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Op-Ed: Let’s Talk Inappropriate Brainstorming

We welcome back monthly contributor Simon Mathews, currently chief strategy officer at West Coast shop, Extractable, who’s also worked on the strategy side at the likes of Isobar and Molecular during his career. So what does the title of his latest opus mean? Well, let Matthews explain and discuss where the bounds of brand permission lie.

I’ve been on the road this week visiting a couple of clients and working with them on their digital planning for the next year, and in some cases beyond.

Over a meal in New York the conversation topic turned to what the assembled diners thought of the NSA story hitting the headlines that day – how allegedly our government has been capturing everyone’s emails, phone records for years. To add to the discussion, I introduced a business idea: If the NSA has all our emails and data, maybe they could launch a backup/recovery service (e.g. Your computer crashes, the NSA provides a backup of all your lost data)?  I’d call this, “SpyVault”.

My fellow diners seemed remarkably unmoved.

In the cold light of day, clearly this is a ridiculous idea. But it is an example of a deliberate thought process we can use to help push digital innovation – “Inappropriate brainstorming”.


In the digital strategy world, the essence of the approach is to first lay out the digital assets that an organization may have, be the content, data, functionality, product or process. Then, look at the needs of their target audiences that the organization could support. But then, start pushing that, by asking what other needs might the audience have, that would not typically be within the realm that the organization might want to address.

Then, keep pushing forward, until you come up with some needs that the earlier digital asset list can address, but the organization would never even get close to thinking about. If it has got to an exaggerated place, that’s even better.

Here is another example, with a Health Delivery network we are working with. Many hospitals and clinics have implemented Electronic Medical Records.  Therefore, they have a lot of data about conditions their patients have, plus they know the geographic and demographic profile of those patients.

And, their patients have obvious needs to be able to view those records, understand the implications etc.  Using this starting point for an Inappropriate Brainstorming we got to the point where this data could be packaged and personalized and then sold to others. So, you could sign up and check if your employee really did have a bad back, or even worse, check out if your date had recently visited the STD clinic.

All horrendous ideas, and clearly illegal under any privacy (and decency!) statutes.

So, why do we do this? Well, by pushing to the ultimate extreme we understand two things:

The first is the core of what opportunity may exist. In our healthcare example, it is about leveraging appropriate data to personalize content, functionality and experiences to help that person.

For example, knowing a patient has diabetes, would allow us to surface diabetes related content and blood sugar management tools when the user next logs in.

And by knowing the geographic distribution of medical risks and needs we can surface more relevant content  for a user, based on the geographic location of their IP address, even before they become a patient by visiting a doctor or facility.

The second thing we learn is that by crossing them, we can better understand where the brand permission boundaries lie.  Customers have a good sense of what they expect from the brands they know. Stepping far beyond these boundaries will at a minimum confuse customers and at worst alienate them.  So for our healthcare brand, offering online tools to help you with your blood-sugar is clearly on brand, but launching a dating site is not.

Wrapping this up, we do find that pushing brainstorming to an inappropriate extreme can be quite helpful in understanding the core of what would be appropriate for a brand and its customers. It’s healthy to continue to push this and quite often we uncover innovative ideas that yield great results.

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