The Big Idea by Robert Jones
(Glasgow: HarperCollinsBusiness, 2000. 218 pp)

Robert Jones was born in Gloucester in 1957 and studied Philosophy and English at Cambridge University. He is a director with Wolff Olins, one of the world’s most respected brand consulting firms, and has worked as a consultant in corporate communication for 16 years, with companies such as Andersen Consulting, Cameron McKenna, and the National Trust. He also lectures at Oxford Business School on the marketing of professional service firms.

The Shifting Foundations of Business

Especially in the latter parts of the 20th Century, the relationship between business and customer circled around an economic exchange. Certainly, factors of quality contributed to purchasing patterns, but above all else, the consumer desired a deal. If two similar products differed by a dollar, you could bet the house on a customer buying the cheaper option.

However, a shift is occurring in the economic landscape. With the rise of the Internet and globalization, society is beginning to understand the overarching costs not present in a cheaper price tag. If a product carries a cheaper cost, the customer now holds reservations about the purchase because the societal impacts such as sustainable living wages influence decisions.

Photo by Paul Bica

However, the relationship between business and customer is changing. Customers do not want to be a number. Instead, they desire a relationship. If customers believe in the underlying values of a business, they find virtue in their purchases and become the marketing engine of an organization as they promote products to friends, family, and colleagues.

Therefore, Roberts Jones argues, in The Big Idea,

“[P]eople want the right product or the right service, but they want something else too: they want to know that there’s an organization behind it that thinks rather in the way they think, or even that’s ahead of their thinking. They want an organization that shares their worries, that stands for what they stand for” (30).

How does one move toward business as a shared community? Jones suggests this shift occurs through a big idea.

The Big Idea 

A big idea is not a product; it is not an advertising campaign; it is not a mission or vision statement. A big idea surrounds a worldview. Jones suggests,

“A big idea is, at least in part, a view of the world. The important thing is that it’s an inwardly felt view of the outer world. It has to carry inner conviction” (91).

The 21st Century customer resonates with inner conviction. If people have a choice between Apple and Microsoft, they will, to a certain extent, make a choice based on the company idea. If you approve Apple’s idea of usability, Apple is the clear choice. If you enjoy Microsoft’s idea of ubiquity, then Microsoft takes the lead.

In both instances, the choice runs deeper than computer specs and cost; it becomes a question of association. Are you a Mac person or a Microsoft person?

The Big Idea reads as an extended interview with industry leaders around the notion of a big idea. Jones splits his prose between quotations from Ikea, Orange, The Guardian, and Virgin, on one side, and philosophical ruminations on what a big idea could be on the other.

The Plummeting Height of the High Ground 

Photo by Kris Krug

While many organizations, to this day, remain leaders in this space of thought leadership, some organizational examples feel dated. More specifically, Jones promotes BP and Fannie Mae as moral paragons of the big idea world. As we all know, these companies have failed to live up to probus standards.

But, perhaps the fall of BP and Fannie Mae was a bigger deal precisely because of the big ideas behind each company. Jones writes,

“An organization that has attained the high ground, but then loses people’s trust, has a long way to fall. But that’s the nature of high ground” (154).

I appreciate hearing Jones mention this notion. When a company has a big idea and creates a community with its stakeholders, breaking that trust creates grave consequences.

The New Frontier

The business world is shifting toward a new frontier where businesses need to operate under a “big idea” in order to connect with their customers. Without these connections, a business will find it difficult to survive as customers move to greener and more transparent pastures. Even though some of Jones’ illustrations make this book feel slightly dated, the principles still hold. If you run a business, The Big Idea is mandatory inspirational reading.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

How about you? Does your company have a big idea? Do your managers espouse that big idea? Do you agree with the premise in the first place?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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