An Idea That Tips…and Sticks

What makes ideas withstand the rigours of time? As attention spans are shrinking faster than coral reefs in oceans, the authors argue for moving past transient ideas to the more enduring ones that stay relevant over time.

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” Mark Twain

We are all in showbiz today. Each one of us.

Social media blithely dishes out honorary degrees in creativity, or so we believe. Doffs a hat at the new, and the unexpected. Puns abound, there are dollops of pop philosophy, and almost everything is applauded or deplored.

The World Economic Forum estimates that we collectively send more than 30 million messages on Facebook and almost 3,50,000 tweets every minute.

Caught in this multimedia matrix, we have become change makers. Each one of us. The Internet has offered us a huge canvas to explore, create or merely participate. Accessibility to information has opened unthinkable avenues for people to create change, in small ways and big.

If every drop makes an ocean, then every idea matters: crowdfunding, creating a petition for change, signing it, sharing it – even if it falls way short of the desired numbers to make any perceivable impact. What the Internet does is that it brings an idea or a cause to the fore that would have otherwise languished and perhaps died a quiet death. Now, at least there will be a few grievers by its grave.

Ideas abound in the times we live. Yet, our problems are graver than ever. Political chaos, climate change, nuclear threats, epidemics, mass killings – all sounding a death knell to our future. Ideas seem to be playing catch-up to the burgeoning problems and challenges of our times.

There are ideas for the new millennium’s problems, a unique “odd and even” vehicle formula to solve traffic snarls on roads, or a hundred ways to clear up a frothing lake. However, no idea sticks. Sometimes, it seems  ideas are churned out to deflect the real issues. They are spun just to grab eyeballs.

As the ideas whirl around us, how does one idea – good or bad – become the differentiator? What is that “trigger” that makes you douse yourself with a bucket of ice and post a video online to participate in the Ice Bucket video challenge? Why does a single Facebook post – among the many about standing up against injustice in India – with a catchy campaign title of “Not in My Name” get you all charged up to march and protest with a thousand others?

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell famously labelled this trigger the ‘tipping point’, that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.

Clearly, it is difficult to zero in on this ‘X’ factor. “If people could crack this code they would be millionaires,” admits Rahul D’Cunha, creative head of Da Cunha Communications Pvt Ltd. the Mumbai-based ad agency, which has handled the Amul account since 1996. He believes an idea can sing if it is able to latch onto an “emotion” people can identify with. Amul’s mascot – the young Indian blue-haired girl in a polka dotted frock, has stood the test of time. Conceived in 1967, the mascot continues to regale with tongue-in-cheek humour.

After 50 long years, the Amul girl still picks an utterly-butterly trending topic and unerringly zeroes in on the “prevailing emotion” in the country. Be it the pent-up frustration over demonetisation or exultation over a highly popular Bollywood movie.

A similar idea of the “common man”, a silent witness to a chaotic world, was conceived by R K Laxman in 1951. The genius of the man was such that if we were to rerun those cartoons today, they would still hold relevance.

What then makes ideas stand the test of time? Striving to analyse the “trigger”, many international marketing experts have linked influencers to the spread of ideas. Based on the notion that a few people can influence the behaviour of the majority, marketers often target bloggers and celebrities to push their ideas. The Rally for Rivers call, the government’s drive for toilets for all and safety of women in India have taken that route.

In their book ‘Made to Stick’, authors Chip & Dan Heath list a few principles that can lead to “sticky” ideas. One is a truism that can be applied to other areas such as writing: keep the idea simple, devoid of any clutter, and strip it down to its core.

Unexpected twists and turns and other movie-like elements can help, the book suggests. But ultimately, ideas stick if they are credible, relevant, stacked with details and can be executed consistently and long enough for them to touch us in some way.

Most ideas today seem to stop at instigating awareness. Yet, as our lives get more complicated, we need ideas that go beyond awareness to managing the issues at hand.

Standing up for that elusive something that defines a generation – such as Woodstock which still resonates almost half a century later – surely can be played over. We were almost there with the Anna Hazare movement, as people from diverse ages and backgrounds came together, desperately hoping to hook onto a substantial idea, an idea for a corruption-free India where people are accountable.

It has spun many other ideas, including citizen movements, a move towards more transparency and accountability, a new political party and is still moving. That is the power of a lasting idea. We need more of them in our world today.

Nandita Lakshmanan is Chairperson at The PRactice.

Kavitha Shanmugam is a former journalist and Chief Content Curator at The PRactice.