Marketing Mentality

How to Avoid the “Shiny Penny” Marketing Mentality

One of the benefits of having a child is getting to go to animated movies without any guilt or questioning from contemporaries. “Oh … I would have much rather gone to that new (insert former SNL cast member here) movie, but my kid wanted to go to see that new animated film.” True, these films really are for anyone and everyone, but I’m always surprised how many adults I know who haven’t seen “Frozen,” or “The Incredibles,” or “Despicable Me” or “Up.” I seem to reference these films all the time for the most random reasons, and often meet “huh?” stares from peers that have no idea what I’m talking about. It is the last film in the above list (that I went to somewhat begrudgingly) that has given me endless chuckles with one simple word: “squirrel!”

For those of you that didn’t see the film, every time the dogs (who have collars on that allow you to hear what they’re thinking) are focused on a mission or speaking about something important and they spot a tree-loving rodent, they stop mid-sentence and say, “squirrel.” They totally lose track of thought and focus. The “squirrel” effect happens when a specific train of thought can be derailed by a seemingly inconsequential item (or rodent). We all have our squirrels: those things that divert our thoughts midstream. This is human nature – to have more than one thing on your brain and to have items that can distract us from our objectives.

While the change of direction created by the squirrel-effect is usually harmless, there is another distraction-inducing effect that can have far more serious consequences – I’m talking about the “shiny penny.”

We all know the shiny penny concept: that while we focus on what we are doing we are also easily swayed by the gleaming “new” penny we see lying around, and then fixate on that “hot, new, fancy” idea and laud it as the best thing ever – only to see a newer, shinier penny and discard the one before. The lure of the new makes us feel lucky and energized and we compare the luster of the coin to the dullness of what we already have. The biggest challenge with the shiny penny is that once you are looking for that next great thing, you are always on the hunt – to the detriment of what you already had going. When you keep looking for pennies, rather than building on what you’ve already established, you build up cents of value, rather than real value.

How many of us have a shiny penny/squirrel mentality in business? How many of our companies are focused on the “what’s hot/what’s next” idea and forego the ideas that have already been developed, or those ideas that were at the core of the organization’s foundation? How many of us never seem to truly hit expectations because we are in the endless cycle of looking for that perfect penny that will turn into a million dollars?

You can’t run a business on shiny pennies.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for new ideas or new innovations. Keeping new and innovative is important to growth, both short- and long-term. But there is a difference between those that innovate and expand their business, and those that are willing to give it all up for the next penny they see that’s even sexier, or the next squirrel that pulls them away from their goals.


In my fields of focus, the shiny penny means that many company websites look sexy but are devoid of real meaning because it’s all about the shine. Or companies have social media campaigns but don’t keep them up-to-date because they’ve moved on to other forms of communication. Or they create cool videos and develop cool talent (because others have done cool videos and cool talent) but they don’t know how (or why) these videos would be used. Or organizations change their focus to “compete” with what others have done with their pennies, and then struggled to truly come to terms with what the new penny means in terms of media, communications and business development.

Sometimes when you look for the penny, you end up spending time, talent and treasury building programs and concepts that are not worth the penny itself, and as a result, you suffer.

What suffers is that which made you great in the first place.

How do you minimize the shiny penny? By continually investing in your core (the products, services and ideas you have) and by looking at ways to transform them versus being transformed by something sparkly. Often it’s hard to do this internally. The pressures of the day-to-day combined with market demands make looking for the “shiny” a strategy for growth. You don’t have anyone focused on keeping out the pennies and keeping the DNA front and center. I submit that this person is vital to your success.

This all seems logical: invest in what you have versus changing for what others will find cool. But it takes work and commitment, because it’s easy to be distracted by “squirrels” all around us. Sometimes you need to be inspired by what you want to be (or don’t want to become) outside yourself.

When in doubt, look to the animated movies of kids for inspiration. You can find life lessons on becoming “Mr. Incredible,” learn that the inherent power of what you built can be a force for change and learn what you need to avoid, a.k.a. “squirrels.” In most of these films, the characters all want to be something bigger, but in the end they realize that the best of them is truly right there all along.

Another thing learned by going to the movies with my kid? Movies are where dreams can come true without constraints or limitations.


Patrick Jager is the CEO of CORE Innovation Group – a multi-disciplinary consulting and project implementation firm focused on media, communications and business development.

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