Creativity with a Capital C – a Superpower for Business

07 Jun 2021

The world of marketing is going through a significant period of upheaval and brands in every industry are undergoing (or have undergone) extensive digital transformations in order to remain competitive. This is a hugely complex task. Ensuring good data-driven digital marketing is essential but it’s a demanding, highly operational challenge.

If businesses are going to innovate and grow successfully in this highly competitive and changing market, it’s crucial that they don’t forget the value of creativity; not in terms of their marketing output and comms, but in terms of their operations, culture and attitudes across the entire marketing mix, and beyond. This kind of creativity, with a ‘capital C’, is the key to unlocking true innovation and transformation, increasing share price and connecting with customers in a meaningful way. Creativity should be seen as a superpower for solving business problems.

What we mean by creativity

It’s important, initially, to make the distinction between ‘creative’ being about pictures and words in communications, and creative capital. The conflation of marketing and marcomms has been a disaster for marketing. Of course, creative communications and outputs will be a core part of any marketing function and, while this is crucial, even the most inspired campaigns aren’t likely to have a transformative impact in terms of wider business goals, nor will they necessarily open the door to future innovation.

When we say creativity, we mean developing a creative culture and mindset across every element of a marketing ecosystem; thinking outside of the box, looking at challenges from all different angles and giving people permission to try and fail, then try again and succeed in everything from comms to product development. Permission to fail is key to unlocking a creative mindset in teams.

Embracing creativity as an attitude and culture, rather than simply a measurable output, is where true innovation originates; brands that have exhibited exceptional leaps in their success in marketing usually have this kind of culture – of embracing creativity in the way they approach everything from their platforms to their partners – at the root of their success.

Why this kind of creativity is essential

If the focus of the marketing effort is placed entirely on KPIs and deliverables, and these are perceived as the most important result of work undertaken, then naturally people will make these goals the primary focus of their effort. This can lead to great results on a project basis, but that’s where the buck stops unless brands look to find ways to elevate their teams’ thinking and empower their people to find those opportunities for excellence that will side-step the competition and drive exponential growth.

That’s not to say KPIs and data-driven marketing aren’t important or beneficial. It’s simply that focussing on these aspects without questioning how they could work differently, or could be approached from a different angle, means any results (while potentially successful) aren’t likely to break boundaries.

Instead, opportunities for exceptional, ground-breaking innovation open up when all the elements of the mix – including data, KPIs, people, processes, platforms and partners – are approached creatively. Unless brands can create environments in which people aren’t afraid to suggest or try new things, make mistakes and explore the unusual or unique, their output won’t ever push past the work of their competitors.

This is where the real opportunity lies but is often something that can be overlooked in the race to deliver or to improve efficiency and output.

What creativity can look like

By adopting a holistically creative attitude towards marketing functions, countless innovations can be developed. It’s important to ensure this potential is extended to the wider business function, which could include bringing parts of the business which traditionally wouldn’t fall under marketing into the mix, such as product and proposition development.

As a standout example of how this can work, one need look no further than KFC and their new vegan burgers. Despite being arguably antithetical to the USP of the brand, this new product – developed as a result of careful attention to audience demands – broadens their potential customer base in an innovative, creative and original way. Crucially though, it isn’t just the marketing of the product that exhibits true creativity: it’s the product development itself.

This is far from a ‘one-hit-wonder’ for KFC, too. As a heritage brand, KFC has embraced creativity wholeheartedly in their marketing – monitoring and combining customer experience, product innovation, and marketing collaboratively and open-mindedly to instil a culture of exploration and original thinking across the entire mix. By bringing all of these core pillars under the remit of marketing, the brand has been able to scale and grow directly as a result of this way of thinking.

AAR’s Robin Charney spoke to Ira Dubinsky, Director of Innovation and Customer Experience at KFC, for The Next Round (AAR’s business innovation podcast), about how KFC has fostered this kind of creative culture. You can listen to the full episode here.

Creativity and data: not mutually exclusive

Marketing may be a traditionally creative endeavour, but with digital transformation becoming more of a necessity, the opportunities for analytical and data-driven marketing are expanding exponentially. Significantly, though, these two aspects of marketing – the creative and the analytical, are far from mutually exclusive, and it’s absolutely possible to be creative and original within a data-focussed model.

Regardless of the output, there are still plenty of ways to develop cultures which allow people to explore new concepts and ideas. This applies to everything from your planning cycle to how insights and data are gathered in the first place; by seeing every element of the mix as an opportunity for innovation, brands can instigate highly impactful change, and gain that genuinely competitive edge.

A few things you need to ask

Embedding this kind of creativity at a systemic level can seem like a lofty ambition, but in practice there are questions to ask within all of the core aspects of your marketing, the answers to which can inform simple but highly effective changes that can be made.

Significantly, these questions apply to the ‘4 Ps’ that AAR regularly focusses on: people, partners, processes, and platforms. Each of these areas need to be considered and reflected upon in order to unlock the greatest potential for innovation across the entire mix.

In terms of processes, while organising ways to move things from a-z are essential, it’s also vital to ensure you have processes in place designed specifically to facilitate and encourage creativity. Do your processes focus solely on short-term deliverables and metrics, and could these be expanded to more actively explore testing and failing?

Are your teams given the stimuli and the space to innovate and think laterally? Does this mean carving out time and even physical space for teams to collaborate, sit together and discuss ideas? Are you injecting effective stimuli, such as organising inspiring activities like talks or cultural visits, outside of the office?

Even the very people in an organisation (and the processes of hiring them) can, and should, be approached creatively. Are your hiring practices geared towards nurturing a creative mindset, in every part of the business? Do your job descriptions open the floor to opportunity or hem potential originality within the confines of pure processes and deliverables?

This doesn’t just apply internally, too. Agencies can offer some of the most potent routes into embedding this type of creativity at the organisational level, given the space to do so. Are your partners given enough access to the whole mix, and are you ‘letting them in’ to help embed this mindset and practice of ‘outside the box’ thinking?

Begin at the top

At the heart of all of this lies a crucial factor: leadership. If there’s one thing that any brand needs to instil it’s an open-minded, creative and lateral approach not just to marketing but across the entire organisation. It needs buy-in at the highest level.

Business leaders need to truly accept and embrace the potential of lateral thinking and creativity with a ‘big C’ if brands are going to instigate effective change.

By recognising the benefits of providing time and space to allow people to explore how or what things could be done to innovate; by nurturing a culture which allows people to test and fail, then test again and succeed; by ensuring this doesn’t stop at CMO level but expands across wider departments. This is how brands can transform their marketing, their share price, their impact and connection with their customers.

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Victoria Fox


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