I am certainly not the first, and absolutely not the last person to ask this question. I was thinking about this a bit, mostly in relation to digital branding. Then I also thought about it in relation to digital marketing campaigns.
So, in relation to digital branding, I pretty much reached the conclusion that big idea is not that relevant, although I am sure ton of people will disagree. But I have in mind all those successful brands that care more about being useful and usable and providing delight in small, surprising details (and you know who those brands are!!). They kind of don't have any big idea - or a story - behind them, they just work really really well. Their idea is their execution. End of story :)
Then I started thinking about marketing campaigns and the situation became a bit trickier. After all, people plan a marketing campaigns because they want to draw people's attention to something specific: a new product, or a new positioning of that product, or to promote a line of products, or to get more people to use more products more often. So, if the main purpose is to change people's actions in relation to brand's products, then the best way - agencies thought - is to tell people some awesome story. That is, change of behavior was expected to happen through the change of perception. Totally legit.
Except that digital does not necessarily work that way. There, a change of behavior happens through, well, the change of behavior. Something like moving away the mediator. It's much simpler online: a person does something, gets a feedback, then maybe a trend of those feedbacks, and then after doing stuff that works repeatedly, changes his or her behavior. In this scenario, brand perception is the outcome of positive interactions, and not their cause.
Big ideas, on the other hand, love to command people's attention. They require their own domain on the web, and they rule it (and to avoid any romantic notions, by ruling it I mean mostly practical stuff: not being connected, or referring to, anything or anyone else online; being built from scratch for a gigantic budget; not really being optimized for measurement; etc). And yes, it goes without saying that they expect people to come to them.
In contrast to big ideas model, there's this. It has now almost become a mainstream to think that data and applications and fun stuff live outside the web page, and roam freely on the web (and outside of it, in the physical world -- just ask Russell Davies and Matt Jones). So now the challenge that a marketing campaign has is to build a lot of small fires that people will hopefully interact with. Building a lot of small fires may require a bit more creativity than coming up with one big idea (because, honestly, it is harder to work with what's already out there than to dream up some crazy stuff at the back of the napkin). But, there is also something else. Where the real challenge starts is how to connect all of that stuff together. After all, the task is to build a marketing campaign, and releasing all different things online with a logo on them won't really count as such (just ask the Cannes Lions jury ;).
Ok, now the question is how to integrate all those different and really separate efforts? Can a big idea unfold over time through a lot of small ideas? Or, should we let go of the question of ideas altogether?
Then, there is a reality check: the client paying for a marketing campaign, used to seeing their brand live as one big idea, is - almost by reflex - going to ask: "Where is my brand here?!?" Well, we have a problem. The brand is all these different things. What you build is going to differentiate one brand from another, the same way that different 30-second spots promoted different moods, jingles, characters, and storylines to make some brand "alive" and different from other similar brands. Or, to put it simply: it's about moving away from telling a story (about the brand) to facilitating a conversation through providing utility.
Second, and more importantly, it's not the brand anymore that connects all these different things into a marketing campaign. Big idea cannot hold things together. But people can. And they are doing so through the flows and patterns of their everyday user behavior. This is easy to say. Not so easy to build for. Because the context of that behavior comes in (as currently much quoted Eliel Saarinen put it, “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context ...") and that has much less to do with where people are going to see the tool you've built, and much more with their current 'state of mind', motivations, emotions, needs -- the stuff that's a real driver behavioral change. And now, we can't really know someone's state of mind (and old-school marketers didn't know it either, but hey, they didn't let that stop them). What we can know is how they behave online - their usage patterns.
This brings me back to the start (and I can just hope that I didn't build a circular argument here :). And the start was: use people's behavior in order to change it. Don't give people the IDEA of how they should be (look, feel, eat, behave), just let them do stuff that positively change their life. The desired behavior change is much more likely to occur in this second scenario. Something like a video game: people go through their days and they get different tools to do different stuff, and they get some feedback how they performed and how others performed, and that helps them correct their behavior a bit, etc. It had just now occurred to me that Phillipe Stark said something similar in relation to the role of designers, so I managed to dig out his quote: "In the future, there will be no more designers. The designers of the future will be personal coach, the gym trainer, the diet consultant." What he meant here is that the role of designers is to provide tools that improve people's lives.
Um, can the same thing be said about brands? (Just replace designers with brands in the above sentence, and it does not sound so crazy. It actually sounds pretty cool.)