Deep down, you know that all ideas are not created equal. But is there an order to ideas? I believe there is. I present here my Taxonomy of Ideas.
My goal is to help you identify and maximize the power of your ideas. This taxonomy divides ideas into four “orders.” Ideas in each order can combine and build on the others. The best will integrate elements from multiple orders. There can be good ideas in any of the orders, even award winners. But having ideas of the First Order should be your highest goal. I suggest that winning a trophy, no matter how career-changing, is a different thing than launching an idea that changes the way people think about a subject, a category, a brand, or themselves.
Fourth Order Ideas:
Though they can be quite charming, these ideas lack the conceptual resonance to redefine a brand or a category. They often feature clever word plays or puns. They can be witty, edgy, surprising, even momentarily inspiring. They’re usually one-offs. Strong attitude can help them differentiate, and consistent style can create a campaign, but they require significant exposure to reshape a brand.
Third Order Ideas:
These are the exclusively tactical ideas. They lean heavily on creative use of the medium. They usually appear as one-off direct mail, unique dimensional pieces, big events, premiums, sweepstakes, interactive tools, stunts, viral videos, street teams, and PR blasts. Or they may be outdoor spectaculars, location dominations, projections, online takeovers, transit wraps, podcasts, apps, and interruptive content. At their best, they can boldly expand a First Order brand idea into a fresh or unexpected environment. At their worst, they may remind you of the line from Shakespeare’s Scottish play, “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Second Order Ideas:
These are the solely executional or stylistic ideas. When they lack a central First Order idea to power them, these campaigns are often held together by a look or a style. Or they may use significant borrowed interest only loosely related to the message. They often use shop-worn emotional set pieces to pluck the heart strings. These are the celebrities, testimonials, special effects, talking babies, animals, and humorous characters. With enough emotion and exposure they can be memorable.
First Order Ideas:
This is the grail. These are the big ideas. They have a lasting effect on the way you think about the category. In rare instances, that effect can be permanent. The very best of them change the way you think about yourself. They create a new conceptual identity for the brand. The core idea becomes integral to every execution. And with care, it can live on for years.
First Order ideas become the brand. They form a link with the target’s inner identity that cannot be easily broken. They inspire advocates and evangelists. They can even live beyond the life of the campaign, becoming cultural memes.
And here’s the rub: a First Order idea is where you want to start. Once you have a powerfully resonant idea based in an effective motivating principle or insight, you can layer on thinking and tactics from the other orders to add even more power, memorability, and style. But always build on the big First Order idea at the center.
Look around and try applying this logic. You’re likely to notice lots of Second, Third, and Fourth Order combinations without a First Order core. But they didn’t have this taxonomy. You do. So get your big idea right, and then build. Now go forth and think big.