What Marketers Can Learn From Sesame Street

January 1, 2015

When Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett first embarked on creating Sesame Street, they could never have imaged the impact that it would have. With over 100 Emmy awards to its’ name, Sesame Street remains one of the most popular children’s television shows to date. Started in 1969, Sesame Street not only introduced us to Big Bird and Elmo, but it also revolutionized and challenged the status quo.

While at first glance Sesame Street may seem like an obvious children’s favorite, the reality of the situation was that Sesame Street was the counter to the ‘norm.’ Part genius and part luck, Sesame Street’s ‘success story’ serves as an excellent examples to marketers on how to make anything from an idea to a campaign succeed.

The Big Bird That Almost Never Happened

Believe it or not, but when Sesame Street was first conceptualized and created, Big Bird wasn’t part of it. Not just Big Bird, but other lovable Muppets, like Oscar the Grouch, were never even supposed to be part of the original sketches. What caused Cooney and Morrisett to write in the characters of Big Bird and other Muppets was the realization that Sesame Street didn’t ‘stick.’

To an extent, before Big Bird and the Muppets Sesame Street was like every other show. It targeted the 3 to 5 year old demographic and implemented and executed ‘best practices’ for children’s shows during that time. Still, what Cooney and Morrisett determined through group testing of shows is that their initial plans of separating all fantasy elements of the show from real elements (street scenes with live actors), which was believed to have been a standard practice due to a child’s inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, actually had a detrimental effect on the attentiveness and interest of the demo group. Here, Cooney and Morrisett faced a hard decision: go with the ‘norm’ or go with the unknown and take a leap of faith.

Fast-forward 40 plus years and we see that Cooney and Morrisett made the right decision. While most marketing specialists aren’t in the situation of having to decide between Big Bird or no Big Bird, everyone in some form or another has their own Sesame Street situation. As story tellers, our goal is to make sure that the story and messages we weave not only resonates with an audience, but that it has the legs to run and continue to be relevant. We can only make assumptions as to how Sesame Street would have done had the changes not been made, but it wouldn’t be far fetched to think that after a few episodes, Sesame Street would have drifted into obscurity and have become just like any other children’s television show. Learning from Cooney and Morrisett, the key to a great idea sticking and growing into something bigger is knowing how to adapt and develop ideas that challenge the current status quo as well as finding new ways to optimize and improve existing best practices.

The Details of Success

An interview question that I like to ask prospective candidates is how they would take a simple product, such as a DVD, and sell it at a university. While the obvious reason for asking the question is to see how creative the individual is when given a relatively simple task, the deeper meaning of the question is to determine how detailed the individual is when approaching and formulating a plan or idea. The real challenge for the individual isn’t to come up with a creative idea, but rather when they have their plan examined and scrutinized for holes and gaps.

In almost systematic fashion, the team of Cooney and Morrisett took every possible measure to produce the highest quality product in Sesame Street. From developing multiple variations of scripts for segments to measuring demo group attentiveness down to the seconds, if Sesame Street was going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because of their lack of detail. As marketers we can both appreciate and learn from Cooney and Morrisett. In the business world, we are able to influence many things, but control very few. Among the things we are able to control are the details and the lengths at which we go into planning and developing our ideas. For example, if you are telling a stranger how to get from point A to point B, the amount of detail that you provide them with will have a direct affect on whether or not they actually reach the location. Similarly, marketing efforts that provide detailed steps from start to finish leaves little room for error or failure on the part of the brand. Today especially, in an environment where user sentiment and impulses can be impacted within a matter of seconds, developing an idea that has been scrutinized and broken down until it’s perfect can be the difference between success and failure.

While Sesame Street has changed since its inception, the fundamentals of its success are still present. Big Bird is still big and Kermit is still green. We may all be a little older and wiser, but we can all look back on Sesame Street to inspire our creativity to push boundaries and develop innovative ideas.

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