How To Find Ideas: The Secret of “Creative Emulation”

“Had Shakespeare listened to the news of Duncan’s death in a tavern …?” – Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana, 1958)

Creative emulation, as I define it, is the highly leveraged art of studying and observing all sorts of effective and successful marking techniques and concepts that companies totally outside of your marketing sphere are using — and inventively adapting variations of these concepts to fresh applications in your own business or practice.

This simple strategy can give you a marketing breakthrough that changes your whole business. I’ve seen it happen many times.

Let me give you an innovative example of what I mean …

A newsletter publisher friend of mine was sitting in bed reading his Wall Street Journal, and he read about a little restaurant in Pennsylvania that allowed customers to pay whatever price they felt their meal was worth. This restaurant was doing a landslide business. So my newsletter friend tried a “name your own price” approach to subscription renewals. He doubled the number of people renewing.

Another friend of mine in the precious-metal business was reading his mail and he saw a solicitation from a national insurance company offering to compare their rates with his current insurance rates if he’d mail back to them a copy of his current policy. It set my precious-metals dealer friend’s mind to humming. He came up with a fascinating application.

He ran ads offering to compare commissions between his firm and others on certain negotiable commission trades if customers of other firms would mail him a copy of their confirmation receipt. Over 5,000 people who were ongoing metals traders did just that, and nearly 800 of them became my friend’s customers!

By cultivating an inquisitive, curious, and investigative attitude and exploring all sorts of unrelated avenues in search of concept inspiration, you will increase your chances of coming across usable or “emulatable” ideas manifold.

Here are some of the approaches I use when looking for good ideas.

First, I read as many unrelated publications as possible, looking both at ads as well as articles. For example, I read all the ads in the Wall Street Journal, the National Enquirer, Forbes, TV Guide, USA Today, and my local newspaper.

I read all the rags-to-riches stories and the marketing columns in all sorts of business and trade publications. I read biographies of self-made successes, looking for the specific techniques these people cultivated — so I can apply them. I look backwards — two to 20 years or more — to concepts that were successful long ago and that could be revised and applied today.

I observe everybody and everything in stores, at theaters, at restaurants, on menus, and on billboards. I listen to people talk in groups — at parties, around hotel lobbies, and at poolside. I sit in airports and listen. I stay up late and watch the hokey-seeming late-night TV commercials for mail-order companies and car deals, always looking for valuable ideas. I interview people for jobs from all sorts of other fields I’m not familiar with, and I ask tons of questions.

I’ve learned to look at things in what I’ve come to refer to as a “CAT scan” perspective, whereby I see things cockeyed and sideways and orbitally and pivotally and vertically and diagonally, looking for fresh new fits or innovative ways to reconstruct and present a concept. You should learn to do this, too.