The VP of research and development at a Fortune 500 personal-care company had an interesting “communication challenge.” This visionary R&D director had assembled a top-flight team of new product inventors, developers, and scientists, but he was frustrated because his team of R&D superstars was not generating the enthusiasm and buy-in from marketing that he felt their inventions deserved. He suspected that many of his R&D scientists were not effectively communicating their scientific breakthroughs. Consequently, several of R&D's more exciting ideas were not making it into the company’s innovation development pipeline--and receiving the further R&D funding they warranted and needed.
A few internal interviews with both marketing and R&D quickly confirmed the R&D director’s suspicions. There was indeed a communication challenge: R&D and marketing were simply not speaking the same language. R&D was talking in new molecules, exotic ingredients, innovative product forms, and technically advanced dispensers. Marketing was trying to understand why a consumer, any consumer, would care.
This was a classic example of communicating in features versus benefits. So, our consulting challenge was clear: How could we help the R&D scientists think more like marketers--and be willing, comfortable, and competent presenting their ideas in consumer benefits versus technical features? It turned out to be a more difficult challenge than we originally thought.
The first (and obvious) idea was to have the scientists create a benefit-oriented PowerPoint presentation for their new ideas. We quickly discovered, however, that despite our urging to focus their presentation on their idea’s benefits, the scientists very quickly reverted back to highlighting the idea’s technical features. Back to the drawing board.
We decided we needed something very much out of the ordinary or even radical to reset the scientists’ mindsets, and get them to look at their presentation challenge in an entirely new and creative way. Our answer: Have them create a print ad for their new idea. This time, however, to insure that they focused on the benefits and not the features of the idea, we added two interim steps. First, we had the scientists generate a list of all the consumer benefits they could think of for the idea. Then we then had them pick what they thought was “the single most important benefit.” It was only after completing these first two preliminary steps that they were allowed to create an actual headline for their ad. This worked well, at least initially, because it did indeed force them to adopt a consumer-benefit mindset.
It wasn’t long, however, before we hit another snag. Turns out that most of the R&D scientists weren’t comfortable writing a full print ad. They were getting lost--and wasting a great deal of time--trying to craft the words. Having the scientists write a radio ad, and then a television commercial were equally as time-consuming and ineffective.
In the end, we settled on one of the most underappreciated forms of pure communication there is: the highway billboard. The simplicity and directness of creating a billboard made it relatively easy to train the R&D scientists in how to present their ideas in benefits, without worrying that they might get lost in the process of wordsmithing. Despite the billboard’s deserved reputation as an environmental eyesore, it is, if executed well, one of the purest and most concise forms of communication that has ever existed. Creating a memorable and motivating piece of communication that has only a second or two to make an impact certainly requires both brevity and clarity of thought.
A highway billboard typically has only three elements: a headline, a visual, and a reason-to-believe or call to action. So for our scientists, after they wrote their consumer-benefit headline, we asked them to create a visual that helped reinforce this most-important consumer benefit. And then finally, they created a reason-to-believe the headline. It turned out that once the scientists had created the benefit-oriented headline it was relatively easy for them to create both the corresponding visual and compelling reason-to-believe.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that R&D has just invented a process for encapsulating hand lotion in a powder. Sprinkle the powder on your hands, rub your hands together, and the rubbing action causes the powder molecules to rupture, magically transforming what once was a powder into a hand cream. Pretty cool technology, right? But as a consumer with dry and itchy hands, you might also think, “So what? Why is this ‘powder-lotion’ concoction any better than my favorite brand of hand cream?”
Could it be less messy? Less greasy? Absorb deeper into the skin--and moisturize better--because of the rubbing action? If we call the product “Deep Silk,” the “less greasy” benefit headline could be: “Pampers your skin without that greasy feel.” Or if we focus on the consumer benefit of deep moisturization (as the name Deep Silk might imply), the headline could be: “Transform your hands from dry to silky with new deep-liquid moisturizers.” The accompanying visual could be a sprinkled-power magically transforming into a lotion as it rains into cupped hands. And the reason-to-believe could be: “Skin moisturizing action that goes seven layers deep.”
This turned out to be such a simple and powerful way to identify the consumer benefits of an idea--and therefore presumably the idea’s market potential--that we now use “the Billboard Technique” as a concept development technique in all of our ideation sessions.
We have found that when a promising new idea is subjected to the intellectual and marketing discipline of creating a billboard, surprising things can happen. When there is no clear and motivating consumer benefit, an idea that initially seemed to have great potential can quickly lose its appeal. Conversely, an idea that was originally seen as only moderately appealing can quickly become a most promising idea because its consumer benefit is both unique and compelling!
The billboard technique ultimately made it easier for the R&D scientists to do their jobs. They spent less time creating PowerPoints, had a more engaged and sympathetic audience, and wound up making more “sales.”
Creating a billboard is a great way to make sure that if it’s a new product or even an idea you’re promoting, you’ll be positioning and presenting your idea with a built-in benefit for your audience. And at the end of the day you, like our R&D scientists, will be more likely to sell it.
For more leadership ideas, sign up for the Fast Company newsletter. 
Bryan Mattimore is a cofounder of The Growth Engine Company, whose clients have included City of New York, BNY Mellon, Thomas', Ben & Jerry's, Sony, DKNY, Wyeth, Unilever, IBM, Honeywell, Pepsi, Centrum, Dove, Crayola, Bauer, Ford, and Craftsman. He is also the author of Idea Stormers . Check out an excerpt here .
[Image: Flickr user robertjosiah ]