Ideas first, research later

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Leading with ideas, even rough ones, and making them part of the investigative process instigates fresh thinking, writes Kelton Global's head of brand development and innovation

Even the most brilliant campaigns fail. Often because they serve as band-aids for the core issue: the DNA of the brand they serve is weak.

Building powerful brands isn’t easy, and approaches to constructing their DNA are typically discrete—dominated either by creative, "black box" approaches or by data-driven research methods. The truth is, great creative teams can be highly subjective and miss the richness of insight-driven, culturally-informed thinking. And data can blunt the nuance of emotion. I argue there is a new approach in the integration of the two, where creative ideas operate as the instigator of fresh thinking, and research brings to light hidden consumer needs and drivers of behavior change. This is where we can discover the key to building a brand’s DNA.

How? Stop thinking of creative ideas as the output, as what emerges only at the end of the brand-building process. Instead, lead with them.  Start with ideas that are informed, rough, and flexible, not finessed or resolved, and put them in the hands of your customers early on in your brand development process. Let ideas instigate reactions. Make them part of an investigative process that brings to light the most provocative thinking. Because ideas, at the end of the day, beget better, bigger ideas that converge and coalesce into the brand’s core.

For example, a retail center client of Kelton had previously spent millions doing what research had dictated they should stand for and do as a brand, but business had continued to struggle. It wasn’t until we convinced them to rethink the brand by giving consumers and stakeholders not just the permission but also the stimulation to think big, that we were able to uncover the full potential of the brand. We developed a range of future-facing ideas—through ads, experiential videos, renderings—that stretched the possibilities of the brand to see where it had permission to play, how it could be most meaningful in the lives of its customers and drive the business.

The practical application of this idea-led brand-building approach assembles consumers, stakeholders, and experts, and engages with them in a co-creative process, moderated interactions where participants are encouraged to debate, inspired to ideate and free to disagree. Ideas are the critical instigators in these sessions, and are engineered to stimulate collaborative thinking and discussion.

But to make it all work, you have to embody the right mindset and be armed with the right toolkit.  Some critical guidelines:

Be informed. Don’t develop ideas in the cold with no prior information. This is key. The point is to start with ideas informed by past work, whether that’s past studies or the client’s hypotheses. Take advantage of and inspiration from the knowledge that exists.

Stretch. Once you have your working hypotheses, venture out. Don’t play it safe by staying close to what the brand can just do today. Push it out of its comfort zone. One of the goals of developing an idea-led approach is to let ideas point to the future state of your brand.

Simulate the real world. Ideas can take many forms beyond images and white cards. Give people a sense of how they might engage with the idea in the real world—be it a prototype, rough mockup or an adlob. It’s what does justice to the idea, but also gives you the truest, gut reaction.

Be open. Don’t be precious about ideas. This is not a concept test. It’s not about finding a winner. It’s about getting the information and insight that’s going to contribute to crafting the best idea. If they hate, love or are just indifferent to it, that tells you something.

Make connections. Give people the freedom to connect and build on ideas in ways you may never have thought before. People don’t live their lives in silos and the lateral shift in thinking they provide is what often leads to rising above categories and generating breakthrough ideas.

Leading with ideas puts you on a path to discovering the potential for your brand to truly be disruptive, to connect with customers it targets, with culture in which it exists, and with business goals it aspires to attain.

I’ve been in situations where creative is asked to just fix it—just create the print, TV, digital, social campaign or ad—and in those situations I secretly wished I could work on the brand DNA first, but for whatever reason didn’t have the license to do so. And now, I don’t just have the opportunity to do it, but also an approach that works in the most elegant and powerful way. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.


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