What sets the precedent for outstanding creative work? For any kind of creative solution, from artwork, to an amazing customer experience? Creative solutions for branding, marketing, advertising, or customer/ stakeholder engagement? For the past few decades the trend has been left brain analytics precede a right brain creative phenomenon...
Marketers, salespeople, advertisers, ad agencies, and even brand professionals continuously stress reason over emotion, where metrics and analyses precede "creative solutions". Authors of the Brand Bubble, think organizations "happily skip along, stressing persuasion over inspiration, still believing that brands can be programmed to lifetime relationships through metrics, customer profiling, and science".1
Increasingly the "right of creative precedent" in agency/ client side work revolves around, or depends on a common formula delivered essentially in this order:
... or some similar variation.
All agencies/ organizations do it pretty much the same way, despite each touting their own process as the superior, different, better. And in the short-term scheme of things, this sort of program indeed may have short-term benefits. A spurt of sales for a single fiscal quarter. A successful intro splash for a new product launch.
The first problem with the above methodology & approach for advertising and/ or branding, is that the ad/ brand/ creative results of this scheme will only be as good as what the agencies know today—usually from research performed sometime in the past. Such a solution may work to drive short term sales today; possibly not working tomorrow; and very unlikely to be relevant five years from now. It does not create long-term relationships and connections. Nor will a solution based on such a scheme transcend fads and consistently inspire for years, let alone generations. In other words, it is not a sustainable solution.
The second problem is that this scheme will not guarantee a creative surprise that truly engages—even today.
If every company/ agency uses this sort of wrote, cliché, process—then the end result will not be unique; will not surprise people; will not engage and inspire; will not be creative. Instead a non-unique similar process, for a similar kind of company, through a similar agency, using similar metrics and measurements of success—will bear creative fruits consistently similar to others in order to fulfill similar marketing requirements. And in a market flooded with similar brands and similar products, it is easy to see why this is a problem. Customers have a lot to choose from, and increasingly cannot differentiate one product from its challengers, nor differentiate between brands.
So if we need to differentiate, why do we consistently use the same processes to attempt arriving at amazing, unique and surprising creative solutions? The process is actually quite un-amazing. Yes it is important to know your customers, the competition, the marketplace, and the general environment. Knowing helps set a reference point. However, the metrics and the research all need to be put into perspective. In the end, a true creative solution that people love, admire, and are inspired with has very little to do with the immediate numbers.
In fact, we often seem to know so much more creatively as a project begins—than we did before all the research and metrics and left brain analysis. We have dreams and aspirations. We see solutions in technicolor and kodachrome. We are completely out-of-the-box, and in the moment—discovering, enjoying, laughing, and inspiring. And our creativity can transcend both time and the metrics, thriving well beyond the next fiscal quarter.
Many a project comes to mind where we started with wonderfully amazing ideas for a unique graphical brand identity, product, ad, or customer experience. And yet, instead of putting the metrics into perspective, the creativity and amazement and ideas became diminutive in respect to the metrics. Instead of the framework, the analysis becomes the driver. And so we align the creative with a very narrow subset of metrics—producing exactly the kind of result that customers expect to see. No inspiration, surprise, or engagement. Simply a different creative twist on the same themes. How much have car commercials, messages and automobile ad designs changed over the past 10 years? In fact, how much have automobile designs actually changed the past 10 years?
Conversely how many amazing ideas (and even quantum leaps in creative thinking) have lasted generations because the inventors shunned the naysayers and bankers? We need to remember the things people love and get them engaged: authenticity, excitement, value, surprise, fashion, uniqueness. The same goes for the product experience and the creative/ messaging.
We use to say there that a good branding process... begins with the rationalization of thought and then the creation of something in line ... First strategy, then creativity.
However, and this viewed from a medical point of view, in our brain the limbic system has the right of precedence over the neo-cortex ... In simple: the emotions (which are driven by the limbic system) acts sooner and with greater intensity than the reasoning (cruelly managed by the neo-cortex).
Then: If the excitement is ahead of reason... why the hell do we act like machines forcing things, our brains and even ourselves, to go up against [the creative]? Is it not necessary first to dream, feel, create the big picture, and then rationalize it and create expressions that communicate the dream?
In recent decades, agency/company creative began to be scrutinized and held accountable by, well, accountants. Financial analysts and c-level operations people began demanding a way to make company creative endeavors a measurable asset, expense, or risk—and easily justified on the balance sheet. The problem is that when the analysis becomes weighted to a tipping point, it becomes paralysis for creative.
By going so far neo-cortex, we have lost the emotional connections that get people excited. So that we again can see the possibilities, we must instead get lost in discovery. If we let the emotional precede creative, we can make the ideas that will outlast the fads and inspire generations—or at least our current one.
Russell Volckmann is an award-winning designer, producer, creative director, ad & brand & marketing strategist. For 17 years helping global agencies and companies tell their stories and make meaningful connections. Contact Russell at VÖLCKMANN + friends for more ways to connect.
1. The Brand Bubble, p. 30, © 2008 Young & Rubicam Brands
2. Brand 3.0, Right of Precendence © 2009 Cristián Saracco, Allegro 234
Like many of you, I have followed brand trends and ideas on a daily basis for years, and have witnessed the growing consensus among brand managers, strategists, internal company stakeholders, large agencies, and the very chic boutique branding agencies. They all sing in chorus:
Although we are seeing a shift in terms of brand awareness, I believe the successful brands still need to embrace solid traditional tenets. To an increasing extent, companies are beginning to shape their own brand by selectively listening to individuals and tribes of consumers who have a stake in those brands. But is that the same as consumer ownership of a brand?
Does Everyone Own The Brand?
Let's play devil's advocate for a moment, and say we tend to disagree that everyone "owns" the brand. What about psychopaths, the socially outcast, or people with just generally bad ideas you don't want to associate with your company's brand ? Do they own the brand and shape it too? Or do competitors own your brand in their fashion? If they do, then the company's brand is in for some real trouble. Instead, I believe the brand needs to become a model of best-in-class product, behavior, and communication.
Yes, we are seeing the successful companies truly engage their customers. We are seeing companies become more aware everyday that in order to be successful, they need to live up to their brand expectations—whether derived from internal values or external values, or some combination thereof. As Patrick Newbery (Method, San Francisco) pointed out, companies need to deliver value, listen to consumers & partners better, understand problems, and diligently work to fix things that are not working. In that sense, the company necessarily needs to OWN (or take the ownership of) those brand values. It's what I like to call integrity.
Brand integrity. For most companies, it may no longer be sustainable to continue the ivory tower approach. Call it "cleaning up your act" as Sara Batterby (WORD Messaging Strategy, San Francisco) declared. In fact Sara hit the nail on the head—the method, tone, and approach to communicating brand values, and engaging customers needs to become more communal, engaging, and participatory.
What Inspires Brand Engagement?
However, the brand still needs to stand tall in front of it's audiences, stick to the core values that work, discard the values that do not work, and embrace positive stakeholder (customers, partners) values that inspire engagement.
After all, people will always look for something greater than themselves to believe in. And what better way to convince consumers there is a reason to believe, than the company brand walking the walk?
What do you think?
The Scenario: Your account manager has just set you up with your new client contract. To the client, you have presented an outline of your agency process: scope of work, milestone schedule, definition of processes, preliminary timeline, discovery process outline, the creative direction process, asset delivery, project assessment and ultimately implementation and celebration (usually).
The Agency: Wants to deliver a successful brand experience that is adaptable, scalable, attentive, creative, elegant, professional, personable, represents solid company tenets in some meaningful and deliberate way--and can stand the test of time. A brand that speaks of integrity, assurance and quality.
The Client: Wants to build a brand, thinking all they need is a logo.
You've all been here before. You have a professional team ready to roll and do the painstaking groundwork to make sure no stone is left unturned for the sake of your client. You want to ensure the company's enduring success in part by establishing an iron-clad brand, and subsequent Visual Identity.
Suddenly you find yourself in front of the client's team consisting of CEO, COO, VP Marketing, attorneys, and even engineers and administrative are sitting around the boardroom table looking at you with a blank expression on their faces, telling you, "that's nice" but "when do we get to see some logos?"
The client doesn't get it. And yet you have assumed you are doing everything right. After all, the account manager achieved the contract, right? Not so fast...
Design Before Strategy.
To paraphrase one CEO's recent comments, "I want design mock-ups almost immediately. I want action. I want to see a lot of logos. Show my company all kinds of options. Then bring in EVERYONE from the company organization (janitor, etc.) into the process. Let the entire group choose the creative that they like. Save some time and print out a hundred logos from the web. This would only take the branding & ID company two minutes." The client wants design before strategy... We'll just call this person "Action CEO".
First and foremost, the hundreds of visual examples in the world of company graphical identities will be likely 100% irrelevant to the specific client company brand needs. The client needs a unique brand--both in visual identity and in practice--that breaks away from the pack of the other thousand companies that are in a similar business. The client needs may even go deeper. In the short-term the client company may need to rethink the way they communicate and engage customers, vendors, and employees. That's an important enough step in beginning to create brand success, and the fruition of a strong visual identity to match. It's also doable within a reasonable timeline.
In the long-term, the company may even need to overhaul its product line, services, or core business offerings--in order to maintain or improve brand awareness and brand loyalty. That may be Phase II or even Phase III in a hopefully long relationship with this client. How do we communicate these values to the Action CEO? We engage his/her objections with key questions designed to clarify the client needs, and provide relevant data and marketing justification for brand decisions.
What do you think of this as it applies to engaging a client with your brand recommendations?
Second, 20 different stakeholders with potentially conflicting interests is a potential recipe for failure. By running the gamut of 20 people with different positions, interests, tastes, color preferences, likes, dislikes, plus various levels of business/market/brand connect or disconnect--will create a situation where 20 different decision-makers ultimately will never agree, or will agree to have the agency create a combination of the 20 things that everyone likes. The end visual result, according to the aggregation of all client stakeholders, would be a sort of round-square stitched-together thing that is a mish-mash of red, yellow, green, blue, purple, gray and shows a horse's body with a bunny's head--and using 40 different fonts in the wordmark. Or worse. Throw brand integrity out the window. Forget the marketing data and the competitive analysis. Forget any possibility of a solid brand architecture that can transcend and survive new product and packaging or company growth and expansion. In other words, a Frankenstein brand that will please no one, especially the agency which is on the verge of firing their client at this point. AND, let alone the idea of organically connecting the dots between client and audience.
In a client environment such as the Action CEO example, I try to assure the client that we deliberately want take the time to discover the unique company tenets & values, markets & competition, business climate & trends, experiences & aspirations---so we can create THE perfect brand that delivers enduring success for the company--as opposed to delivering random graphical imagery without any thought about the often very deep business reasons for a particular creative direction.
On the other hand, when we are talking about a brand launch or launch of a new business, there is often a tearing hurry within the organization. Everyone is looking at numbers, the impending targets for the years. The internal stakeholders want to see that logo, the packaging, the advert designs. There is little patience within the organizations. What makes it doubly complex is that we might not end up with CEOs who are from brand or marketing backgrounds.
According to Satya Upadhya, Asst. Vice President, Brand Communications at INX News, "A successful strategy in such a scenario is to have a well chalked out plan well in advance where you have done many consumer researches (trust me there is nothing more convincing for the board members than 'market research findings'!). And then make an identity presentation which has linkages to the business, how it will positively impact the topline and bottomline and keep the identity story relevant to the business realities."
Again, engage the client with relevant motivation for your recommendations, all the while engaging the client objections.
So there actually is hope for the "Action CEO" company if we do our homework deliberately and fairly quickly; And, if we handle client objections with a true engagement. After all, brand engagement what we do isn't it? What we are doing is selling the client on brand choices (our "tribe's brand" of brand), so that our clients can sell their company products and services with integrity in their own brand.