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Brand Management

In Search Of The Obvious


In Search Of The Obvious Ideations Brand Strategy

Whenever I travel around the world, I’m often asked the same question: “What are your favorite books?” Well, I’m going to let you in on a secret. The best book that I have ever read on marketing is one that was written 100 years ago, in 1916.

And here’s the good news: It is only 40 pages long, and it contains no jargon or graphs or complex research. In fact, it’s more like a pamphlet. Now the bad news: It’s not easy to find and could be called a collector’s item.

The book is titled Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman. It’s written by Robert R. Updegraff. The book was an instant hit.  The New York Times wrote, “The young man who is going to seek his fortune in the advertising business should have Obvious Adams for a handbook. Indeed, any young man who is going to seek his fortune in anything might be aided by the common sense and business acumen displayed in this little volume.”

Why do I like this book so much? Well, because the search for any marketing strategy is the search for the obvious. Consider the dictionary definition of the word “obvious”: easy to see or understand, plain, evident. With that definition you begin to see why an obvious strategy is so powerful. It’s simple, easy to understand and evident. That’s why it works so well.

Interestingly, when presented with a simple, obvious strategy, many clients are not impressed. They are often looking for some clever, not-so-obvious idea.

What I often hear is something like, “That’s something we already know. Is the solution that simple?” I then have to go into my evident speech, which goes like this: “You’re right, it is evident. But if it’s evident to you it will also be evident to your customers, which is why it will work.”

The author warned of this reaction when he wrote, “The trouble is, the obvious is apt to be so simple and commonplace that it has no appeal to the imagination. We all like clever ideas and ingenious plans that make good lunch-table talk at the club. There is something about the obvious that is–well, so very obvious!”

To give you a taste of what Mr. Updegraff writes, here are his “Five Tests of Obviousness.”

1. The problem when solved will be simple. The obvious is nearly always simple–so simple that sometimes a whole generation of men and women have looked at it without even seeing it.

2. Does it check with human nature? If you feel comfortable in explaining your idea or plan to your mother, wife, relative, neighbors, your barber and anyone else you know, it’s obvious. If you don’t feel comfortable, it probably is not obvious.

3. Put it on paper. Write out your idea, plan or project in words of one or two syllables, as though you were explaining it to a child. If you can’t do this in two or three short paragraphs and the explanation becomes long, involved or ingenious–then very likely it is not obvious.

4. Does it explode in people’s minds? If, when you have presented your plan, project or program, do people say, “Now why didn’t we think of that before?” You can feel encouraged. Obvious ideas are very apt to produce this “explosive” mental reaction.

5. Is the time ripe? Many ideas and plans are obvious in themselves, but just as obviously “out of time.” Checking time lines is often just as important as checking the idea or plan itself.

To me, those five principles are worth a thousand books on marketing, mine included.

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1 Comment

dave platter on April 15th, 2008 said

I just want you to know that you can download a copy of Obvious Adams for free from the Library of Congress, on this page:


Or click here for the PDF file (1.5 MB):


All the best.

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