How to Spark Your Brand

By Steve McKee

Have you tuned into Farmed and Dangerous yet? It’s a new television series airing on Hulu that uses biting humor to poke a finger in the eye of massive “industrial agriculture” corporations. The series stars recognizable actors and is a Hollywood-quality production. But it didn’t arise out of Hollywood—at least not originally. Farmed and Dangerous is a production of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Yep, the restaurant chain.

Unusual? For sure. But the program is just the latest example of how brands are taking advantage of the convergence of marketing, entertainment, and journalism to create stories that transcend traditional media boundaries. It’s a function of what John Hayes, chief marketing officer at American Express, recently dubbed “the platinum age of advertising,” fueled by people’s insatiable appetite for content and the parade of new gadgets that enable it.

Chipotle’s attention-getting move is just the latest iteration of this approach. A few years ago Southwest Airlines made headlines of its own by flying in the face of the rest of its industry and proudly proclaiming that bags fly free. While all the other airlines seemed to be finding new ways to gouge their customers, Southwest happily took the opposite approach in a series of humorous television commercials. The move was widely praised, and the interest it generated played a significant role in what turned out to be a banner year for the airline, including a 17 percent increase in revenue, a record percentage of seats filled, and a significant uptick in market share.

And in 2006 – a lifetime in Internet years – a tired old brand of soap became the talk of the town when it launched “Evolution,” a scathing commentary, roughly a minute long, on modern culture’s distorted perceptions of beauty. The film never appeared on television, yet it has been viewed more than 20 million times and garnered tremendous media attention (and immeasurable goodwill) for its creator, Unilever’s Dove.

Talk value. Publicity. High pass-along factor. These are the kind of results for which any marketer pines. How might your brand ignite such a response? By following the proven examples of these companies in harnessing the power of the spark.

In the physical world, sparks fly from friction, when two rough surfaces rub against one another, with neither one wanting to give. Think of the striking of a match, or a chain dragging on the ground behind a truck. And “fly” is the right word for it—the English word “spark” comes from the Latin “spargere,” meaning to strew or scatter. That’s just what any brand would wish for.

Metaphorically speaking, sparks have made their mark throughout world history. On Oct. 31, 1517, for example, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. That single act sparked the Reformation, which set in motion a series of events that would forever change the world. On Dec. 16, 1773, a group of infuriated activists famously dumped a boatload of tea into Boston Harbor, helping to spark the American Revolution. And on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, sparking a space race that has resulted in untold military and economic advances. All these were individual events based on deliberate human acts that took place at singular points in time. Any advertiser hoping to spark its own flame has followed the same footpath.

Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” commercial implied that if Barry Goldwater was elected, nuclear war was inevitable. It was so provocative and controversial at the time that it aired only once, yet that was enough to mark the beginning of the end of the Goldwater campaign. Twenty years later, Apple took a more literary approach with its “1984” Super Bowl commercial, calling out “Big Brother” and sparking a revolution in not only how personal computers were designed and built, but also how they were conceived. As you can see, when it comes to sparking change, Chipotle, Southwest, Dove, and other brands are simply millennial-generation descendants of their friction-causing forbears.

Just as they are in the physical world, metaphorical sparks can be dangerous and destructive (ask the Goldwater campaign). But they can also be intentional and highly productive. To make the idea work in your favor, don’t think of it as something that might happen to your brand, but as something your brand does, as in “let’s go spark something.”

Originally published on Bloomberg Businessweek

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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