Wisdom From Chip and Dan Heath: Main Ideas Create Marketing Success

March 1, 2022 8:56 PM

Dunn, North Carolina is the kind of place where people really get to know their neighbors. It’s a small town; the type you see in the movies where everyone knows everyone, and bumping into your friend at the local diner is an everyday occurrence. Dunn may not seem different from any other small town, but there’s something unique about it: everyone in the town of Dunn reads the local paper, The Daily Record. In fact, The Daily Record has 112% readership, meaning that people outside of Dunn read the paper, or more than one person per household is subscribed. What’s even more impressive is that 112% is the highest readership of any paper in the entire United States. Here’s why: Hoover Adams, creator of The Daily Record and publisher for 50 years, had one main idea that he always stuck to with impressive gumption: names, names, names. That was his mantra. Every single thing he published in that paper had a hyper-local focus. He reported no news of the outside world if Dunn, North Carolina was not involved. Sticking to one main idea caused a small paper from a small town in North Carolina to become the most-read newspaper in the entire country. The story of The Daily Record’s success makes clear that focusing on a main idea in your messaging is essential to getting your point across. But how do you make that main idea stick? How can you make it memorable?  How can you make people care? While there’s no set formula that will guarantee you long-lasting success, the most enduring and exciting stories have four things in common:

  • They’re not predictable (they embrace the unexpected),
  • They utilize vivid, concrete details,
  • They pull on strong, palpable emotions, and
  • They are meticulously and unapologetically simple.

So, how do you do that? Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made to Stick” made some pretty amazing discoveries when it comes to telling stories with a lasting impression.

Stories that Stuck

Want a story to stick? Retell one that is stuck with you and think about why you can remember it. Some stories stick simply because of their outrageous nature. For example, the outrageous story about razor blades in Halloween candy. This story is completely false, but it stuck because it’s shocking. In marketing, that shock factor is more limited, but you can still use it. The question becomes, how do you get a story to stick that isn’t filled with shocking and false details? Make it compact, concise, and interesting. Let’s take a look at how Art Silverman helped demonize popcorn with his sticky story. Art Silverman, an employee at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in the 1990s, was tasked to convey how unhealthy movie theater popcorn is to the masses, a rather uninteresting subject on its own. Despite that, Silverman single handedly caused popcorn sales to plummet, and, in turn, forced  theaters to change the oil they popped the corn in. Here’s what he did.

Art Silverman and the Case of the Movie Theater Popcorn Scandal

Silverman knew a medium bag of movie theater popcorn contained 37 grams of saturated fat, which is well above the recommended 20 grams per day. However, he knew that no one would care. Bar graphs and recommended daily value facts would not be enough to convey just how bad this medium bag of popcorn really was for people. So, in September of 1992, the CSPI called a rather unusual press conference. Laid out in front of everyone was a table, adorned with a full bacon and eggs breakfast, a McDonald’s Big Mac and large fry, and a decadent steak dinner. All of this combined, Silverman detailed, had the same amount of saturated fat as just one medium bag of popcorn. To reiterate: a full breakfast, a fast food burger and fries, and a steak had the same amount of saturated fat as a medium bag of movie theater popcorn.Following this announcement, movie theater popcorn sales dropped dramatically, moviegoers opted to stay at home and rent, and theaters had no choice but to change the oil they popped their popcorn in, thus lowering the saturated fat and appeasing the masses. Silverman’s story stuck. It was vividly unexpected, conveyed shocking details, and called on intense emotions with a simple example. Silverman figured out how to convey his core idea in a way that stuck. The main idea: a medium bag of popcorn had more saturated fat than 3 unhealthy meals, combined.

Simple: Core and Compact

main ideas

Simple messages are two things, core and compact. Simple, but not dumbed down, and short. The most basic example of a simple idea is the golden rule: treat others how you want to be treated. The Heath brothers created an important quote when it comes to your messaging: “If you say three things, you say nothing.” If what you have to say is really important, then you must get to the point, reiterate that point, and live by that point. The most successful companies do this. They have a core statement, and they stick to it, no matter what. Even if it hurts their bottom line, even if it makes no sense on the surface, they don’t waver in their pursuit of their core message. Looking for an example? Take Nordstrom, a luxury department store chain, who has a different idea of customer service than most.

Nordstrom’s Dedication to Uncommonly Good Customer Service

You may have heard the rumors about Nordstrom’s legendary customer service and dismissed them as myths. There is no way they would actually gift wrap a present a customer had bought at Macy’s, right? It wouldn’t make sense for a Nordstorm employee to warm up a customer’s car while they were shopping! It would also appear absolutely crazy to most customer service workers that Nordstorm would refund a customer the full amount for a set of chain tires (interesting fact: Nordstrom definitely does not sell tires). As it turns out, all of those things and more have actually happened. Nordstorm’s core idea is to make the customer happy, even at the expense of efficiency. According to the Heath brothers, you have to communicate the parts of your message that make uncommon sense to get them to stick. What’s uncommon sense? It’s doing something unexpected that changes what people previously believed. Most customer service employees wouldn’t consider the tales of Nordstrom workers in the realm of great customer service. By redefining customer service for Nordstrom employees into something that makes uncommon sense, they did something unexpected. That leads us back to the main idea of this blog: these stories have concrete details, and they invoke emotions in the listener. Nordstrom’s simple, core brand message and the way it is expressed in practice and then in stories, makes the retailer enduringly memorable in the eyes of consumers.

Find Your Message and Stick to It

Get to the simple, compact, core of your message, and communicate it in a way that is unexpected, vividly detailed, and highly emotional. If you can achieve this in your marketing, the stories you convey can live on throughout time and become, as the Heath brothers wrote, “enduringly powerful.” Find your message and live by it. Make uncommon sense. Stick to your guns. Thank Chip and Dan Heath, and buy a copy of “Made to Stick” today. And if you need a little help getting there, contact us at Helix House. Our team of copywriters are more than happy to offer some uncommon sense in their services. This blog was led and written by Copywriting Intern Julia Hensley and overseen by Casey Watts and Cody Eastlick.