Uri is an international strategist based in London, specialising in brand, creative strategy, proposition development, CX and content. He runs a boutique agency, teaches the D&AD's masterclass in strategy, and is the strategy mentor for SCA. He writes about marketing, culture and technology.
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.
Last year, as I watched family, friends, clients, students, and myself adjust to the pandemic, I found myself thinking a lot about how people and organisations react to a crisis. The way they react shares a lot in common. Sometimes, our reactions shape us just as much as the crisis does.
Humans react to danger in instinctive and distinctive ways: fight, flight, freeze and fawn. Typically we show a predisposition to some over others. Evolutionary speaking, those mechanisms have positive roles too. To an extent, we can see them as ‘generic strategies’. To survive, our species needed this diversity. Taking the crisis heads on — fighters risk death. On the other hand, you can’t have a society of ‘flighters’ or they’ll run out of energy or options and die out too. Rigid templates weren’t enough even in prehistoric times. What remains is that when stress is high, people switch to ‘survival mode’ and default to their ‘type’, with the feelings that come with it — the fighters get angry, the flighters feel fear and anxiety, and so on. The go-to templates tend to become even more entrenched when a combination of high or persistent stress results in trauma. This type of rigid behavioural pattern is, in fact, an attribute of PTSD.
Organisations are like people in that sense. Once traumatised, even if the automatic response originally aided survival, it becomes ingrained. And then you get what I call ‘the post-traumatic organisation’.
Here are some symptoms I’m sure you’ll find familiar:
Can we talk about the paradox of choice? You know, just before we happily let behavioural economics take over marketing strategy completely?
It’s not that simple.
As behavioural economics become more important in marketing, Barry Schwartz’s 2004 best-seller and some writing that followed him are almost a dogma for some people: Choice creates fatigue and anxiety → reduce choice to increase sales.
BUT, it’s just not that simple. 1. Choice overload isn’t a consistent effect 2. Choice reduction alone does not ensure an increase in sales
A 2015 meta-analysis of 99 studies isolated the circumstances in which reducing choices to customers is most likely to increase sales. What they identified are four factors:
Choice set complexity
Decision task difficulty
And what they saw across studies is that when the above factors are mitigated, the tolerance for choice often increases.
Essentially, reducing complexity is more important than simply reducing choice. Portfolio strategy is not an exercise in reducing SKUs. Brand Architecture is not an exercise in killing and consolidating sub-brands. And behavioural economics isn’t the silver bullet people think/pretend it is. Because, unlike research, few marketing challenges concern a single, isolated, factor. Sorry, I know you didn’t ask for a side of nuance with that.
When it comes to market disruption the stories we tell now go further than the original definitions of disruptive innovation, coined by Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen in 1995, or disruptive technology, coined by economist Milan Zeleny, in 2009.
Today, the corporate conversation about disruption is influenced by its portrayal in the media, even in the trade media, and a specific “disruption trope” seems to dominate. Ideally, this is the story of a small but innovative brand coming “out of nowhere,” harnessing a technological breakthrough the brand came up with (or at least was the first to exploit), growing quickly, redefining the category, and making the “big guys” reassess their business model—to mention some components of the ideal story.
The real stories are rarely as “perfect.” For example, often disruptors aren’t the first to discover the breakthrough. Around the time Uber rose to prominence there were other GPS-based ride apps, and many also approached mini-cab stations in order to build a driver base more quickly. What made Uber into a disruptive player is that it combined a slick interface with smart data analytics, ruthless recruitment of drivers and, let’s face it, other forms of ruthlessness that attracted substantial negative coverage. Thus, they grew up the fastest.
The popularised disruption trope glosses over the details of a more complex reality. In fact, disruption comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. By appreciating a wider variety of tropes, we can learn to understand disruption better and the different roles brands can play.
Illustration by: @momok (I don’t have to credit, but I want to)
While developing work for both recent client projects as well as my D&AD masterclass, I realised one of the cardinal sins of the way many agencies and consultancies present strategy.
Most times, when an agency puts a model or a framework in front of a client, it as if it came from nowhere. It is almost never credited to the original inventors. Even agencies that would never share a creative work without crediting its origin (although orphan case studies and best practices are also common), often wouldn’t dignify strategy the same way. Continue reading →