Technology Stories & Idea Amnesia

At the Google Think Marketing conference a couple of weeks ago, Andy Fennell, Chief Marketing Officer at Diageo, gave the keynote.  The theme of the day was digital storytelling, but Andy wrapped in an older, potent story, concerning the birth of the Moscow Mule, and how it properly kicked off the Smirnoff brand in the US.

Let’s here the story from John Martin, the key protagonist in the tale…


There’s two things of real interest in this for me.

The first thing is about the role of technology in stories.  John Martin bought ONE Polaroid camera to use when going into bars… perhaps just like this one, the first Polaroid camera:

It wasn’t an army of Smirnoff people armed with a technological advance.  There weren’t Polaroid pictures of every bartender in America, because the technology wasn’t there to achieve massive reach and scale, it was there to make the story better.

Often nowadays we get caught between two stools with new technology in marketing; marketeers want it to be new, interesting, attention grabbing.  But they also want it to be a mass behaviour, because to justify budget, it has to offer up some comparable reach figures to other channels.

Perhaps the answer is to force yourself in one direction or the other.  Either use technology to tell a better story, and concentrate on how you make the story spread, or take a technology down to it’s most basic, widely used form in order to try and make a new behaviour spread.

Too often we see examples of marketing initiatives which try to achieve both, and miss both targets.

(Funnily enough, there’s a very basic piece of technology in this story, that everyone knew how to use… the copper cup.)

So, to the second point.

John Martin’s story is compelling, well told, a seemingly inspired moment in time that was remarkable in what it achieved.  It makes us think we should seek to crack an idea as big and compelling as that, because it’s the best way to change a business.

What John Martin isn’t telling us is about all the other people he met over the course of that decade, how many bars he sat at with people trying to come up with different ways to serve Smirnoff, how many mixers he tried, how many different serving vessels.

At the moment of inception, the Moscow Mule is a really small idea.

An obscure spirit with an unpopular mixer in an unfamiliar cup.  But the thing about small ideas like this is you can afford to have lots of them.

I brought this up with Andy after the event, as I was interested in what they knew; was this one of hundreds of ideas John Martin had tried?

Andy explained:

“We don’t entirely know how many ideas failed before John Martin landed on the Moscow Mule as the first of a series of cocktails.  The archives (like all HBR case studies) capture the 20:20 hindsight of the winning idea.

What we do know is the business in the US was broke for several years.  Indeed, there was some suggestion that they couldn’t afford the license to operate and almost gave up.

It’s fair to assume that they were trying stuff at that time and it wasn’t working but we don’t know what that was.”

It’s funny how companies forget.  There’s a sort of “idea amnesia”.

You try a hundred things, and only one or two work.  People then start to ask you about those one or two things more and more.  You forget all the other ideas, and keep retelling the tales of the great ideas, how they came about, how you made the most of it.

In the same way that history is written by the victors, marketing history is written by the winning ideas, not the ones that failed to make it.

Say you try out ten different things, and one takes off.  You’ve got a strike rate of one in ten.  But it’s vital, more than ever in this day and age, that you try and maintain that strike rate, never mind improve it.

It’s highly presumptuous that because you’ve got it right once you’ll be able to try just five things next time around, and make one of those take off.  That’s a 20% success rate, whereas before it was just 10%.

Plus think about how much the world will have changed in the meantime… you’re not playing in the same ballpark as you were even a year ago.  You’ve got to keep trying as much stuff as you ever have.

You also see it with agencies who strike gold with a particular form of campaign or idea; they spend a year at awards shows telling that story to great plaudits, convince themselves they’ve cracked it, and receive increasingly diminishing returns from trying to do everything else they produce in the same style.

But you know, I think we all know it, deep down.  And we just find it hard to accept, that we’re not the geniuses we believed we were when we got it right before.  But maybe coming up with a brilliant idea every single time isn’t the key skill… as Andy pointed out:

“I think that we should be in the pursuit of stuff that transforms but also accept that you will probably have to kiss a few frogs to get a prince and that knowing when you’ve got something massive and leveraging it is a more important skill than trying to align the planets to ensure that it happens.”

Idea amnesia affects us all.  We need to remember all the frogs we’ve kissed.  But when we grasp one that feels a bit different, we must be able to do what it takes to turn it into a prince.