Creative is a highlight of life at design agencies, but it isn’t a strategic cure-all for brands

An appreciation for the innovative delivery of a message is a fundamental aspect of past, present and future for advertising and creative agencies alike. It will never matter which channels we are dealing with, formats, audiences or how many variations of reality we have to account for, augmented, virtual or otherwise. We are and always will be, in the business of creating and delivering messages.

The importance of creativity, design and identity to businesses

Is it right that as a business built on creative solutions that we revere creativity above all else? If business history teaches us anything, it’s that simple ideas executed well can grow to become commercial behemoths. Design is central to this. When something takes off at a phenomenal rate, it is because the product, the brand or the service is clearly articulated and has been created with purpose, to meet a need or desire.

It is crucial however to state that design does not equal creativity. Design is about purpose. It solves problems.

When it comes to branding, commercial information is freely available, it spreads rapidly and public opinion is usually close in tow. What this means is that brands who promote themselves to wide markets are at the same time exposing themselves. This is nothing to be afraid of if the business holds clear ideals and is speaking to an appropriate audience. What it does however is place far more importance on the role of marketing and brand managers in creating consistently on-brand experiences for consumers and in reaching the correct markets.

The point is, creative execution alone cannot do this. Running a major campaign for a company that pays no attention to its professional standards, ethical obligations and target audience is not going to solve root problems. It may mask issues, but largely it creates the impression that the business doesn’t have its priorities in the correct order.

Emotion in creative direction

We do not live in a world where brands speak and consumers dutifully listen in admiration. It takes more than that to win somebody over and as media and therefore advertising becomes increasingly pervasive, consumers become more finely tuned to what is believable and what is inconsistent with reality.

As brands strive to become more human and look to employ emotive tactics to win people over, they have to be subtler. Using emotional affiliation as a blunt instrument is generally a bad idea. Even those brands with a clear awareness of their own character need to be precise in the execution in order to pitch their message appropriately.

This is a fundamental principle for advertising professionals. Despite this, case studies keep appearing where businesses attempt to jump on a bandwagon, or completely oversell themselves whilst simultaneously having a terrible track record on customer service or quality. In either instance, brands are creating an inauthentic image and once it becomes clear that it is not representative of the brand, their reputation is already damaged.

Certain businesses involve emotional subjects in their brand with great effect. Typically this is where there is a sincere subject matter in which the business is invested. Environmentally friendly or organic products are one such group where there are brands speaking to consumers with a common goal, in an honest fashion. Pepsi attempting to align itself with social struggle in the US was rightly called out and was bashfully withdrawn as quickly as it emerged.

The strategy of creativity

Creative development is where the delivery of the brand message can be explored in new ways. It’s typical that the creative brainstorming explores the far reaches of possibility from the brief. What happens is that the unrealistic gets put aside. This isn’t to say that creatives and agencies need to limit their ambition, but that they need to ground it in the context of the specific market, the brand and the wider world.

So when a brand attempts to develop and creative led campaign which is not designed to solve a problem, they are giving themselves an unnecessary challenge; to mask a difficult situation, rather than to address it. In the information age, this is extremely difficult and tiring.

Instead, what creative should be doing is promoting messages that originate from values that are being upheld by the products, people, initiatives and services. It can form part of a response, but it will never be a cure.

Brands need to be ready with answers to the difficult questions, not diversions.

When there are questions over a brand’s integrity the action needed is not typically a shift in creative strategy. Communication is essential when there is a strategic issue and branding should not be put on hold either, but the importance of awareness and caution are elevated when there is a specific problem to address. Reworking the brand message and expecting a change at the root of the issue isn’t the right approach.

Restoring faith in a brand requires a more sensitive and realistic review of the brand culture that is resulting in problems. When it is clear that a brand is facing a publicity challenge, an appropriate response at the right level is required. Whilst there is certainly plenty of value in writing some carefully considered messages as part of these communications, it is usually time for a message with clarity and of low-risk language. Depending on the creative strategy for the overall brand, this may not fit well with the “usual” communications, which is why a separate strategy needs to be developed. If crisis management and brand repair tactics become a part of the brand playbook, there is a bigger issue at hand.

Creative agencies need to understand the context of their clients’ markets, they need to know about the real brand experience and if they know a thing or two about PR strategy, that certainly won’t do their chances of delivering an appropriate message any harm.