I recently asked one of our creative directors what we could do better for them as brand strategists these days.
The answer was as simple and poignant as you would expect.
It went something like "We get a lot of BIG strategic areas to work with that are correct. But that's the problem. They are the usual suspects: progress, better together, thrive, doing good. Not wrong, but too broad, a bit of a warm bath. Where are those provocations I can't wriggle out of? Strategies that force us to commit to a sharp point of view and go places we haven't been before."
That got me thinking.
We tend to create these BIG broad strategies on big brands with broad audiences, to be able to capitalise on key cultural tensions and to create work in all forms across all stages of the consumer journey; all without invoking the ire of consumers who can bring you down in a flash if you step out of line.
But in doing so, have we watered down the unreasonable power of creativity?
If you look out there at a lot of big brands today, I would argue, yes.
Over the course of my career as a brand planner, I have got used to the same strategies coming across my desk, whether it's for toothpaste or technology.
And at one level there is nothing wrong with this.
Shakespeare had seven basic plots, and there are probably seven or so strategic themes we typically call on when building brands.
- Performance. If your brand has something it definitively does better than the competition, claim it.
- Authenticity. We love to claim our brands are the real deal. A chef friend told me that if you call it "street food", you can cook whatever you like these days.
- Challenge. There will always be the pirates to the navy in most categories.
- Unity. The strategy du jour that doubles down on what we can do if we all come together.
- Progress. The other biggie these days in terms of stepping forward and seeing where we can go as a human race
- Empowerment. When you ladder most brands up, they all seem to empower us to be the best we can be in some way or another
- Humanity. There is a natural resurgence of People strategies out there as we look into our own humanity and values in these challenging times.
All of these uber themes are solid start points for brand strategy, but they shouldn't be the end point in and of themselves: they should lead to more insightful strategies that are incisive, dramatic and engaging, like a Shakespearian tragedy... rather than being the jumping off point for all creativity; the warm bath of generality as my creative director points out. Or, as I was told rather unnervingly by a client once: "You are in the right neighbourhood, but haven't found the address yet."
If we just play back the macro themes of today, brands can end up slipping into a generic lexicon, where "we can flourish together by being our true selves and changing the world for good, so we can all move forward every day as one".
We need more provocation in the strategies themselves... ones that scald a bit on first blush, and take a bit of getting used to... strategies that pin you into a corner and require real creative chutzpah to bring to life.
It reminds me of a presentation Adrian Holmes made at Cannes once, where he talked of the power of putting creatives in a box. He used the analogy of tennis. If you just stand at either end of a blank court and hit the ball back and forth it gets pretty boring pretty quickly. But if you create a number of boxes, add a net, and force people to play within a set of rules, the game gets very creative very quickly... and more engaging and more effective.
And that's the note to self. We planners should still be looking at the twist, the provocation, the insight, the position... the hot water that turns a first order strategy into something altogether more memorable. Putting creatives in a box that needs a genuine creative leap to get out of. We should not be afraid of outing ourselves as brands, rubbing up against audiences and leading with more marginal appeal. Of course it's easy to say, but hard to do, and getting harder and harder these days.
There are, of course, brands out there that have come up trumps turning big plots into sharp strategies that pay off. We have loved Snickers' ability to trade off the inconvenient truth that "You're not you when you're hungry" to make its traditional hunger satisfaction promise bite. Bodyform has been unafraid to break long-held taboos with "Viva la vulva" and "Womb stories". And you have to admire the cheekiness of Diesel's "Enjoy before returning" idea based on the "wardrobing" behaviour of customers.
But it's not just in categories where it might be easier to push the boat out. McDonald's has had remarkable success since the Supersize Me days, unafraid to expose (and prove wrong) people's fear of what's in McNuggets, happy to push against the Antipodean-inspired flat white intelligentsia, all the while proud of the universal emotional appeal a 99p cheeseburger can bring. And it's pretty remarkable for a stalwart FMCG brand like Tide to keep winning the Super Bowl mantle with insightful twists on cleaning performance (indeed, every ad can be a Tide ad).
It's not easy, and we live in a world where strategy has to account for all manner of concerns. But, for my money, when it comes to brand strategy, I would push myself and my planners to take more risks and move beyond the warm bath of correctness that we so easily fall into.
We may start with the big plots, but we need to keep going and hunt for the elusive insights that provoke a more interesting response. We need to not shy away from putting the creatives in a box they need creative leaps to get out of. That way we can still live in a world where if we are "driven by something different" and "dream crazy", we may just end being able to "do what you can't" .
More hot water, please.
David Hackworthy is global chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi and CSO of Publicis Groupe UK