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Applications of Creative Thinking in Marketing

How many brands do you think you interact with on a daily basis? From the time you wake to the time you sleep, it’s estimated that nearly half an adult’s day is consumed by content and branding¹ – up to 4,000 to 10,000 ads each day.² As of May 2019, the total worldwide population is 7.7 billion, and of that number 4.4 billion people have internet access, 3.5 billion of whom have active social media profiles.³

Over the past several decades, marketing has followed a timeline of developing eras. From mass marketing (1860s-1920s), direct marketing (1920s-1940s), and social and digital media marketing (2010-present).4 With the implementation of data-driven strategies, the exploding digital infrastructure has changed the way in which companies and businesses operate and advertise. The rise in access to digital media has influenced and reshaped the way that consumers think, act, and buy – forcing the retail industry to evolve in order to survive.5

Today, consumers use more devices, ad blockers and privacy protection tools than ever before, not to mention possess increasingly sophisticated customer experience expectations. Brands need to be heard above the unrelenting ‘noise’ of social media and a dwindling attention span. As a result, the new world of marketing demands personalisation, contextualisation, and dynamism6 – creative thinking, in essence, to compete for attention.

What is creative thinking in marketing?

Historically, the term ‘marketing creative’ alludes to the person responsible for the images, words and concept of an ad campaign. But marketing, like other corporate functions impacted by technology, has become significantly more complex and demanding. To broadly understand it, the focus of creative marketing can be summed up in three ways:

1. Personalisation.7 Companies are treating each customer as an individual by understanding their preferences and behaviours. In a CMO Council/SAP survey, 47 per cent of respondents said they would renounce a brand that delivers poor, impersonal, or frustrating experiences.8 In response, CMOs are allocating nearly a third of their budgets to improving their marketing technology.9

2. Contextualisation. Context plays a key role in how well a marketing campaign performs. In an interview with Dr. Horst Stipp, ad effectiveness researcher at The Advertising Research Foundation, he shares, ‘Positive effects have been shown when ads are placed in a context that consumers are involved in, pay attention to and value, as well as when there is an alignment between the context and the ad message.’10

3. Dynamism.11 With a rise in platforms that allow brands to automatically promote its most relevant items, you can use dynamic and responsive advertising to your strategic advantage. Facebook, for example, allows dynamic ads to automatically show the right products to people who have shown interest on its website, app or Internet as a whole. Similarly, via Google’s responsive display ads (RDA), advertisers can upload their creative assets and leave the ad creation to Google’s algorithms.12

The role of data in marketing

Businesses are building a toolbox of experience-focused marketing hardware that is powered by technology. The goal is to transform marketing from a customer acquisition-focused activity to one that enables a human and emotional experience, all the while being grounded in data: what works, what doesn’t, how can we improve?

In experiential marketing, companies treat each customer as an individual by understanding their preferences and behaviours.13 To meet these expectations, a company’s marketing strategy should be as qualitative as it is quantitative. When marketers fail to understand the complexity of their customers’ behaviour, people lose trust in them, directly impacting revenue and brand loyalty.14

Design thinking in motion

Separately, the concept of design thinking across industries is being employed by more and more businesses; a solution-focused, problem-solving way of addressing an individual or company-related concern.15 Design thinking allows for the user of the system to have a more structured plan for understanding innovation and to grow more as a company. Iconic brands and entirely-digital companies (the likes of Google, Uber and Apple) demonstrated the revenues and customer satisfaction that design thinking can drive. Harnessing qualitative insights, creativity, and an all-out focus on end-user needs, the current approach is aimed at innovating a company’s product, services, and performance to the max.16

Co-founder and CEO of Fjord, an Accenture-owned global leader in design and innovation, Olof Schybergson explains that when wanting to create something of significance, three main ingredients need to be factored in: the individual, technology and the organisation.17 “At Fjord, our goal is always beauty and minimal effort for maximum return,” he says. “We’ve applied user-centred design to shape Fjord’s strategy, our value system, and our employee value proposition.”18 For many companies, creativity and lateral design thinking have impacted success in similar ways.

Why is creative thinking important?

“While many organisations are investing in data and design capabilities, only those that tightly weave these disciplines together will unlock their full benefits.”

Akshay Chhabra and Simon Williams, McKinsey & Company19

Every time a person connects to the digital world, they contribute to the rapid growth of its shared global commons. Within that commons, where every brand is vying for audience and market share, it takes creativity to distinguish one brand from the next.

In a world where we are taught to prize hard facts and figures, creativity can hold the reputation of being soft, instinctive, hard to measure or quantify.20 However, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the predicted top five skills needed in the future will be complex problem-solving, critical thinking, people management, coordinating with others, and creativity.21

While technology has evolved, it hasn’t changed creativity’s need for a big idea – the art department in an agency or company, for example, is no longer a separate entity. It’s become central to the branding and business strategy.

In a Harvard Business Review study done with senior marketing executives across multiple top brands, interviewees were asked to share examples of creativity in marketing that go beyond ad campaigns and deliver tangible value to the business. The findings presented some creative thinking tips:

  1. Create with the consumer, not just for the consumer.22 Bearing in mind that customers today are not just consumers, but active social media users and tech-loving content creators, creativity in marketing involves working with customers right from the start. It’s the new definition of being ‘customer-centric’.
  2. Make everyone part of the team.23 Creative marketing involves more than a paid advert in a magazine or newspaper. By inspiring creativity in others, and treating everyone as an extension of the marketing team – employees, partners, and even customers – gives insight into behaviours, tastes and opinions that serve a marketer’s intention.
  3. Bring creativity to brand identity.24 The proliferation of new media channels, platforms and devices means consumers have greater access to brand stories, and marketers have more ways to convey their brand’s identity and vision. From email marketing to video campaigns, this opens up a realm of creative ways to convey a message, sell a product or form a relationship.
  4. Rise to the startup mentality.25 Creative marketers are operating more and more like entrepreneurs, adopting similar business practices and work cultures to Silicon Valley startups; an ability to be agile and continuously adjust strategies.
  5. Honour each part of the end-to-end experience. Today, businesses must provide an exceptional customer experience in order to edge out the competition. Understand what a positive customer experience is, and how you can make it even better.26

The power of creative storytelling

According to Forrester’s “Beyond the Tipping Point: a Call to Action for Marketers”, true customer ’obsession’ in marketing requires empathy and advocacy.27 When done well and intuitively, creative storytelling helps marketers convey a brand’s values and interests; a means to connect with an audience in a human or personal way. When executed successfully, emotional appeal campaigns that draw attention to and embrace a real, relatable human condition is a way to draw in a prospective customer; a gut level ‘sense’ of what a company, product, or service is.28 The following examples draw attention to the ways in which creative, human-centred campaigns can consolidate a loyal brand following:

Dove Real Beauty Sketches

One of Dove’s most famous films, “Real Beauty Sketches” explores the gap between how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves; a noteworthy example of the way in which emotion and a shared human experience can convey a message and break down societal stereotypes. In the film, each woman is the subject of two portraits drawn by FBI-trained forensic artist Gil Zamora: one based on her own description, and the other using a stranger’s observations. Leveraging on the premise that we are constantly bombarded by unattainable standards of beauty – in magazines, TV, advertisements, on social media – to the point that we undervalue the true beauty in ourselves, Dove was able to convey a softer side to the notion of ‘beauty’.

An instant hit, more than 50 million people viewed the Dove video within the first 12 days of its release. To date, “Real Beauty Sketches” has been viewed almost 180 million times and continues to inspire.29

Coca-Cola “Share a Coke” campaign

Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign is one of the best-performing marketing campaigns in the beverage company’s century-long history.30 When the campaign launched in the U.S in 2014, Coca-Cola traded its iconic logo for 250 of the country’s most common names, encouraging consumers to purchase a can with a name close to them and share it. Connecting with consumers on a personal level, as well as leveraging online marketing and social media, consumers were encouraged to not just share their coke, but also their experience using the hashtag #ShareaCoke.

Since 2014, the campaign has introduced new innovations that relate to the time, including tie-ins with the FIFA World Cup and an e-commerce site where fans can order custom glass bottles. “The insight behind Share a Coke hasn’t changed,” said Saxon Seay, Coca-Cola’s senior brand manager. “The way we bring it to life for consumers has.”31

The role of marketing innovation and creativity in achieving competitive advantage

“Creativity is the world’s most human craft and, despite countless new devices and mediums, creative people remain at the centre. The more the world changes, the more important creativity becomes.”

Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer at Adobe and founder of Behance32

According to a 2018 branding report by Bynder, which surveyed 504 marketing decision-makers in the U.S. and U.K, 55 per cent of marketers are planning to hire additional creative talent, such as videographers and copywriters.33 Simply put, creativity can be the secret weapon that allows a company to outsmart rather than outspend its competition.34 The online media that a company has control over (its website, Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram) should be the first place to experiment with finding a brand’s audience and message. And it’s free.35

In one such case, Pioneer Foods, the owner of competing brands, Marmite and Bovril, used a simple – yet impressively brilliant – social media strategy to get their two ‘contenders’ into the limelight.

Cost saving with impact: Battle of the Spreads

Working in teams of three – copywriter, designer and a social media guru – digital innovation agency Liquorice took to Twitter for a well-crafted tweet-off between the two brands. “We studied each brand, developed their unique personalities, and as soon as we were ready, Marmite threw the first passive aggressive jab at Bovril via social media. Every tweet was tightly tied into both brands’ intrinsic personalities and promises, and when Bovril (whose creative team also sits in our agency) hit back with a few shots of its own, we knew the stage was set”.36

In no time, fans joined the conversation, passionately defending their spread of choice, until #BattleOfTheSpreads trended on Twitter. Celebrities, journalists and radio DJs joined the fray, culminating in a three-day campaign that drastically impacted brand awareness: Marmite sales grew by 3 per cent and 4 per cent in value and volume respectively; celebrities tweeted without charging a cent, not just adding credibility to the campaign but also rapidly spreading awareness nationwide; Twitter followers increased on both brands; the campaign resulted in a 300 per cent return on media investment; and earned a reach of 2.5 million people.37

Challenging public opinion: the power of the Fearless Girl

Creative marketing coupled with lateral thinking has the potential to incite change or challenge public opinion, be it in a positive or controversial way. On the eve of Women’s Day in March 2017, a four-foot bronze statue of a defiant-looking girl was placed in front of Wall Street’s sculpture of the Charging Bull. The statue, soon to be known as the Fearless Girl, was commissioned by investment firm State Street Global Advisors. It was an exercise in corporate imaging; a celebration of ‘the power of women in leadership’.38 Except in many cases it backfired, with critics calling it an act of ‘corporate feminism’ and a ‘marketing coup’.39

The intention behind Fearless Girl was to advertise a State Street initiative promoting the inclusion of women in board and executive positions, a largely male-dominant ownership. The goal of International Women’s Day is to raise awareness about civil liberties, reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, and economic inequality – and push for change.40 Fearless Girl was intended to be emblematic of that. However, within State Street itself, of its 28-person leadership team at the time, only five were women, which resulted in an outcry about false feminism.41 The attention that Fearless Girl accrued – women and girls gathered around the statue on Women’s Day placing pink, floppy ‘pussy hats’ (pink knitted beanies initially worn on 21 January 2017, President Donald Trump’s first day in office, when 500 000 people gathered in Washington to advocate for gender equality) atop the statue’s head. As much as Fearless Girl was disruptive and garnered as much negative publicity as it did positive, so too did it comment on a shifting social milieu. It’s necessary to note that if a business does opt for a potentially disruptive campaign, that it remains within a business’ objectives: does the message fit your brand? Will it give you results? How will your customers respond? How will your brand respond?42

Skills needed for creative marketing

With the rapid rise of new technologies, most of which are designed to help marketing professionals better understand their audience and analyse data, it’s never been a more exciting time to be a marketer. Today’s marketing experts need to have a diverse and agile skill set: a clear understanding of multiple media channels, the ability to identify opportunities, a sensitivity to the world at large, a balance of critical and creative thinking skills and a firm understanding of a company’s values. Together, these characteristics can help drive measurable success for their business or company.43

In its Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum highlights how important it is for today’s job candidates to collaborate, communicate and solve problems.44 Moving away from a focus on ‘left brain’ skills, marketing needs right-brain creativity too.

At the dawn of the artificial intelligence (AI) era where anything that can be automated will be, it’s important that marketers keep sight of the human approach. Creativity and innovation play a major role in achieving a competitive advantage in an era of noise and massive disruption.

It’s not about how much money a company spends but rather how the money is spent. Creativity is the vehicle that allows a message to be remembered, which, as we’ve seen from the likes of Dove, Coca-Cola, Marmite and Bovril, can lead to higher brand recognition and sales. Marketing is in the unique position to integrate ideas, insight and creativity to illuminate what people need and want.


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