What’s The Big Idea?

John F. Kennedy famously committed the United States of America to a big idea – landing on the moon. Martin Luther King dreamt his big idea of every person be treated equally, regardless of the colour of their skin or the religion they chose to follow. In the marketing world – while arguably a little less lofty – Apple’s big idea was to use technology to enrich people’s lives.

The history of retail has always showed that winners are fundamentally driven by a big idea. Selfridges was designed from day one to make the shopping experience magical. Wal-Mart’s single-minded proposition was to deliver the lowest prices to consumers every day. Zara championed the idea of cheap chic and disposable fashion. Whole Foods told powerful stories of the commitment, passion and love their growers brought to the nurturing of food. And Louis Vuitton’s big idea was to deliver the best ‘value for money quality’ in original luxury design.

The sad truth for the vast majority of current retail and marketing effort is a distinct lack of a big idea. A great deal of the blame for that outcome lies with our mistaken belief in process. I have a colleague whom I continually disagree with on one major point – I do not believe you can train people to be creative nor use process to deliver creativity.

You can certainly produce something slick and well finished but while the execution is high quality due in no small part to technology, at its heart most output today lacks the creative flair that produces emotional connection. The kind of connection needed to change behaviour and build strong brands and leverage profit uplift.

Process can’t crack it. If it could Myer, BIG W, Target and countless other retailers would be in robust good health for they have spent millions of dollars on well executed, process driven change management programs that have done nothing to create sustainable profit growth.

A big idea – capable of reigniting a successful retailer – does not come from process alone. It takes people who are capable of genuine creativity given the space, time and support to generate an idea that will inspire all stakeholders to change what they are doing now. Kennedy, King, Jobs, Vuitton, Selfridge, Walton, Ortega – these leaders all had one thing in common. They breathed life into big ideas that motivated others to follow the processes necessary for implementation leading to sustainable gain.

All great retail businesses need creative people at some point in the mix. Today we seem stuck in regurgitation and exploitation in an endless cycle of production efficiency that does not tolerate the compromises necessary to support big ideas. But as declining margins prove – and what Sam Walton was quoted as saying – “What doesn’t change has to get cheaper.”

You want to make things better – you need big ideas. You need big ideas – you need to involve the people who can deliver them – outside business as usual, outside normal process and often outside your current talent pool. For your business right now, what’s the big idea?

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