Struggling to Find Your Brand’s Identity? Ask: What’s the Big Idea? 


Whether you’re copywriters like us, handle advertising in general, own a business, or hell, just want to sell something, you should definitely consult the master, the OG, the father of advertising himself - David Ogilvy. He founded his legendary agency 70 years ago, and his principles have only become more relevant through the years. If you haven’t read his books, they’re well worth the time and money. Owning a business and not studying him is kind of like being a musician and not studying The Beatles. Sure, it’s not a necessity, but you’d be doing yourself a grave injustice and letting precious knowledge slip through your fingers. 

One of our favorite sections in his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, is entitled “What’s the Big Idea.” He starts off: “You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.” 

And while he was referring to an individual advertising campaign, we wanted to add that this same concept can be applied to an overall brand in search of a strong identity. Every brand needs a big idea to remain relevant and successful. And if you can find that elusive idea that customers will gravitate towards, it will allow you to focus your messaging and create an entire ecosystem of successful marketing efforts, all supported and fueled by your big idea. 

So where do you start? Ogilvy posits, “Big ideas come from the unconscious…Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.” Most businesses do the first part - they know their features and benefits inside out - but they don't take it any further than that. They think that if they simply outline those features, the rest will follow. Perhaps that’s why 90% of startups fail, or why you see a lot of tagline word salads like, “We provide innovative and technologically advanced “best-in-class” solutions that help you generate blah blah blah…” Your eyes glaze over, and the company is most likely forgotten. 

That said, if you need to visit the unconscious to come up with your big idea, how do you get there? Ogilvy’s idea for the timeless Pepperidge Farm horse drawn wagon came to him in a dream. And maybe you’ll get that lucky; but there are other ways. Hemingway is, to much dispute, quoted as saying “Write drunk, edit sober.” Whether or not he actually said that, perhaps a few drinks or puffs could be what sparks the big idea. Maybe it’ll come to you while hiking, working out, driving, taking a shower, mowing the yard, or strumming the guitar. The point is, the big idea for your business most likely won’t come to you between 9 and 5. 

But how do you know when you’ve found the big idea? Ogilvy recommends asking yourself these five questions: 

  1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it? 
  2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself? 
  3. Is it unique? 
  4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
  5. Could it be used for 30 years? 

A few things to consider there: 

  • If it makes you gasp, it’s probably unique 
  • “Do I wish I’d thought of it myself” is obviously referring to when someone brings you an idea, so consider that when working with a marketing team 
  • If it’s unique, you’ll know it (you’ll probably gasp)
  • Whether or not it fits the strategy to perfection might be hard to determine, because oftentimes the big idea might seem completely out of left field at first…something to consider
  • ‘Could it be used in 30 years’ will probably be the hardest thing to judge, especially today when markets constantly shift and innovation moves so quickly. So maybe instead, think “Am I referencing something that might be gone tomorrow?” If so, scrap it. 

As to what your big idea should be, we can’t help you with a simple blog post. Your idea could be ANYTHING! It might be something as simple as a horse-drawn carriage, or a word like ‘transparency,’ or an analogy. It could be a tagline, or a logo, or colors, or a character. It could be silly, or profound, or offensive. It might be completely unrelated to what you’re doing. But you have to at least be open to the possibility. 

Finally, if you still can’t find that big idea, you can always hire an outsider. Shameless plug aside, we’ve had so many clients tell us that they’re “too in it” to see the big picture (another word for big idea). We have the luxury of coming in with fresh eyes, and we definitely do our homework…sometimes more than we need. Plus, we aren’t afraid to go that extra mile, make a few gin and tonics after hours if it didn’t come to us in the office, and brainstorm on a Friday night. That’s just the kind of dedicated writers we are. (But don’t worry, we always edit sober.) 

Hit us up, and let’s get crackin’ on your big idea!