Inception Marketing, An Infection of Ideas

“What’s the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities.  An idea can transform the rules and rewrite all existence.”

– Cobb (from Inception)

What’s the best idea you’ve ever had?  Maybe it was the idea to start your own business, or to switch those stocks at the last minute, or that invention that will change the face of blah, blah, blah.  What did you do with that idea?

In the new movie Inception (which I’m sure will breed many posts similar to this one), the premise is that ideas can not only be extracted from the mind, but also that they can be placed to grow on their own in someone else’s mind…..called the process of inception.

I got to thinking about this and it hit me: this is basically what we strive to do as marketers and business-owners.  We want people to take action and feel positive about that action and ultimately it is better if they believe they made the choice themselves.  We plant ideas with the hope that those seeds of ideas will grow into appropriate action.

Monkey Dream, Monkey Do

I’m not going to ruin anything about the movie for anyone, but here is basically how they do it in the movie.  First, they encounter the target in reality and infiltrate their dream.  Once there, the team interacts with the target’s reality to become a part of what they now believe to be real.  Through a series of (highly entertaining) maneuvers and ploys, the target’s subconscious presents the idea to himself, so when he wakes it’s as if he has had an epiphany.  Inception.

There are whole other layers to the movie that involve what is reality and what is perception, but for today’s purposes, I’m just going to stick with the theme of ideas coming to fruition.  It’s a little something I will call… [Hans Zimmer music playing] Inception Marketing.

Inception Marketing

So what is Inception Marketing?  If I were to define it (since I thought up the term) I would say it is “The calculated effort of a marketing team to present an idea to their target market with the intention that the idea will seem as if it came from within the market itself.”  The idea is that once your target market believes they thought of the idea themselves, they will be more likely to take the action your teams wants.

To pull of a plan of this magnitude, many things must be in place.  The first of which is…

The Team

Every great plan needs a great team.  Make sure yours has all the right components.

  • The Point Man – The point man (or woman)’s job is to do the research about the target.  Extensive research about any mark is a necessity when planning a venture of this size.  You must know what your target’s interests are, how they take in their information, what they are most likely to respond favorably/unfavorable to, whether they have mind extraction security (that was in the movie and seemed awesome, disregard that one).
  • The Architect – Someone on your team must have the architecture for your plan in their mind.  Your strategy must be understood by every member of the team and it is the architect’s job to relay that information and structure.  Make sure you are all on the same team when it comes to the twists and turns to come.
  • The Forger – In the movie, this member impersonated someone close to the target in their dream.  For our purposes, the forger is the member based in the reality of the consumer.  Someone always must keep a tab on how life is for your target, someone that knows who the target trusts.
  • The Tourist – Get an outside perspective.  Sometimes we can be so focused on the job, we forget to look out the window.
  • The Extractor – This is the actual path the idea will take into the mind of the target.  The Extractor will have a great understanding of the target through the team’s endeavors and should have a clear path into the subconscious of your target.  Proceed with caution.

Now that your team is assembled and undertaking their responsibilities, it’s time to implement…

The Plan

If your Point Man has done his or her research and your Architect has a brilliant strategy constructed and your Tourist and Forger keep you in the mindset of your targets, your Extractor should have no problem getting into the minds of your target market.  The strategy will focus around one very important aspect of influence and trust:  the trusted referral.

John Jantsch has a great book titled The Referral Engine (non-affiliate link) that deals with this specific topic and rather than re-hashing everything he says, I’ll focus on the main issues.

Groundswell movements and social media tactics can be very powerful because of the level of trust incorporated into the systems.  Ideas are more quickly accepted when they come from within that market itself.  You must engage your audience and talk with them.  Nobody likes to be sold to, but everyone likes to buy/act and when your idea is suggested through conversation, active participation and trust, your Extractor can easily implant an idea seed. Once that grows into a full idea, like a virus it will overtake the market organically (and non-detrimentally) into the action your team desires.


…I know this post was a little sensational, but there’s truth in there.  The truth may be that you are a small business owner and you are every member of the “team” but you still have to have your research, understand your strategy and market, and have a way to get them your idea.  You may not have the technology to infiltrate someone’s REM sleep cycle, but you DO have the ability to enter into their world via social media and conversation and make yourself trustworthy.  And it is true that once an idea grows organically within a market, it is more likely to be trusted and acted upon.

The future may not be here just yet.  But just like Mitch Joel suggests, don’t be a futurist because you never know what might happen, be a presentist.  Take a grasp on the present and find your way to make your target market trust you.  And trust is always bred from honesty and transparency.  Nothing will turn your dream strategy into a marketing nightmare faster than devious practices and outright lying.

But what do I know, I might just be a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.

What do you think?  Is there a future for Inception Marketing or is it already the present?

About Joey Strawn

Digital marketing sociologist and public relations specialist with experience on national and local campaigns with a love for film and the things it says about our culture and business. Joey is the Senior Social Media Strategist at ISM in Nashville, TN and is in the business of helping people and companies deal with the new universe of social media in their marketing and PR endeavors.
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16 Responses to Inception Marketing, An Infection of Ideas

  1. Jake LaCaze says:

    This post reflects a point I’m always reminding myself of: inspiration can come from everywhere. Inception Marketing…great way of looking at it.

    When I read your post, I kept thinking of Seth Godin’s quote: “Ideas that spread, win.”

    The best way to motivate people is to make them feel that an idea is their own; that should be in the category of “universal fact”.

    And I like how you made your point without spoiling the movie for those who have yet to see this gem. 😉

  2. Joey Strawn says:

    It was a tight rope to walk: How to get my point across without ruining the movie and giving too much away. Inspiration is a funny thing and very hard to map, but it can be a powerful force for action no matter what form it takes.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this long post and thanks for your comment!

  3. Joey, this post makes me think about the principles I’ve learned during my studies in the Integrated Marketing Communications graduate program at Northwestern University. The professors there preach an approach of starting with the customer and trying to understand how your product or service can best fit within their life.

    That may not sound particularly revolutionary to some, but we’re still emerging out of a time steeped in industrialization where the main question was not how to attract customers, but rather how to produce mass quantities of product as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

    And still today, many marketers continue to try to stick square pegs into round holes. Today’s consumers have so many choices of where to spend their money and attention. To truly compete, marketers should think more about tailoring their product or service to their customer, rather than the futile attempt to change the customer to fit their product.

    In that way, we can actually achieve your goal of Inception Marketing. The idea does in fact come from within the market. The future is now, Joey! 😉

    Shameless plug: I’m managing director of my graduate program’s student-run blog, Vitamin IMC. If you’re interested in learning about additional concepts from the program, check us out!

    • Joey Strawn says:

      Daniel, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it today and I hope you will return in the future. I pulled a lot from my studies with Integrated Marketing as well when I was writing this.

      Like you said, it may not be revolutionary idea, but people buy for 2 reasons: want and need. Those aren’t our wants and needs as marketers, but their own and we need to try to create products and services that appeal to who our market thinks they are and one of the best ways to find that out is to simply engage them in honest communication and ask.

      I look forward to reading more of your comments in the future.

  4. As I read this post I thought of Henry Ford’s famous quote: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

    Customers rarely have the ideas that create the next big thing. In fact, when I worked in new product development, I found that asking customers for innovative ideas was pretty much a waste of time. As you said, the best you could do was concentrate on wants and needs.

    Thanks for the great post, Joey!

    • Joey Strawn says:

      Thanks Mark. It’s nice to see you on my side of the fence and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve seen it many times myself (and even within myself) that sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it. That’s one area that Apple is very good at capturing. Malcolm Gladwell also talks about it a lot.

      Maybe there’s a future for this Inception Marketing idea after all. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you back here again soon!

  5. Thanks for exploding my brain. I love it. I’ve been in marketing for a gazillion years and for the first time in a half a gazillion years, I’m excited. It all started when I got introduced to Inbound Marketing, getting people to find me because I’ve created the authoritative content on the web they are looking for. It’s just another name for “Inception Marketing”, the concept of which is equally as exciting.

    • Joey Strawn says:

      Thanks Nancy! I’m glad you stopped by and enjoyed the thought of “Inception Marketing”. It really got into my brain and wouldn’t leave until I put it down. I hope to see you again here soon. Keep reading and commenting and I’ll try to keep exploding your brain.

  6. It’s already the present. I’m writing a post about this now as well because of this post and a chat I had with a friend over coffee…but it’s all about giving cues to your customer. Nobody wants to be hit over the head with your brand’s positioning (see Fox News, pushy salesemen, etc).

    Starbucks never explicitly says that they’re upscale, trendy, etc. They provide the cues and we fill in the blanks.

    • Joey Strawn says:

      Exactly. I’m glad this seems to be a popular topic of conversation because it really got me thinking too. It’s so much more appealing to me when someone presents information to me in my own terms and on my stage rather than “pushing” me into their domain.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope to see you again soon.

  7. alamin says:

    I was looking for few excellent blogs for my project. Yours is one of them. It was very helpful for me. Thanks a lot.

    Md.Alamin Khan

  8. bea says:

    I wish we could employ inception just to get more concepts approved by clients!
    Or how about Inception for Planners?

  9. Your thinking on inception applied to social media is right on. Planting these sorts of marketing ideas through social media adds an element of trust because it can be spread from peer to peer rather than just company to client.

    I would take it a step further to say that social networks allow brands to perform inception. If you plant the right idea about your brand on social networks, people will adopt the brand as a means to express themselves…making the idea seem original.

    I pushed this idea a bit in a recent post about Inception and branding through social media.

    Let me know what you think…and keep the creative posts coming!

    • Joey Strawn says:

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the great comment. I liked how you took the idea started here and expanded it into the world of branding. I thought your examples were very clear and well-done. Thanks for taking this idea further, you rock!

      I’ll do my best to keep the good posts coming your way. Be sure to check out my new site,, because I’ve been writing on there for a month or so and might have a few posts you like. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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