Let’s play a word association game. When you hear, “Start with why,” what comes to mind?
Mark Levy, founder of Levy Innovation, helped Simon conceive Start With Why.
A self-described differentiation expert, Mark helps corporations, brands, and thought leaders develop the idea they’ll be known for.
He shared the process he uses with clients in his Content Marketing World 2022 presentation, How To Come Up With Your Big Sexy Idea.
Differentiation requires more than an idea
Differentiation generates attention, awareness, and recall that can lead to business opportunities. It can apply to a business (i.e., broad) or a piece of content (i.e., narrow).
The “big sexy idea” becomes your signature.
“The idea calls up the person, and the person calls up the idea,” Mark explains. “Anyone who comes across the idea has to seek you out because you embody that idea. You represent that idea in people’s minds.”
How does differentiation lead to business opportunities? People make snap judgments. If your signature idea connects with a target audience, they’re more likely to start a conversation with you or contact your business even though they know little else about you.
But it’s not enough to be known for the differentiating idea. Mark says you need to be the definitive provider of it. You need to represent the full potency of the idea, not a pale diet version that could have come from multiple people.
Simon does that well. What I remember most from his Start With Why TED Talk wasn’t the three-word tagline. It was his repetition of this line: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
If we learn to start with WHY, and share the reasons that we’re passionate for our work, we give people an opportunity to connect with us on a deeper, more human level. People don’t buy what we do, they buy WHY we do it. pic.twitter.com/w6N1PG69oO
— Simon Sinek (@simonsinek) August 5, 2021
For me, that combination cemented the association between the concept and Simon.
Examples of personal and brand differentiation
Mark offered another example of a person closely associated with a differentiating idea. Mel Robbins is an expert in change and motivation who became known for The 5 Second Rule. Her big sexy idea is that we’re all just five seconds away from a different life.
According to Mel’s website, “The 5 Second Rule is the secret to changing anything about your life. You can use the Rule and its countdown method to break any bad habit, interrupt self-doubt and negative self-talk, and push yourself to take the actions that will change your life.”
While Simon and Mel’s big sexy ideas apply to individuals, Mark says that the concept works for companies and brands, too.
An example of a big sexy idea from a B2B marketing company is FlipMyFunnel. Conceived by Terminus co-founder Sangram Vajre, FlipMyFunnel evangelized account-based marketing (ABM). (Terminus is a vendor of ABM software).
The FlipMyFunnel idea fueled annual conferences, a Slack community, and a podcast. Although the events and podcast have ended, the phrase “flip my funnel” still calls Sangram Vajre, Terminus, and account-based marketing to mind. More powerfully, I still use the phrase to explain ABM – pursuing focused, named accounts rather than targeting a broad audience.
How to create your big sexy idea
To create a big sexy idea, Mark encourages teams or individuals to try his two-part “envy” exercise. Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Get angry or envious
Think of a time when you came across an idea and thought, “Wait a second, that’s my idea.” You might have gotten angry and felt envy. Mark felt this when he came across Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, a book published in 2007 by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.
Mark had been speaking about some of the same principles the Heath brothers covered. The brothers didn’t steal his work – they didn’t even know about Mark. Still, Mark became angry that his ideas had been unintentionally coopted.
Mark says an emotional reaction (e.g., anger or envy) can be revealing. Stop and ask yourself:
- What’s happening in this situation?
- What am I thinking in this situation?
Your answers can generate ideas that will lead to your big sexy idea.
So think of an idea that you envy and write it down.
Step 2: Make the idea your own
Next, build on your idea to make it unique and differentiating. In doing so, it might morph into a new concept. Mark helps illustrate this with a story.
A few years ago, Mark had an opportunity to submit a response to a Fast Company writer who was doing an article about how to be a good business conversationalist.
Mark knew that dozens of experts would send answers to the reporter. He also knew that if his answers sounded like everyone else’s, he had little chance of being quoted. He decided his response didn’t have to be better than the others – it just had to be different.
Mark compares the concept to a foot-high deli sandwich. It’s not necessarily a better-tasting sandwich, but its uniqueness draws lines of people waiting to buy and take photos of it.
Mark’s response to the Fast Company writer differentiated itself from the others, and it worked. Over 60% of what he submitted appeared in the article.
Here are the three questions essential to refining your big sexy idea:
- What do I know about this subject that 80% of the market doesn’t?
- What does my audience know but haven’t thought to say?
- What does my audience need to know?
Your big sexy idea is not for everyone
By this point in the exercise, you’ve recalled seeing someone publish or promote an idea similar to one of yours. If it made you angry that someone got to it first, you’re probably on the right track.
You’ve also improved on that idea by adding elements that you know more about than other people, that people know but haven’t thought to say, and that people don’t know but need to know.
At this point, you might feel the urge to broaden your idea to appeal to everyone. But that would be a mistake. As Mark explains, “A large population would twist you into a pretzel – into something you’re not.”
Instead, Mark says, think about your idea the way The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia thought about the band’s music: “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
Now, go find your big sexy idea.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute