Urban legends stick. A sticky idea is one that’s understood, remembered, and changes something—behavior, opinions, or beliefs. Legends like the “kidney thieves” tale seem to stick effortlessly. But it’s not just sleazy ideas that stick naturally, it’s also lots of valuable ideas: proverbs, fables, and scientific ideas, to name just a few.
Unfortunately, most ideas don’t stick. Case in point: the last PowerPoint presentation you saw.
So how do you make sure that your ideas stick? In our book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, we describe the six traits of ideas that stick. For instance, one trait of a sticky idea is “unexpectedness.” The kidney thieves tale surprises us, and so do false factoids like “You only use 10% of your brain!” Notice, too, that great advertising is often unexpected—as with the Volkswagen Jetta campaign, where we’re jolted to attention when the car crashes. Or think of John F. Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon—in 1961, that sounded like science fiction! So these 3 ideas—one urban legend, one advertisement, and one political initiative—share a trait: Unexpectedness. It’s a trait you can build into your ideas, too.
But, let’s get real, don’t you ultimately need a big budget to make an idea stick? Well, it doesn’t hurt. But here’s the good news: The success of an idea is not proportional to the budget. Urban legends don’t have a budget, after all.
A sticky idea is a great equalizer—it can easily wipe out a better-funded competitive idea that’s not as sticky. Think about how quickly and effectively the Atkins diet spread—it was a household term long before the widespread advertising began. Weight Watchers is also quite successful, but it has spent vast sums of money achieving that success.
Here are 3 tips for entrepreneurs and business owners who want to make their ideas stick:
1. Be concrete in your marketing
A sticky idea is concrete, which means that it uses sensory language. “He woke up in a bathtub full of ice”—you can’t get much more sensory than that. When people can visualize an idea, it’s easier for them to remember it. So using concrete language will help your customers understand and remember what’s different about you. Here’s a case study: two local ads from a periodical in Sanibel Island, Florida. Ad 1 is from a local construction firm: “Building is a series of conversations, interactions and collaborations with a focus on creating the kind of synergy that produces extraordinary results.” Ouch. That’s intended to sound impressive and credible, but it’s not. It’s meaningless. You’ve already forgotten it. Ad 2 is from a wedding and event planning firm. They say, “Who designs it, arranges it, brings it, loads it, drapes it, pins it, hangs it, lights it, serves it, coordinates it, maintains it, and then takes it all down so you don’t have to? We do.” That is brilliantly concrete and is sure to stick.
What’s your equivalent of the wedding and event planning firm’s self-description?
2. Don’t hide your size, exploit it
There’s a startup restaurant chain in Boston called b.good. b.good sells healthy fast food (like fries that are baked instead of fried). They talk on their site and in the stores about one of the founder’s Uncle Faris, a great cook and great dispenser of advice, who inspired them to start the restaurant. And they let customers come up with the names for new menu items—it makes people feel like they’re part of the team. Large businesses are going to have a much tougher time building that kind of relationship with their customers—it can happen organically at the local level, but if you’re TGI Friday’s, you’ve got to have a “system” and “infrastructure” for relating to customers.
One attribute of a sticky idea is “emotion”—there’s got to be something that makes you care about the idea. People should always care more about their local florist than about 1-800-Flowers. They should care more about Jane Summers’ Consulting rather than about Bain. If they don’t, there’s something broken with the local business’s branding campaign.
How can you make your small size an unfair advantage against your larger competitors?
3. To align your team, paint a mental picture of success
Concreteness isn’t just for marketing. To lead a growing business, you’ve got to be able to coordinate the efforts of many different people—full-timers, part-timers, and freelancers—toward a common goal. That’s a tough challenge. One way to make it easier is to create a concrete vision. JFK’s speech is the Holy Grail: We will put a man on the moon and return him safely within the decade. Was there anyone in American who misunderstood? Was there anyone scratching his head, wondering what JFK meant by “man,” “moon,” or “decade”?
Boeing was incredibly concrete (and specific) with its goal for the 727 passenger plane: “The 727 must seat 131 passengers, fly nonstop from Miami to New York City, and land on runway 4-22 at LaGuardia [one of the shortest runways at the time].” Concreteness ensures alignment—if Boeing had challenged its team to build “the next-generation passenger plane,” everyone might have been working toward a different goal. (Worse, they might not have realized it until it was too late.)
Sometimes, a concrete goal can guide a business for decades. For instance, a man named Hoover Adams founded a paper called the Dunn Daily Record in Dunn, NC. The Dunn Daily Record has the highest household penetration (112%) of any newspaper in the country. For the five decades Adams served as publisher, he gave his staff a daily challenge: Get as many names in the newspaper as possible. Adams knew that he could never beat USA Today or the New York Times in the breadth or depth of his coverage. But he knew that people buy local newspapers because they want to hear what’s going in the community, to hear what their neighbors are doing. Counting names was a great way for the staff to keep score and make sure they were honoring Adams’ vision of local coverage.
Concrete goals like these help to ensure alignment—they ensure that everyone shares a common picture of where you’re headed. Does your team have a picture of your destination that’s as clear as the “man on the moon” speech?