When scrolling through the canon of iconic marketing moments, this scene from the holiday classic A Christmas Story perfectly encapsulates the modern consumer’s emotional reaction to most brand experiences:
We’ve all been in Ralphie’s shoes before. We get our hopes up that a company, at long last, has created something valuable, something that’s creative for the sake of being creative, that we can enjoy without feeling compelled to buy or sell anything. And then… the crushing moment of disillusionment.
“Drink more Ovaltine?!” we cry, disgusted. We trusted the brand to deliver something meaningful, and they betrayed our trust in favor of self-promotion. In a split second, that precious moment of connection is terminated. It’s unlikely we’ll ever give Ovaltine the chance to let us down again.
While it’s easy enough to poke fun at a 1940s radio play sponsored by a consumer brand, the sad truth is that brands continue to do the same thing to their audiences today. They distribute content that promises education, entertainment, and value. On the surface, it glimmers enough to attract clicks—but when consumers dive into the depths of what’s offered, they’re often disappointed. Sometimes, the content is just a thinly-veiled product marketing pitch; other times, it’s well-meaning information that simply falls flat from an execution perspective.
Why does this keep happening? Are marketers getting worse at their jobs? No, not exactly. Rather, in the transition from the “golden age” of marketing in the 1950s and 60s to the vast new digital marketing landscape, something interesting occurred.
All of the time and effort and resources that used to go into the art of marketing—that Don Draper creative wunderkind mojo we admire and sometimes poke fun at—is now largely being invested in science.
Digital properties provide us with a wealth of data about who our audience is, where they go online, and where their interests lie. It even tells us how they engage with the content we put out there on the web. There are thousands of tools that can help us track everything from page views to scroll depth to conversions to viewing history to eye color. (Maybe not the last one—yet.)
These tools are extremely useful because they reveal insights that force us to step outside our echo chambers and pay attention to what users prefer. They provide us with unbiased data with which to check our gut instincts. And they help us break a very complex ecosystem of interactions down into understandable metrics that we can measure and act upon.
But the crux of the issue is this: Science can’t fix the problems it uncovers with our content—it only reveals where things are broken. Without an investment in creativity, we’ll never be able to improve our experiences.
A New Golden Era, Powered by Creativity
In an interview with DMA, Brian Fetherstonhaugh, Chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne Worldwide, spoke to the importance of creativity quite elegantly:
Marketing is entering its next golden era − where wisdom, creativity and courage will carry the day. From search, mobile and social, we now finally have access to the real data about customers’ interests and intentions − what we have always been seeking but had to approximate. What we do with it now is up to us.
While chatter within the marketing community has remained loud around data collection and number crunching, there’s been a quiet movement, led by design- and story-focused innovators, to revisit the creative ethos of the previous golden age. The key difference this time around is that creativity can be informed by, and crafted around, real user feedback.
What’s fascinating about the current return to creativity is that brands and agencies aren’t the ones setting the precedent any more. Instead, companies are turning to creative sources outside the corporate world to re-learn how to incorporate creativity throughout their organization—from the leadership team to sales reps to everyone in between.
Sourcing Creativity from the Outside
Source: Olly Moss
One of the common places brands are turning to for inspiration is professional writers. In 2016, content marketing software company Skyword teamed up with seasoned screenwriter and storyteller Robert McKee to launch a seminar series called Storynomics. These seminars are designed to teach senior executives and marketing professionals how to apply storytelling structure to their business.
McKee has been using his storytelling expertise from film and theater to coach authors, screenwriters, and comedians for over 30 years. Today, this expertise is being transferred over to a business setting so that the people who own the stories at brands—namely, executives and marketers—can learn how to craft narratives more effectively.
Gotham Writers Workshop has taken a similar approach, using their learnings from teaching creativity and writing classes to thousands of students each year and applying them to corporate teams in their Corporate Creativity seminars.
Topics include things like divergent thinking, ideation, emotional narrative building, and crafting hooks. Teams also learn how to incorporate elements of creativity and storytelling in seemingly unrelated endeavors like problem solving and team building.
Straying farther afield from the mainstream, renegade tour company Museum Hack has also moved into the corporate training game with two different types of workshops: one focused on storytelling, and a more general disruption and creativity offering.
The company’s unique focus on telling relatable, off-the-radar, sometimes scandalous narratives behind artifacts and artworks means they employ a huge team of master storytellers. And this kind of creative, story-driven engagement is exactly what big brands like Google, Marriott, and Facebook pay good money to learn from Museum Hack’s tour guides.
Likewise, Third Rail Projects, an immersive theater company based in NYC, doesn’t seem like a logical fit for corporate trainings. But in addition to professional workshops for performance artists, they also offer customized workshops for brands.
Jennine Willett heads up the group’s education program, working one-on-one with professionals across a variety of industries. She and her team develop custom curricula that translate the magic of interactive storytelling, dance, movement, and other relevant aspects of Third Rail’s creative practice around specific business objectives.
One final example of creative education within a corporate setting is even more unexpected. At entertainment company Pixar, they’ve built an entire training program—Pixar University—to educate their employees and help them continue to push creative boundaries.
Technical Director Bill Polson told the San Francisco Chronicle this about the program:
“During 90 percent of your workday, you’re in this box—you get to do only certain things. And yet we’re all here because we love movies and art. At Pixar University, all the boxes get removed. All the walls come down, and you get to be the director of your own creative idea.”
Through the program, Polson and his colleagues have been able to take classes in drawing, screenwriting, and filmmaking—all things outside the scope of their normal day jobs. Over a dozen options are available each week to keep employees creatively challenged under the pressure of producing films on a highly aggressive release schedule.
What We Do Now
These formalized creative workshops for brands are more than just an interesting new fad in corporate education. They’re a unique antidote to the Ovaltine content marketing approach that alienates consumers and puts results before meaningful connection.
Brands can be prone to navel-gazing and competitive analysis. When they look toward the future, they tend to pave the pathway with their own past accomplishments and those of their competitors. But creative inspiration that empowers meaningful change comes from outside the realm of what we know already.
Whether we seek out inspiration and new ways of thinking on our own, or attend a company event that helps us see our work through a different lens, it’s imperative that we continually challenge our standard approach and relearn, to some extent, what it means to be creatives in the business world.
How do we start?
By fixing our eyes on the dreamers, the rebels, the artists who’ve made a living by breaking the mold.
What do we do now?