Building a simple unified model for creative strategy — in three layers (and triangles)

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Marketing and advertising are suffering an effectiveness crisis. Experts and practitioners both agree that creativity plays an important part of the solution.

But to make it work, we need to bridge a rarely addressed gap.

People often think creative strategy is ‘fluffy’ or irrational. Especially compared to business strategy, marketing strategy or other X strategies. The worst examples certainly are. Still, the best practices of creative strategy are deeply rooted in marketing and align perfectly with classic business strategy. Here’s how I believe it works, looking back on my practise, while standing on the shoulders of giants*.

(* See notes in a separate post, where I also expand on some of my choices. Leaving the ‘scaffolding’ in made this post too long)

Layer 1: Fundamental market elements (Company, Customer, Context)

At a fundamental level, brands meet their audiences and stakeholders within a market context (typically including a competitive landscape). This concept is close to the well-known 3Cs model of strategic thinking popularised by management consultancies: Company, Customer and Competition. Small tweaks can be made to match sectors. For consumer brands, for example, the interaction is typically between Brand, Consumer, and Competition/Category (which sadly ruins the 3Cs memetic, unless we rename ‘Customer’ as ‘Audience(s)’ and get ABC). In our model, context replaces ‘Competition’ to expand into the wider category and broader cultural landscape.

In principle, to win within that ‘triangulation’, a company (or a brand) would need to find what of its core competencies do consumers need and want most (or convince them they do), and how it can make that proposition in a way that is superior to the competition or at least stands out in the market.

Layer 2: The win conditions for marketing (Integrity, Relevance, Difference)

Marketing’s most prominent paradigm establishes three common ‘win condition’ factors that drive the market dynamic described in step one. Marketing can stimulate those win conditions using its variety of levers (some common models mapping the levers include the 4Ps and the STP of Segmentation, targeting, positioning).

The simple way to understand how the win conditions work is that Brands win in markets by:

  1. Leveraging their core competence effectively with integrity (including credibility, consistency, and some would add a clear purpose), into a proposition that is…
  2. Relevant to their customers (their world, their life, their needs and wants, their expectations etc) and…
  3. Different from the rest of the market — whether substantially different from the competitive set (aka ’Differentiation’) or more commonly distinctive against the competition, the category and the overall cultural context (aka ‘Distinction’).

One way to look at it is that to win, brands should aspire to get as close as they can to customers and as further away from the competition as possible. The condition ‘as possible’ is loaded in this case, as every positioning balances Relevance and Difference. Putting too much weight on the relevance aspect and we might seem generic and simply meeting the customer’s expectations of the category (own brands and me-too brands can do it intentionally). Too much difference and we might break one category convention too many and alienate our intended target, at best becoming a niche brand.

This positioning-related principle of defining Relevant Difference is at the heart of many brand strategy challenges. Brands who are established leaders typically have a greater license to be different (but often are too afraid or set in their ways to do so), while new entrants need to work harder at building their relevance through category table-stakes (and often end up coming across as generic). Many ‘Challenger brand’ strategies can be seen as an attempt to short-cut the process by aiming to shift the category agenda — thus turning a brand’s difference to something that builds relevance (Fever-Tree is a good example in beverage).

Layer 3: The qualities of effective creative work (Truth, Recognition, Surprise)

On a conceptual/’creative’ level, relevance is driven by any element of the brand’s expression and behaviour, which evokes recognition. Recognition is what tells our brains ‘this is relevant’. While Difference is driven by the elements that evoke Surprise and tell our brain ‘This is different’. Two cognitive biases (and more) for the price of one. When you look at the most successful creative — it will usually be some balance of recognition and surprise. And what is it that maintains the integrity of the brand against those strong forces? Integrity is guarded by keeping the communications and behaviours rooted in Truth — which, often through credibility and consistency, tells our brains ‘Here’s a brand with integrity, which means you can trust it.’ Abandon it for too long and the whole proposition comes tumbling down.

When it comes to effective commercial creativity, what may seem like a playful, conventional or artistic choice is actually aimed at reinforcing the win-conditions of marketing via communications, behaviours and experiences. Done well — it builds brand equity that protects, sustains and cultivates those conditions over time.

What do you think? Is this as clear as it can be?

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Strategist. Director of a boutique agency. Teaches the D&AD’s strategy masterclass and the SCA’s course in strategy. Writing between marketing and culture.

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