Why CMO’s are demanding more creativity

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

CMO’s realize that it’s harder and harder to get a real competitive point of difference. More and more, creativity in execution can help separate a brand. But the issue is that brand management teams have gotten so conservative, the CMO feels stuck when they ask for more creativity and the team doesn’t respond. You have to create a culture of creativity where people feel safe to raise ideas.  

A Team’s culture can suck the creativity right out of Everyone

When we first walk through the doors into the marketing world, we are so gung-ho with an infinite number of ideas, that are all over the place.  These junior marketers just ooze with passion. That’s why we hired them. So we chain them to the desk and say “no”, “can’t” and “that will never happen” to about 90% of their ideas. And we suck the life out of them, tell them that they are getting much more “strategic” and then promote them to Brand Manager. At Brand Manager, we instill the fear of God into them that if they mess up anything they’ll be held accountable. Accountable means don’t try anything stupid.  And we tell them to “stay on strategy” which is code for “play it safe”. It’s all about ownership. By the time we promote them to Director, they know what to do, and what NOT to do. This is code for BORING and the USUAL.  

And the CMO takes the reigns, looks at all their first share book, the numbers look flat. They look at their competitors taking risks, especially compared to their own team’s work. So they figure out quickly, that making dramatic changes to the product will take time and investment. More advertising costs money. So the simplest answer is to stand in front of the group and say “WE NEED MORE CREATIVITY” 

Here’s the problem: Teams get so stuck Following the Usual

But the problem is the team has been set up to reject creativity in favor of the safe and trusted options. The classic launch formula: do the basic product concept testing, hope for a moderate pass. Then meet with sales and explain how this is almost identical to the launch we did last year, and builds on the same thing we just saw our competitor do. Re-enforce that the buyer hinted that if we did this, we’d get on the shelves pretty easily.  Go to your ad agency, with a long list of mandatories and an equally long list of benefits they can put in the ad. Tell the agency you’re excited. They’ll tell you they’re excited as well. Ask for lots of options, as a precaution because time is tight and we’re not sure what we want. Just hope the agency clearly understood the 7-page brief. Test all the ads, even a few different endings, and then let the research decide who wins. That way, no one can blame you. Do up a safe media plan with mostly TV, some small but safe irrelevant secondary media choice. Throw in a web site to explain the 19 reasons why we launched. Maybe even a game on the website. Ah, we have our launch. 

Given the current economy, shouldn’t we be taking more risks to stand out rather than playing it safe right down the middle of the road?  

This type of launch though is almost a guaranteed formula for success because it follows last year’s launch to a tee and will be done hundreds of brands this year.  You convince yourself, you had to play it safe because sales are down, margins are tight and you will do something riskier next year once this launch is done. What looks like a guaranteed success will likely get off to a pretty good start and then flat-line until it will be discontinued three brand managers from now. You’ll never be fired because you never did anything wrong.  But you’ll just be part of the team that’s frustrated by the status quo of the team’s performance.  And you’ll all under “why is this happening”

At some point, to breakthrough in a cluttered market, you’ve got to do something different to stand out:  now, more than ever.   It might feel like a risky move, but it’s almost riskier not to take that chance.

Push the team to Find your love in the art of being different

Push yourself to be different. The most Beloved Brands are different, better, or cheaper. Or not around for very long. Here’s a very simple model for creativity, there are four choices:

Good But Not Different (the launch outlined above) 

These do very well in tests mainly because consumers have seen it before and check the right boxes in research. In the market, it gets off to a pretty good start—since it still seems so familiar. However, once challenged in the market by a competitor, it falters because people start to realize it is no different at all. So they go back to their usual brand and your launch starts to go flat. This option offers limited potential.

Not Good and Not Different:

These are the safest of safe. Go back into the R&D lab and pick the best one you have–even if it’s not very good.   The tallest of midgets. They do pretty well in tests because of their familiarity. In the market, it gets off to a pretty good start, because it looks the same as what’s already in the market.  But pretty soon, consumers realize that it’s the same but even worse, so it fails dramatically. What appears safe is actually highly risky. You should have followed your instincts and not launched. This option is a boring failure.

Different but Not that Good

Sometimes we get focused on the product first: it offers superior technology, but not really meeting an unmet need. So we launch what is different for the sake of being different. It does poorly in testing. Everyone along the way wonders why we are launching. But in the end, consumers don’t really care about your point of difference. And it fails. The better mousetrap that no one cares about.

Good But Different:

These don’t always test well:  consumers don’t really know what to make of it. Even after launched, it takes time to gain momentum, having to explain the story with potential investment and effort to really make the difference come to life. But once consumers start to see the differences and how it meets their needs, they equate different with “good”. It begins to gain share and generates profits for the brand. This option offers long-term sustainability.

It will be up to you to figure out how to separate good from bad. One caution is letting market research over-ride your own instincts.  As Steve Jobs said: “it’s hard for consumers to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. Yet now that people see it, they say OH MY GOD THAT’S GREAT”

We always tracked many numbers (awareness, brand link, persuasion, etc), but the one I always wanted to know was “made the brand seem different”.  Whether it is new products, a new advertising campaign, or media options push yourself to do something that stands out. Don’t just settle for ok.  Always push for great.  If you don’t love the work, how do you expect your consumer to love your brand? The opposite of different is indifferent and who wants to be indifferent.      

Push the team to Find Difference through Brainstorming

The trick to a good brainstorm is very simple: Diverge, Converge, Diverge Converge.

Diverge #1: Quantity over Quality

Divide the room up into groups of 5 people. I prefer to assign one leader who will be writing the ideas, pushing the group for more, throwing in some ideas of their own. A great way for the leader is to say “here’s a crazy idea, who can build on this or make it better”. But if you catch the leader stalling, debating the ideas, then you should push that leader. At this stage, you are pushing for the quantity, not quality. If you have multiple groups in the room, do a rotation where the leader stays put and the group changes. I like having stations, where each station has a unique problem to solve.

Converge #1:  Focus on picking the best Strategic Ideas

There are a few ways you can do this.

  • You can use voting dots where each person gets 5 or 10 dots and they can use them any way they want.  For random executional ideas, this is a great simple way.
  • If there is agreed-upon criteria, you can do some type of scoring against each criteria. High, medium, low.
  • If you are brainstorming product concepts or positioning statements, you might want to hold them up to the lens of how unique they are.
  • For things like naming, positioning, or promotions, the leader can look at all the ideas and begin grouping them into themes.  They might start to discuss which themes seem to fit or are working the best, and use those themes for a second diverge.
  • For Tactics to an annual plan, you can use a very simple grid of Big vs Small and Easy vs Difficult. In this case, you want to find ways to land in THE BIG EASY. The reason you want easy is to ensure it has a good return on effort, believing effort and investment have a direct link.  


Diverge #2:  Make the Ideas even better, richer.

The second diverge is where the magic actually happens. You’ve got the group in a good zone. They have seen which ideas are meeting the criteria. Take the list from Converge #1 and push it one more time. Make it competitive among the groups, with a $25 prize, so that people will push even harder.  

  • If you narrowed it to themes, then take each theme and push for more and better ideas under each of the themes  
  • If you looked at concepts or tactics, then take the best 8-10 ideas and have groups work on them and flush them out fully with a written concept, and come back and present them to the group.  
  • If using the grid above, then take the ideas in the big/difficult and brainstorm ways to make it easier. And if it’s small and easy, brainstorm ways to make it bigger.

Converge #2: Decision Time

Once you’ve done the second diverge, you’ll be starting to see the ideas getting better and more focused. Now comes decision time. You can narrow down to a list of ideas to take forward into testing or discussion with senior management. You can take them forward to cost out. You can prioritize them based on a 12 or 24-month calendar. You can vote using some of the techniques above using voting dots.  Or you can assign a panel of those who will vote.  But you want to walk away from the meeting with a decision.

Let brainstorming bring energy and passion into your work.