When we present a seminar to a group of business owners, we always ask, “Who here is in the marketing business?” The answer usually is, “Just you.”

It’s really a trick question because the simple fact is: anyone who operates a business of any kind is in the marketing business. Otherwise how would you build your business? Every time you book an ad in the paper; run a radio commercial; send out a flyer; launch a web site, or any other activity you engage in to promote your business, you are in the business of marketing!

And now that we all understand that, the point is: in order for that marketing to be effective, it must convey a “strong idea” about your product or service to those people you are trying to reach.

Most of us market in ways that are interesting but not sensational, truthful but not mind-blowing, important but not “life-or-death.” You probably don’t have many resources to back your ideas. You don’t have a multimillion-dollar ad budget. Your ideas need to stand on their own merits.

You need a way to make your marketing messages stick. You need a strong idea.
A strong idea is one that gets attention, is understood, is remembered and changes something. That is, a statement, an offer, or a visual that will stop your potential customer in her tracks, and compel her to change a buying habit.

A strong idea can be a catchy headline e.g. “We Paint Every Car We Repair GREEN” for an environmentally friendly auto paint shop. Or, it can be an offer using an unusual visual: “If You Can Finish This Steak in Ten Minutes, Desert is On US” with a picture of a waiter with a pie in the face!

Strong ideas are about simple action. They use vivid, concrete images that cling easily to memory, and they tap into emotion. And you don’t need to be a marketing guru to have them. Subway’s advertising campaign that focused on Jared, an obese college student who lost more than 200 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches every day was a huge success. And it started with a single storeowner who had the good sense to spot an amazing story.

So why don’t more of us use strong ideas all the time? Sadly, it’s because we know so much about our business. We suffer from enormous information imbalances.

When we discuss “unlocking shareholder value” or “our customer focused approach to business” or even “we believe in building relationships through face-to-face interaction” we know what we mean—but our prospects don’t, and they aren’t going to invest time finding out.

When a restaurant advertises “fine cuisine and a great atmosphere” to someone who’s never visited, prospects have no compelling picture in their minds of what the experience will be like. They might not know exactly what “casually elegant dining service” is.

It’s a hard problem to avoid. You can’t unlearn what you already know. Your only option is to take your idea and transform it—but, for heaven’s sake, make it a strong idea!

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Elizabeth Walker and Ken Burgin
Elizabeth Walker and Ken Burgin

Ken Burgin and Elizabeth Walker are the Marketing Masters, a full-service marketing and advertising partnership that helps build busy businesses.