The single ‘magic ingredient’ of every super-successful marketing campaign

Coming up with something brilliant takes hard work, time—and a little magic, I won’t lie.

Coming up with something brilliant takes hard work, time—and a little magic, I won’t lie.

Like most people who work in marketing, I’m of two minds about it. There’s the marketer in me, who finds the industry fascinating and loves the ever-growing, awe-inspiring work and technology available to us all. Then, on the flip side of my schizophrenic coin, there’s me the consumer—worried about my privacy, hating the video ads I’m forced to watch on YouTube, and tired of being slathered in messages all day.

But every so often, a campaign, message or brand comes along that just rings with everyone. It goes beyond getting a chuckle from a TV spot, or being moved by a powerful image and headline. These campaigns go deeper, get parodied on Saturday Night Live, morph into muses on the internet, or nudge their way into our daily conversations. They are ideas that have grown beyond marketing to universality.

What kinds of campaigns am I talking about? There are loads of examples…

mastercard-priceless-london-600-40670MasterCard’s Priceless – The first commercial for this ran in 1997. A father takes his son to a baseball game, and the announcer talks about paying for tickets, hot dogs and drinks. But having a great conversation with your 11-year-old? Priceless. Remarkably, this campaign survived four chief marketing officers at the company. No one wanted to touch it.


xxDos Equis, The Most Interesting Man in the World – “He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.” This campaign is packed with hysterical one-liners and imagery, all featuring a bearded gentleman who’s had a much more interesting life than you. The campaign catapulted Dos Equis sales over 22%.



just-do-it-hed-2013Nike’s Just Do It – This moved from sneaker company slogan to personal mantra for weekend warriors, amateur athletes and anyone else with the drive to improve. Conceived by advertising savant Dan Weiden in 1988, it has been called advertising’s greatest slogan. And it gave Nike a permanent place in our collective consciousness.



absolut_perfectionAbsolut Vodka – This is credited with being the longest uninterrupted campaign in advertising history—more than 25 years and 1,500 ads. Over that time, Absolut grew from 2.5% market share to over 50% in the late 2000s. You can call that Absolut domination. There are entire books, websites and fan clubs devoted to the many iterations of that iconic bottle.

Now, these are all very different types of campaigns from a hodgepodge of companies. But, they do have one, incredibly potent element in common—one that’s often as elusive as it is tantalizing.

That magic ingredient? Mad men call it “the big idea.”

Advertising legend David Ogilvy was the first to label this phenomenon. But he also said that big ideas are extraordinarily rare: “I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.”

There are many definitions for a big idea, but my favorite comes from academia: A big idea connects vividly with an audience, and creates a sustainable competitive advantage for a brand.

In English, and in practical terms, that means:

A core idea that’s simple, but powerful. The Priceless campaign’s basic theme is that money isn’t everything. MasterCard is there for purchases, but what really matters, what’s priceless, are life’s little moments that money can’t buy. Brilliant.

It can be expressed over and over again, in many creative ways. Absolut Vodka is the king of this. They came up with 1,500 ads that ALL featured their bottle and a simple two- or three-word headline. Dozens of creative teams worked on this campaign—it had the legs of a Tour de France champion. Big ideas can last for 20 years or more.

It triggers emotions, not logic. Dos Equis’s entire campaign was founded on a single insight that came up in marketing research: Many of the young men Dos Equis was targeting to buy their booze expressed a desire to be interesting—especially to young ladies frequenting the bars with them. Hence, our character was born.

How do you come up with a big idea?

If only I had the answer to that question. I’d be the most interesting man in the world. Absolut-ly. If someone needed brilliance, I’d Just Do It. My time would be priceless.

What I can tell you is that big ideas rarely happen in a “eureka” moment, like you see on TV sitcom advertising agencies, when someone jumps up yelling, “I’ve got it!” or, “This idea is so crazy, it just might work!”

Mostly, it’s a lot of thinking, sweating, and struggling with Imposter Syndrome, plagued with dreadful thoughts like, “I’m such a hack, how can I be in this business?!?”

But, there are some basic building blocks to the process:

Be informed. Of course, you should know your product and industry inside out. But it also helps to know about other industries, the greater culture, history, and more. Creativity is about connecting dots that haven’t been connected before. Stay curious, my friends.

Be contrarian. I’ve preached this before. Every industry tends to fall into the same marketing patterns. It’s predictable, boring as hell, and very anti big idea. Car companies just loved showing speeding sedans in deserts and on mountainsides (ho-hum), until Kia loaded up a vehicle with hamsters.

Be patient. I know, none of us have time. Deadlines loom. But great ideas come when you work in volume—like sifting through sand to find a gold nugget. Try to come up with as many ideas, from as many angles, as you can—within the time you have. Sometimes, just pushing yourself a little may hatch something amazing.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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