I’m going to put something out there that I suspect might be a bit controversial. I could even be wrong, but what the hell, let’s give it a shot. I’ll argue that the creative brief, rather than being a source of inspiration, is a barrier to creativity, and that it is instead the brand that must be given the important task of inspiring it.
And here’s why:
As we’re moving towards a consensus view of human decision making as a predominantly emotionally driven, subconscious process, we like to think that we’ve moved on from Rosser Reeves’ 1950s idea of the USP that assumes decisions are based on reason alone. It is, however, still by far the dominating approach, and the creative brief acts as the guardian of its supremacy.
The purpose of the creative brief is to persuade people to make a rational choice based on a message or an argument. The language, despite having outgrown the original expression, still says it all: proposition, reasons to believe, the one thing we want to say, what we want people to think, feel, do…
Not only that, in today’s competitive environment these messages are neither unique nor capable of selling anything. I once worked on a campaign for a brand of contact lenses where weeks of meetings and research were spent trying to figure out exactly how our lens was different from the others on the market. The answer was so technical their own expert barely understood it. And then the brief tasked the creatives with making this interesting enough for people to notice, remember, care, believe, understand and act. No small task indeed.
We know that people don’t want to hear about our products. Why else would we disguise our messages as entertainment? The role of creativity is not to create desire or solve problems, it’s been reduced to smuggling messages into people’s minds. If facts are relayed by funny characters in funny voices, or in the form of metaphors, it’s assumed people will let their guard down and magically unwrap the rational argument in their subconscious. Then act on it.
Our minds just don’t work like that, and communication that takes this approach is ineffective at anything but a minimum of brand salience.
Instead, we need to make people feel something,
But, crucially, we can’t create emotions simply by telling people how to feel.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Volvo being held up as an example of successful “emotional advertising”. After decades of messages about Volvo’s safety features, we finally came to associate Volvo with safety, making it the ultimate example of the USP in practice. Less brand building than death by messaging, there’s nothing emotional about it. People don’t shop around for emotions, and safety is not an emotion. Safety is one of a few standard drivers of the car category, and rather than differentiation, a single-minded focus on one of these drivers leads to a race to the bottom as brands outspend each other on marketing to tell people about less and less distinguishable innovations in related features.
Product messages disguised as entertainment or emotional benefits isn’t creativity. Creativity is ingenious solutions to problems. But to achieve this we first have to change the way we define problems. In order to solve a brand’s problems, we must first solve people’s problems. And people have bigger problems than missing pieces of product information.
To engage people and affect people emotionally we have to appeal to their values.
The things they believe in and care about.
These are what evokes the strongest emotions. These are what determine beliefs and attitudes. These are what ultimately drive rational thoughts.
The creative brief in its current form is inherently value neutral.
Which is why only the brand can inspire genuine creativity.
A strong brand isn’t made up of generic adjectives and onions and pyramids. A strong brand has a distinct ideology, an entire worldview, and a distinct persona. In other words, a strong brand has a strong sense of values and is therefore a goldmine of creative inspiration.
Which is most suited at inspiring creativity? The Nike brand, with their view that there’s an athlete inside every body, who sees failure as a crucial part of success and has inactivity as their No. 1 enemy? Or a creative brief where the task is to promote their most recent shoe model with its first-to-market special formula rubber sole that decreases impact by 2.3%, giving you a feeling of superior comfort?
The Dove brand, who challenges the beauty myth so detrimental to women? Or a creative brief telling the story about a new formula moisturiser that’s even smoother than the one that came out last year due to the additional seventh active ingredient with a made-up sciency name?
What are the best guides for a distinct brand personality? The above ideologies, or a set of adjectives, no doubt “inspirational” and “aspirational” for Nike and I’m guessing “nurturing” and “down to earth” for Dove?
How could a traditional creative brief that refuses to let go of the product possibly lead to ideas like these?
People connect with the brand’s ideas and ideals, not the product’s features. People live and breath culture, and a brand with a distinct ideology related to culture therefore provides a wealth of creative opportunities to truly connect with people that navel-gazing creative briefs can only dream of.
Update: Here’s my suggestion to a brand-inspired briefing template: