Creative without strategy is called ‘art.’ Creative with strategy is called ‘advertising.’ ~ Jef Richards, PhD., Professor and Chair of the Department of Advertising + Public Relations at Michigan State University.
Brands that forget this will always pay a price either in failed campaigns, lost market share or worse depending on the stakes. Creative – in either form – often emerges as a threat when introduced out of the natural order that governs the building of brands.
As all seasoned marketers know, first, you study the market. Second, you position the brand. Third, you bring the brand positioning to life through tactics. It’s a sequence that has proven to successfully guide and grow brands from the very beginnings of brand management.
Creative devoid of customer insight and strategy can take a brand anywhere and nowhere. Tropicana’s costly packaging example has proven this point since 2009, although the temptation and the mistake to put tactics before strategy has been with us for much longer. Advertising legend Bill Bernbach worked throughout his storied career to keep the focus on strategy before tactics. He reinforced this in his creative philosophy:
“Merely to let your imagination run riot, to dream unrelated dreams, to indulge in graphic acrobatics and verbal gymnastics is not being creative. The creative person has harnessed his imagination. He has disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every line he draws, every light and shadow in every photograph he takes, makes more vivid, more believable, more persuasive the original theme or product advantage he has decided he must convey.”
Mark Ritson takes Bill’s point further stating; “Creativity has its place, and that place is anchored by a short chain to the market research and brand positioning.”
There’s no doubt that wonderfully executed tactics that propel brands to their goals are the crown jewels of our business. Just Do It, The Most Interesting Man In The World, Think Different, Mac vs. PC and many others are reminders of what is possible when brilliant strategy is brought to life by brilliant creative. Not the other way around.
It is the duty of everyone charged with brand building to take each step in sequence and remember that in the long and twisting journey to building a brand, the external communications stage usually occurs late in the day, if at all. Consequently, the initial research and positioning work will always occur long before any discussion of creative or where it may one day manifest.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where creative is threatening the strategic process, push back and use the four thought pieces below to help enlighten those that are distracted by our industry’s shiniest objects.
Marketing strategy is where we play and how we win in the market. Tactics are how we then deliver on the strategy and execute for success. In traditional military strategy, the generals of old would gather, survey the battlefield in depth, review the enemy’s forces and then decide exactly where to attack, at what time and with which forces. Strategy agreed, the orders would be sent down to the various battalions who then concerned themselves with the tactical business of executing their respective objectives. A troop charged with taking a hill, for example, might deploy its archers and then send in the infantry to finish off the enemy.
In the traditional world of marketing we follow a similar systematic process. First we build a map of the market from research in the form of a decent segmentation. From there we can decide which segments to go after and how to position our brand for optimum success. Finally we devise clear strategic objectives for each target segment specifying the goal we will achieve. Only then – with clarity on who, what and when – do we start to think about tactical execution and which specific tools we might apply.
Often, when an ad agency talks about brand strategy, what they really mean is the thinking that has led to the work they have been doing on the brand. So while many agencies will tell you that they do brand strategy, what they actually offer is creative strategy. Both are necessary but the terms are not synonyms.
Seemingly the intersection of brand strategy and creative messaging is an area where many marketers struggle. Developing a brand strategy is a top-down introspective process driven by a business strategy, while creative expression is a downstream activity centered in marketing communications. In many organizations, these two disciplines occupy different levels on the value chain.
Brand strategy is not marketing. Brand strategy can’t be created from the outside in. Brand strategy is not a decorative or promotional process either. All leading brands represent a single, compelling unifying principle that drives business performance from the inside out.
Brand strategy illuminates the brand’s behavior in every internal action taken by stakeholders, and in all mental and physical interactions customer/consumer’s experience. Strategy and messaging are two sides of a coin.
Having carefully defined your target markets, done your research and determined the most important customer benefits puts you in a very good position. Now it is time to focus on the top one, or at most, two benefits that are highly important to your target customers and unique to your brand. They should be emotional, experiential or self-expressive benefits or even shared values with your customers. If you are still at the functional level with your brand’s benefits, you need to ladder up to an emotional and shared values level.