The New Creative Brief

My work over the years with global companies across a wide range of categories, along with a good deal of reading on marketing and branding, has exposed me to countless versions of the creative brief. From my perspective as a marketing strategist and educator, I find most of them wanting.

It’s time for a New Creative Brief, one written from the perspective of values, emotion, and empathy while providing laser-like clarity and unambiguous direction to creatives and everyone else involved in brand communications.

Once upon a time in marketing, companies clung to a highly rational model for positioning development. Based largely on Rosser Reeve’s concept of Unique Selling Proposition (USP), sophisticated marketers like Procter & Gamble used fill-in-the-blank statements such as the following as the foundation for creative briefs:

“For (your target), (your product name) is a (category name) which provides (main benefit) unlike (primary competitor) which provides (competitor’s main benefit).”

There was a tacit understanding that the “main benefit” would always be some kind of tangible, provable, and ideally, quantifiable claim. Wisk gets rid of ring around the collar. Crest users get less cavities. Colgate gets your teeth noticeably whiter in just a day. Folger’s is “mountain grown.”

The problem is that people no longer choose brands based on the facts. Brands need to work much harder than that in our narcissistic, self-absorbed society to win our attention and loyalty.  They need to connect with us emotionally, demonstrating that the “badge value” emanating from their brand is in sync with how we’d like to be perceived by others. In addition, recent studies indicate that brands and their parent companies must also resonate with our personal values in order to be chosen.

Efforts from companies ranging from Patagonia to Starbucks, focusing on issues such as sustainability, racial equality, education, and other causes, are good examples of this phenomenon. The recent blowback against Spotify for providing a platform for Joe Rogan demonstrates what can happen when brands run counter to the sentiment of their users.

Companies have responded to these changes by simply adding content to creative briefs in an attempt to cover the different bases, addressing emotions and values in addition to the rational. But more is not better.

One creative brief format I’ve run into lately is a good representation of the “more” approach. It starts off by asking the strategist to define four types of “truth” associated with the brand relating to the target, cultural, category and brand. Before finally arriving at a positioning statement, the brief goes on to ask for product benefits (rational and emotional), reasons-to-believe, a key consumer insight, brand personality, shared values and a “consumer portrait” focused on a made-up individual.

Kudos to the company behind this format for elevating emotions, values, and “truth” into their format. But with so many “truths,” along with all the other inputs, these kinds of formats tend to ramble and lose focus. All too often we have the tail wagging the dog as creatives are afforded the ability to latch on to some relatively minor idea in the brief, force fitting it with a “big creative idea” focused entirely on winning awards rather than brand strategy. Sales continue to be flat or decline, but everyone has a great time in Cannes during award season.

This is precisely why the New Creative Brief needs to stay simple, straightforward, and focused. More important, the brief must recognize that the facts rarely matter. Rational considerations are support points or reasons-to-believe, not the foundation for effective positioning strategies.

To that end, I’ve developed a creative brief format that have identified what I believe to be the most important positioning elements and ensure that they work in harmony. We are not looking for multiple versions of the truth, but a single brand truth that may be induced from its key components, one building upon the other.

The New Creative Brief builds better bridges from brands to consumers (and back) with a deeper focus on values and feelings. Based largely on Jim Stengel’s “Grow,” the brief requires that we fully understand the Fundamental Human Value the brand embraces and create a concise (about 6 to 10 word) statement of the Brand Ideal, or how the brand is making the world a better place before we even get to differentiation.

Once there, the positioning statement must be engaging and emotional. More than anything, we focus on the experience of how it feels to use the brand. Stengel cites the example of Pampers, a brand he managed at P&G, evolving from a fact-based, rational positioning of “keeps your baby drier,” to one that explored the emotional aspects of what it means to be a great mother.

Finally, the New Creative Brief recognizes that contemporary IMC (integrated marketing communications) plans require creative content to be delivered across a range of platforms, each having its unique delivery system that dictates when, where and how the message will be received by the consumer.

That’s a strong argument for choosing media/marketing tools first, before embarking on creative executions. The onus here is on the strategist, not the agency creatives in charge of the TV campaign, to define the role of each marketing element and to provide preliminary examples of creative content. While few of these ideas are likely to survive until the plan is finalized, they do provide “proof” or a sort that the big idea and overall direction of the creative brief is sound. I’ve found that if a strategy is truly “great,” the more prolific you and your team will be in developing executions. Great ideas flow naturally and almost effortlessly from great strategies. And if you can’t execute to it, time to go back to the drawing board.

If you work in insights or marketing for a company or agency and want to learn more about, the brief and my process of building it, please shoot me an email at to set up an online meeting.

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