The Pop Rocks Principle

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At nine years old I received my first marketing lesson and experienced the power of a deliciously outrageous story.

“Can you believe Mikey’s dead?” A concerned young girl shouted to a group of friends.  “It was Pop Rocks!  He ate Pop Rocks, drank a soda and his stomach exploded.”

Mikey, of course, was the infamous young child from the Life Cereal commercials.  And in a blink of an eye it seemed the entire world now knew his tragic end. In the weeks that followed I could not pass a child or teenager without hearing that our beloved Pop Rocks candy, when combined with a carbonated beverage, created a deadly reaction that would cause a person’s stomach to explode.

The story blanketed the country in a matter of days with little to no effort.  There were no dollars invested in spreading the message.  There was no Madison Avenue advertising campaign behind its success.  And yet, this complete and utter myth was a runaway train.

My first marketing lesson taught me that not all messages are created equal.  There are very real and dramatic differences.

For fun, let’s compare the Pop Rocks story with the thousands of other messages I received in school at that time.  What experiences do I still hold onto from fourth grade? Not many I’m afraid.  The Pop Rocks story?  It’s as if I were transported back in time.  I experience the emotions, sights, smells and sounds of those moments.  The story and the experience come to me in full color.

So what makes an idea, concept, or service stick while others disappear in spite of our best intentions?  Part of the answer lies in identifying the common characteristics found in those messages that earn our attention.

Principles that Add “Pop”

Here are two excellent concepts that help create messages with power and impact.

1) Speak to the core of your idea in simple but profound terms

Simplicity is critical when looking to craft a message with staying power.  And in order to reach this goal effectively you need to be clear what you stand for so you can crystallize and live by your core ideal.   Complex or subtle messages often confuse people and/or lead them astray thereby diluting the message.

My companies “core idea”:  “Make access to mental health treatment easy.”

And from this idea we prioritize our marketing efforts, redesign business processes and make tough decisions that keep us on track.  Our community involvement, the marketing vehicles we use, and the services we offer and don’t offer all exist because they support our core idea.  If we hear about a fabulous opportunity but it doesn’t address our core concept it’s not chosen.  Simple as that.

2)   Use the element of surprise, and use it in support of your core message.

The element of surprise is a powerful communication device.  But surprise isn’t enough to create a compelling message.  Our ideas must also provide insight that is directly related to our core message.

When messages sound like common sense they go in one ear and out the other.  However, when you reach out to others with an unexpected message and that message also provides a new level of insight, your chances of generating interest are dramatically improved.

Example #1

“Make access to mental health treatment easy.” As I mentioned earlier, this is the core message, the driving force behind my organization.  The unexpected lies in the depth of this simple and clear idea.  “Easy access” means more than committing to a faster admissions process. It means referring potential patients to competitors if they offer a better solution, it means finding resources for families with challenges that have little to do with our scope of services, and it means relentlessly supporting the success of community providers.  When a referral source or potential patient experiences what we mean by “easy access”, there is no doubt our message becomes powerful in the marketplace.

Example #2

Here’s another example of using the power of the unexpected to build influence and buy-in.  Marketing expert, Seth Godin, recently released a new book (Linchpin), and he needs to get his message out to you and I.  He presents a simple and powerful message that may surprise you.

“You have everything you need to become indispensable…”

The simplicity of the message along with the overall idea is unexpected and different.  The result – our curiosity is peaked.

But he doesn’t stop there.  Godin takes us further along the journey with his message.  He fills the gaps that were created from the element of surprise. He offers additional insight to keep our attention and to build a call to action through a series of unique free offerings that all support the core message of his book.

Take a look and experience the process for yourself.

  1. Download an eight-page manifesto from Changethis.
  2. Find posters and riffs on Scribd.
  3. See a brainstorming video on Vimeo.
  4. Watch a video on shipping at Behance.

How do you craft messages that capture attention?  How do more and more people take notice of the great work you do?  Here’s a great place to start.

– Clarify your core message

– Use the element of the unexpected to gain attention that is everlasting



  1. Barbara Radin Fox  February 2, 2010

    This is such fantastic advice! I’m going to see how I can apply it to my practice!

  2. David Diana  February 2, 2010

    Can’t wait to hear how it goes for you Barbara! Would love to hear back on lessons learned.

  3. Susan Giurleo  February 4, 2010

    Great advice, David! Just ordered Linchpin and can’t wait to read it. Will use your ideas as I continue to develop my blog.


  4. Heather  February 8, 2010


    My name is Heather Jones and I am the assistant editor of I am contacting you today in hopes of developing a relationship with your website; we have seen your site and think your content is great. offer a free informational resource to both the general and professional public on several issues.

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  5. Corey Quinn  February 22, 2010

    Hi David,

    Great post. I think the element of surprise is a subtle, yet effective way to get your message out. I need to do more of it in my marketing.

    Just ordered Linchpin.


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