboken, N.J., where he was hosting a meeting of Pandora enthusiasts that night.) Fostering that kind of community paid off big time when Pandora called on listeners to lobby their Congressmen to enact the Internet Radio Equality Act. After listeners sent more than 300,000 faxes, enough to shut down the Capitol Hill fax system, the legislation passed.

Foster a 'deviant' culture
Deeplocal's Nathan Martin and Eamae Mirkin are always thinking in terms of, "what clever interactions can we come up with?" At Deeplocal, they foster a "culture of deviants" -- and marketers and brands would help themselves if they worked to similarly foster "deviant," or bold and boundary-busting, behavior as they try to reach out and break through the noise. And, they explained, marketers need to ask themselves: Is your idea cool enough that you'll tell your friends about it? If it is, then it is probably a pretty good idea. If not, table it.

Don't just replicate
Whenever ad agencies approach Deeplocal's Mr. Martin, the biggest issue is trying to get them to focus on ideas that haven't already been done. "Usually it's about trying to do what was hot on YouTube or Facebook or something they've already seen," he said. "But that won't help you get noticed." Mr. Martin said the most successful ideas come out of R&D-type experiments where the goals aren't always concrete but which may yield surprising new findings.

Go big or go home

Christine Mau, brand design director, Kimberly-Clark
Christine Mau, brand design director, Kimberly-Clark Credit: Gary He
Mary-Ann Somers, VP-marketing, venturing and emerging brands, Coca-Cola
Mary-Ann Somers, VP-marketing, venturing and emerging brands, Coca-Cola Credit: Gary He
Domino's story is one marked by total transparency. The company had to do something to stem lagging sales, and it chose to do something drastic under Chief Marketing Officer Russell Weiner's leadership: It admitted it was selling crappy pizzas and vowed to make them better, a bold, risky move. It was a big chance, because Domino's could have failed miserably and the move might have become the final nail in its coffin. Instead, it resulted in buzz, more satisfied consumers and a third-quarter same-store sales increase of 11.7%. It was all an example of "Domino's being human; Domino's saying, 'thanks for giving us a second chance,'" Mr. Weiner said.

Niche groups help brands emerge
When the popular Five Finger semi-barefoot sports shoe was first shown at a trade show in 2006, it wasn't very popular, said Tony Post, president and CEO of Vibram USA. Buyers said the sock-like shoe wouldn't provide enough support and that it was just plain ugly. Undeterred, the company focused on targeting a niche group of rock climbers. The climbers liked the shoes and started wearing them out, not only to climb. Then runners got curious, found out about the shoes, and started wearing them as well. "Consumers became our brand advocates," Mr. Post said.

Build advocacy into the business plan
At 4Food, a restaurant that's trying to remake the fast-food industry by taking the money traditionally spent on marketing and funneling it into better, more sustainable ingredients, customer advocacy is built into the business plan. Customers can create one of tens of thousands of burger combinations, name them and then use social media to promote their creations, earning 25 cents in 4Food credit every time someone buys their burger. The strategy has resulted in marketing costs -- the 25-cent credit -- taking up only 3% of sales.

Be 'scared as hell'
When video-production-company founder Mick Ebeling first met graffiti artist Tony Quan, who goes by the handle "Tempt," it was in a hospital room. Mr. Quan had become paralyzed by ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and he couldn't talk or move. Mr. Ebeling was so moved by the artist's plight that he promised to help him do something that, given his situation, seemed impossible. "I promised him that I'd find a way for him to communicate again, and I promised that he'd be able to draw again," Mr. Ebeling said.

Given that Mr. Ebeling had no engineering or medical skills, he was "scared as hell" over what he had promised. A year or so after he made that promise, however, Mr. Ebeling, along with his wife and kids as well as a good chunk of the employees at his company, The Ebeling Group, had created a low-cost device that allowed "Tempt" to communicate -- and write. "I realized after this experience of the fallacy of impossible," he said, and started a foundation called Not Impossible to try and help other people. He doesn't know what the foundation's next project will be, but he said he's "still scared as hell about how to do these things, whatever it may be -- and that's a good sign."

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IDEA Conference 2010: Christine Mau

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IDEA Conference 2010: Rana Sobhany
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