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"Think Small" for the Digital Era

In 1959 ad agency DDB created what is still considered to be one of the greatest print campaigns ever: Think Small. 

During a time when big American cars stood as a symbol of the country’s ascendency, the campaign took a small, slow, ugly car from Hitler’s Germany and marketed it to Americans. The campaign embraced all of the car’s oddness--and found its market.

Think small was more than a clever headline. It was a marketing strategy designed to find its tribe. The Volkswagen Beetle was never going to win over Detroit muscle car lovers. Instead, it spoke in a clear, authentic voice to a small but intense group of like-minded people, people who took the Beetle as their own and drove it as a symbol of their individualism. Think Small laid claim to a hidden segment of car buyers, drivers who thought different. They exchanged a friendly honk when they drove past one another.

Driving a Beetle in the early ’60s was like using a Mac in mid ’80s; it was a personal statement.

Today, Think Small should be an important reminder for digital marketers. In the digital world, they must think small, or, to be more precise, think niche (not as catchy, I know).

think small vw ad

The promise of digital has always been that it allows people to form niches, to find one another through shared interests. And the promise of digital to marketers has always been that it creates the opportunity to be part of those self-selected groups. But, as the major digital platforms grow, their communities are losing focus and their value propositions are becoming muddy. And while the big platforms can find like-minded people through tricks of targeting, targeting is a poor substitute for real communities tied together by a common focus.

What’s more, as the marketing discussion turns to reach, the measures of success start to change to reflect that discussion, and then campaigns begin to morph to reflect scale as the measure of success. If you want to broadcast, use a broadcast medium. Digital is a narrowcast medium.

There’s a lot of talk these days about bringing an authentic voice to marketing, about passion-based marketing. Real authenticity comes from talking with like-minded people about shared interests.

Niches can certainly be big. (Any Harry Potter fans out there?) But remember: Just because a group is big does not mean you should broadcast at it. (At least not online.) A niche--even a big niche--comes together online to dig into the detail of its common interest. It lives off of content, content from one another and content from credible marketers. And that is the opportunity of digital marketing: to bring a uniquely credible voice to this specialized dialogue.

Find the niches where you belong--find your Beetle drivers--and bring them the content they crave. Feed their interest with content that only you can bring because you genuinely share their interest. Give them a friendly honk when they drive by. They’ll honk back.

Note: Think Small creator Julian Koenig passed away recently. He was 93.

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