Three Keys to Unlock a Powerful Creative Brief

Great Ads Come from a Strong, Tight Creative Brief

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Many product and service categories feel like this year's crop of Republican candidates -- too many brand choices with only a few standing out either from past reputation, the ability to shout louder or making a noticeable faux pas. It is increasingly hard for brand marketers to break through in a motivating way, even with what should be a winning brand proposition.

In analyzing thousands of ad campaigns and execution test processes, the single biggest factor is simple to diagnose, but hard to fix -- great ads come from a really strong, tight creative brief. Brilliant ideas, duds or boringly average campaigns -- there is a high correlation between these outcomes and how strong the brief was.

Poor creative is too often the function of a vague or broad brief that leaves the agency up to its own imagination about what the customer is thinking and where the brand fits into consumers' lives. As Chuck Cooper, the former CEO of Helene Curtis who pushed the brand past P&G for the No. 1 position in hair care, always preached, "Well begun is halfway done," and this is especially true when it comes to developing a creative brief.

Here are three keys that have proven time and again to dramatically improve creative briefs and ad success:

1. Be brutally honest about what your target customer believes and feels about your brand vs. the competition right now. The first key is an honest, realistic assessment of where the customer is today with your brand, the category and the competition.

Common traps are to assume that what people believe about your brand is a blank slate, or, conversely, assuming the customer knows just about everything. Brands are constantly on shifting ground, so a great brief one year may not be relevant the next.

One trend today is to acknowledge negative perceptions about brands rather than pretending they don't exist; Dominos, Buick and Chevy have all been subscribing to this strategy. Millennials in particular are driving this trend because of the value they place on authenticity and "being real."

Most consumers think and feel primarily through visuals and stories. Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, found that a fact wrapped up neatly in a story is 22 times more memorable than a bullet point. Therefore, it's important to give customers visual as well as verbal "language" that enables them to tell us what they think and feel.

Most companies put too much emphasis on traditional methods like tracking or attitude studies that only use verbal measures to understand where their brand is with customers. But these traditional approaches are inadequate for knowing your customers' heads and hearts because they rely too much on a short battery of pre-determined, verbally articulated attributes and cannot accurately capture emotional benefits, persona/relational drivers or values. More than ever, customers think and communicate visually.

2. Define key brand positioning elements both visually and verbally. We often hear that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a word can also conjure up a thousand pictures. Smart brands should define their positioning both verbally and visually, with the help of visually-driven customer research to more tightly define and bring to life key positioning elements.

A verbally-constructed brand positioning statement or manifesto uses big fat strategy words like, "We want the brand to be contemporary, sexy and rebellious." Too often, however, these statements are ambiguous and leave too much up for grabs for the CMO, the brand manager or the creative director to interpret. Other brands try to use archetypes, but again, the contemporary expression is left up to the creatives to figure out.

3. Get the creative team to sign off on a focused brief. Effective briefs, like strategy, are about sacrificing what is less important. They focus and build on existing customer perceptions, ideally with an insight that is more than a category or brand truism, but tightly links the brand to the consumer.

There's a reason why the best creative types absolutely HATE loose briefs. Your creative team should always have permission to push back on a brief and should sign off on a tight brief before beginning a creative exploratory. This should include:

  • Clear tasks to be completed -- the role of the creatives and how they will be measured.
  • Current key target customer perceptions to build on.
  • Critical insights that link the brand to customers.
  • Functional and emotional benefits that will motivate the customer.
  • What support is needed as well as insight to efficiently communicate these benefits.
  • What needs to be communicated visually vs. verbally.
  • What is low/no priority and what can be sacrificed.

Rather than being prescriptive on how to execute the brand story, a focused tight brief equips the creative with specific verbal and visual, functional and emotional insights about where the customer is today and what verbal and visual messages will move them to where you want them to go.

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