Being innovative means constantly coming up with new, great, and reliable ideas. But what happens when you’ve run out of ideas? Taking a look at an industry completely different from your own can spark massive insight and bring unexpected ideas. The only problem: how do you relate that idea back to your brand?
In this article, we’ll cover how to connect ideas that are completely unrelated to create something new and unexpected. To show us how to do that, let’s take a look at Ben Bacal, The Movie Man of Real Estate.
As Ben Bacal grew up in Toronto, Canada, he dreamed of a life working in the film industry in Hollywood. At 17, he left home and moved to Los Angeles to study film and electronic arts at California State University, Long Beach. After he graduated, he went to work for Sony and Warner Bros. Studios, creating special effects. He loved his work, but his heart was one step ahead of him – he wanted to produce his own films.
Ben didn’t make a lot of money as a special effects guy. Or at least the kind of money he needed to produce his own work. He started to look around for something else he could do to supplement his income. His mom had been a real estate agent back in Toronto, so he thought he’d take a look at real estate.
In studying the industry, he observed something about how real estate agents marketed their services – it was pretty static. And pretty awful. They plastered their faces on park benches and bus stops. They sent out a lot of postcards that people promptly threw out. And then they sat back and waited for the phone to ring.
Ben’s first problem was to figure out how to market himself. He started by going house to house, knocking on people’s front doors. When they answered, he introduced himself and said he had a buyer for their house. Had they ever considered selling? If they said yes, he scrambled to find a buyer. Believe it or not, it worked well. Really well.
In his first year as an agent, Ben sold $17 million in real estate. His commission: $394,000. It sounds like a lot of money, but if you’re looking to finance Hollywood movies, it takes a bigger pool of cash than that.
Connecting Hollywood movies with real estate
That’s when Ben thought back to his first love: film. He observed that movies have the power to take people places they never imagined. To transport them to another time and place. To provoke emotions and get people to pay attention. That’s how studios create ardent fans that wait with bated breath for their next release. And why people are willing to pay more for work that certain directors produced than others.
Noodling on his observations, he noticed a pattern behind it all. Film was a way to get people to pretend. To see themselves in ways they never imagined before. Movies were also a way to build a large audience of passionate fans.
As he thought about his work, Ben asked himself a question. What if he could use the same approach to get people to pretend – to transport them into the home of their dreams – while building an audience for his real estate business?
That was the spark of inspiration Ben needed. He started shooting videos with his iPhone of the properties he listed – or even someone else’s – edited them, and uploaded them to YouTube, Facebook, and even Myspace. While Ben could knock on 20-30 doors a week, an online video got 100 hits in a day or over 1,000 in a week. Video was his opportunity to scale his outreach.
Next, Ben added content pieces about the neighborhood and agent profiles about himself. He found that the videos showing his face and walking through a property performed much better than those that just showed the listing. By seeing Ben in the picture, it was easier for buyers to see themselves in any potential new house.
Elaborate videos became Ben’s trademark. He’d take a regular listing and turn the real estate videos into property dramas. He created them just like he would a Hollywood film, which have characters, a suspenseful plot, and stars.
For example, the Hollywood Reporter describes one video like this: “Dusk in the Hollywood Hills, A melancholy piano fills the soundtrack with Debussy’s haunting ‘Clair de Lune.’ The camera focuses on a man in a blue blazer as he enters a stunning glass-box-style modern house. He heads straight into the sleek all-white kitchen and pours himself a tumbler of booze from a crystal decanter. Then he strolls onto the wrap-around terrace and stares moodily at the city lights for a bit until climbing upstairs to the spacious master bedroom, where he encounters his wife applying makeup in their enormous luxury bathroom. ‘I want a divorce,’ he tells her, delivering the line so woodenly he’d have Keanu Reeves slapping his forehead.”
While it may not be Oscar-worthy acting, it’s killer marketing. This 10-minute mini-movie is part of a soon-to-be-divorced couple’s $4.5 million property listing. The owners are the stars, and as the plot takes them through their argument and inevitable marital split, viewers see the details of the space and high-tech amenities. (Plot twist…the couple isn’t actually getting a divorce.)
The results of being innovative
Ben was one of the first people in his industry to use video for all of his real estate marketing. With it, he went from being an average producer in his office to selling over $2 billion in properties. He estimates that his videos have been a boon to his business in the range of “a thousandfold.” In 2013, he started using drones to shoot videos of properties. He put together montages of clips for some properties and uploaded them to YouTube. One of them went viral and reached a Dutch technology developer who wanted to buy a home in Los Angeles. Part of Ben’s current notoriety is his status as the agent for the most expensive listing in the United States, located in Bel Air, California, for $250 million. In fact, he’s created such a strong brand for himself that when word gets out that he’s listed a home in a neighborhood, the average property value actually goes up.
Why does connecting unrelated ideas work so well?
Why did Ben’s approach of marrying Hollywood movies with selling high-end real estate work? It’s because he was able to relate blockbuster films to his work as an agent before he asked, “How do I sell more houses?” If Ben had asked, “How do I apply movie techniques to sell houses?,” I guarantee he wouldn’t have been as successful. His work would’ve come across as cheesy or trying to copycat big-name studios. Instead, he observed what happened when films became box office hits—they attracted a lot of attention, created a buzz, and generated intrigue. Next, he connected the dots and distilled them into a pattern—Hollywood movies created groups of fans, followers who moved from one piece of work to another. He realized that’s exactly what he wanted to do in the real estate business. Ben wanted to create a fan base of his work, so people would come see his listings. The more eyeballs he attracted, the more likely he was to sell a property. And more viewers mean a greater demand, which boosts the price. Both Hollywood studios and real estate agents need to attract attention, create a buzz, and generate intrigue. Ben had the realization he could do for real estate what movies do for Hollywood.
That’s why Ben’s idea worked. He observed the world around him and distilled it into a pattern, and he related Hollywood movie success to his work as a real estate agent. It’s the process he used that made his idea successful. This point of relating inspiration from another source to his own work is also the critical point at which most innovation efforts fail. The temptation is that once you observe something successful and distill it into a pattern, you jump into the objective and start generating ideas without taking time to fully understand the first two steps. The step of relating unrelated ideas creates the critical space to contextualize your thinking, which increases the chances of success.
How to connect unrelated ideas, step by step
I give a full rundown of how to take something that inspires you and turn it into an innovative idea in my book, RE:Think Innovation. But here’s a quick snapshot of how to connect unrelated thoughts and come up with a truly inspired outcome…
- Observe. Sit in a quiet location and simply watch (and smell, hear, and feel) your surroundings for a few minutes. No phone, no computer, no distractions. Simply observe and write down what you see/smell/hear/feel.
- Compare. Notice patterns between the things you observed. Do some of the items have a common element or theme? What similarities do you see? Differences? Go beyond the obvious, and don’t be afraid to be silly with what you discover.
- Associate. Determine which themes you notice have things in common with your brand. Be careful, though — it’s not about coming up with ideas yet. We’re still just connecting the dots and slowing down the idea-generation process. As you look for associations, you’re filtering through the patterns you identified in the last step and how they relate to your brand.
- Attach. Take the strongest correlations and use those to look at your brand with a new perspective. This seems like a little thing, but it’s a subtle nuance that will be the spark for a massive amount of ideas.
You may be able to see relationships right away with some things, and others won’t make any sense at all. You might find that you look at a couple of the patterns and together they spark something that relates to your situation. Again, you’re not looking for any rhyme or reason with how things connect or what connects. There’s no right or wrong. You’re simply organizing what you observe and getting it ready to relate it to your brand.
Now it’s your turn
Run through the exercise above and write down what you notice. For instance, when I was in a coffee shop the other day, I noticed cushy chairs, laughter, background music, a community events board, and personalized names on cups. All of those things are comfortable to me and make me feel relaxed, so the broader pattern or theme would be “comfort”. Relating back to my business, I noticed I try to help my readers and clients feel as comfortable as possible through my relatable style of writing and doing business. Looking forward, this sparks more ideas of how I can make my clients’ experience even more comfortable and relaxed. So instead of saying, “How can I give my clients a better experience?” (too vague), I now have a specific direction to guide my ideas.
Now it’s your turn. Let me know, what connections did this spark for you? What unrelated things can you string together to spark new ideas?
Want to read more on how to connect unrelated ideas? Check out:
Storytelling Lessons from the Cheese Aisle
How Cats, Carcasses, and Critters Sparked Brilliant Innovation