One of the most common criticisms we Creatives get thrown is that an idea we've had is "not ownable."

And that's a very hard bomb to defuse.

Obviously an idea should be ownable, shouldn't it? So, oh dear, it looks like we've failed, and we'll have to start again. Bad creative.

Unless... could it be that this criticism is completely bullshit?

First off, let's do a quick evidential survey. Here are 30 good ideas - as expressed via taglines, from the US, UK and Australia - that I collected for a presentation not long ago.

Have a look, and see how many you think are truly 'ownable'. 

Finger lickin' good (KFC)
The appliance of science (Zanussi)
Beanz meanz Heinz
A diamond is forever (De Beers)
Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet
Have a break, have a Kit Kat
The burgers are better at Hungry Jack’s
The future’s bright, the future’s Orange
Does exactly what it says on the tin (Ronseal)
You can be sure of Shell
A newspaper not a snoozepaper (Mail on Sunday)
It takes a licking and keeps on ticking (Timex)
The car in front is a Toyota
Fly the friendly skies (United Airlines)
Let your fingers do the walking (Yellow Pages)
I’m lovin’ it (McDonalds)
It could be you (National Lottery)
Oh what a feeling! (Toyota)
Can (CommBank)
Start something (St. George) 

I reckon that only THREE of these are truly ownable, in the sense that no one else could say it.

Beanz Meanz Heinz (no other baked bean brand could claim to be the definitive baked beans), A Diamond Is Forever (no other product can claim to last as long as diamonds do, and De Beers has no branded competitor), and Have A Break Have A Kit-Kat (no other chocolate snack 'breaks' in the way that a Kit Kat does).

Some of the other lines are phrased in a way that makes them appear ownable, but they're not really. For example, You Can Be Sure Of Shell sounds pretty ownable, because of the alliteration. But there is nothing unique to Shell in that positioning. There would be nothing to stop Total coming along and saying Total = Total Reliability.

Once we discount brands that are attempting to make their positionings ownable via snazzy language, and allow only brands with properly unique ownable positionings, by my calculations fully 90% of these ideas are not 'ownable'.

And yet many of them have created or contributed to brands that are worth many, many billions of dollars to their owners.

Smarter bloggers than me have pointed out that consumers don't see most brands as being particularly unique or distinct in reality, and indeed don't mind that, focusing instead on their differing personalities. (See this great post from Richard Huntington on brand personality, or this one by Martin Weigel about how it's far more important for a brand to be interesting than different).

What the ideas in the list above have in spades - what made them successful - is not ownability but personality.

Ideas like Finger Lickin' Good and The Future's Bright The Future's Orange are not ownable. Any chicken shop could claim you'll lick your fingers, and any telco could say they're forward-thinking. But the way these non-ownable thoughts are expressed help create a distinct (and attractive) personality.

And that's what consumers are drawn to.