To the best of my knowledge, the drive-up service window belonged to the banking industry before anybody else latched on to it. But it accounts for a whole lot of the fast-food industry’s sales. It is also used by dry cleaners, beverage stores, video rental stores and florists.
In Las Vegas, one casino has a drive-up betting window for sports bettors. There are probably others using it that I haven’t noticed and still more who could and should be using it. Somebody in the fast-food business “stole” this idea. My vision is of a McDonald’s executive sitting in his car in the bank drive-through line on Friday afternoon when it hits him: “Hey, I don’t think we can fit the milkshakes in the little tube, but outside of that, this could work for us!”
Just about every great idea came from something already created or used. The enormously valuable Batman franchise – made into money via blockbuster movies, cartoons, comic books and merchandise – exists because a couple of guys borrowed pieces and parts from predecessor characters, notably The Shadow and Zorro. An entire genre of highly successful TV infomercials and direct-response commercials merely moved carnival, boardwalk, and country fair pitchmen and demonstrable products to television.
QVC is a Tupperware home party conducted on TV for a million people in their own living rooms – and Tupperware is even sold on the home shopping channel. Fractional jet ownership came from timeshare real estate. On and on and on. Somewhere, right now, outside your business and its industry and industry norms, in an apparently unrelated business, lies the moveable idea that could revolutionise your profits. Sometimes this can be about making the business something different, but not actually changing the business.
Scooter’s got its traction by focusing on delivery, not on pizza. Subway has made itself about weight loss and healthy eating rather than fast food. Apple remade itself, from “for nerds” to “for the cool kids.” And the money followed. A great business is always about something, by the way, not just a seller and provider of goods or services.This is a time for more practical creativity than ever. Just producing or providing good products or services at good prices is nowhere near enough to justify your existence and command and keep the interest of your customers in The New Economy.
How to be more “creative”
For business purposes, focus on “practical creativity.” Creative thinking guru and one-time leader in the development of Walt Disney World and Epcot, Mike Vance talks about it in terms of rearranging the old (tested and proven) in a new way, or “plus-ing” what already works. Walt Disney didn’t start Disneyland with a blank page; he started with already proven, profitable amusement parks and began subtracting things he disliked, adding things he thought could be done better, further plus-ing new ideas on top of the rearranged old ones. Alex Osborne, a dean of creativity and the father of brainstorming, filled his book with checklists to facilitate rearranging the old in new ways.
I talk about this in terms of bringing something from outside your field that is proven elsewhere, into your field. Or cutting and pasting from swipe files, whether stored in file cabinets or your subconscious. But you’ll never hear me talk in terms of starting with a blank slate. And catching me starting anything with a blank page is a rare event. For purely artistic expression, raw, out-of-the-ether creativity may be an essential ingredient.
But for commercial purposes, it is vastly overrated. Even if you look at the movie industry as a “creative” business, if you examine the biggest box-office successes of at least the past decade, you’ll find very, very, very few to be original, birthed from the blank slate. Many have been remakes of previously successful films. Some have featured well-established, successful, well-known characters from comic books, TV shows or sequels. Even a movie franchise like Star Wars is merely a classic western with a shiny new wrapping on it.
Five ways to find ideas
Here are five suggestions for where to get “beginnings” so you need not begin with the blank page:
Direct competitors occasionally have good ideas badly executed. You should keep a close eye on competitors, as well as leaders in your field outside your geographic market. You ought to keep a file on each of these, making sure you have their ads, mailings, etc. Visit their stores or showrooms, and call and play prospect at their offices.
This is a source of great raw material. A “comparable” is someone selling a totally different, completely uncompetitive product or service but either selling at your price point and/or to your customers and/or using the same media you use. If you ferret out successful “comparables” and carefully follow them, you’ll often find terrific shortcuts. Just for example, I’ve told a cosmetic dentist eager to attract affluent patients from all over the country to “play prospect” and answer the full-page ads run in airline magazines by cosmetic surgeons. These are not competitors, but they are comparable in many ways: the clientele, the geographic reach, pricing, the same marketing challenge. Set a goal to find, thoroughly research, and build a file on one new comparable a month. You’ll thank me.
News events beget opportunities, based on the Collier principle of “entering the conversation already occurring in their minds.” Ad man Robert Collier advised connecting your business and messages about it to the kitchen table, cocktail party or water cooler conversation occurring at the present moment. These days, we’re blessed with an arsenal of instant communications media, making this easier and cheaper than ever to implement, yet few marketers do it. Today’s news can hand you tomorrow morning’s marketing message.
In early 2009, when job losses were skyrocketing and consumers were justifiably panicked about the possibility of losing theirs, Hyundai created a new kind of warranty that permitted a suddenly unemployed car buyer to get three months of his car loan forgiven, and if need be, to return the car and end the finance contract with no penalty or damage to his credit. The dealer I spoke to about this reported his busiest and best two weekends of business when these TV commercials broke. This was a great example of using news – in this case, bad news – profitably.
4. Old ads.
Go back 10, 20, 30 years, take big winners and recycle them. I use my swipe file of these “classics” more than I use current samples. Think about it: The direct-response advertisers from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s had to get consumers to write out and mail in cheques or go to a store or showroom; there were no websites. For most of those decades, there were no toll-free 800 numbers, no credit card ordering by phone. No fax. No overnight courier service. What they did then to get response and sales with such limited resources can work a thousand-fold better married to the modern ease of our buying environment.
5. Top direct-response copywriters’ work.
If you’re going to plagiarise, plagiarise from the best. Look for direct-response ads full of copy, running repeatedly in national media, from newspapers to niche magazines. Often a good ad that has nothing whatsoever to do with your business can still provide a “platform” to work on (rather than a blank slate). This is why you should scan magazines far outside your personal interests on a frequent basis.