L'Oréal's marketing professor on bridging the gap between creativity and analytics

L'Oréal's marketing professor on bridging the gap between creativity and analytics

Traditional advertising agencies may argue that marketing begins and ends with creativity but technical skills are vital for marketing success, says the L'Oreal creativity marketing professor.

The familiar left brain/right brain metaphor is particularly relevant in marketing today: we compete both on our ability to use data effectively, and on our creativity.

When I started in travel marketing pre-internet, our most sophisticated tracking mechanism was the discount coupons we regularly mailed to customers, from which we could calculate response rates in the 1-3% range when things went well.  These days, thanks to the masses of data at our disposal, testing and measuring are at the core of marketing practice: create, test, prove and roll.

At the same time, we rely heavily on creative thinking for differentiation. Creativity is what allows a brand to stand out, whether it’s through it’s messaging, the uniqueness of the products or experiences it offers, its stop-and-think pricing strategy, or its uncanny ability to be available anytime anywhere.

A question of context

Beyond this, creativity is about imagining different contexts in which consumers buy a cup of coffee, plan their holidays or put a healthy meal on the table every night.  It’s about anticipating and responding to the essential "humanness" of customers.  

In other words, marketing today requires the best of both analytical and creative thinking.  On the one hand, we measure, measure, measure.  On the other hand, we dream, imagine, craft, and care with our customers.  How do we integrate two diametrically different approaches?  Analytical marketing suggests rigor, method and focus; creative marketing is about flexibility, ambiguity and risk-taking.  Because one of these logics is often deeply entrenched in our company, we see them as a trade-off, and compromises seem suboptimal.

We need integrative solutions that build on the respective benefits of analytical and creative thinking without compromising.

Moving beyond an either/or approach

I recently advised a travel company that specializes in customising trips for parents with young children. They book hotels with excellent children’s activities, employ guides who lead child-friendly city tours, hire cars with the safest car seats, and reserve front row seating with airlines.  Parents rely on them year after year until their oldest child reaches 12, then they gravitate away in spite of the teen-friendly trips on offer.  We facilitated a problem-solving session that produced two approaches.

The analytical approach suggested that they segment their customers by children’s age group and analyse their hobbies, sports and activities to develop new teenage-specific products targeted at families of soon-to-be teens.  Test, measure and optimize to fine tune the product line.

The creative approach is to turn customers from targets to expert by creating forums in which they exchange experiences with each other.  Rather than telling parents with teens where to go, it’s about listening to them describe their travels and pain points, the meaning of travel in their family life, and how they deal with the diverging needs of teenagers and younger siblings.  

The two approaches elicited some heated discussions among the team. The first would rely on existing CRM strategy and was easily implementable. With hard data, they could test and learn as new trips and services are developed. It also allowed for systematic targeting and more optimization.

The creative approach was anything but consistent with existing strategy. Managers feared losing control over the expert advice that made them so successful. On the other hand, the opportunity to create engagement was a plus.  By participating in a dialogue with other families, clients would come to appreciate the firm’s sensitivity to their changing needs, strengthening the brand’s positioning as a caring partner. This would also benefit product development.

A new approach

Which way to go? We facilitated the development of integrative thinking: stretching each approach enough to find common ground and leverage its strong points. One solution was to test a new range of products co-designed on the forum with precise targeting. Once tested, validated and implemented, the approach could be extended to other age segments.

Integrative solutions mitigate the drawbacks of both options and reinforce their strong points.  While the creative approach requires the development of brand new community management competencies, it fosters much needed engagement. The firm’s value proposition shifts from booking holidays to becoming a facilitator of a broader family experience.  More data collection means better targeting and optimization, and higher ROI on marketing spend. This is far from being a compromise solution!

My experience with many organisations is that a strong bias towards analytical or creative thinking usually renders marketers blind to the other approach.  By explicitly and systematically thinking through both analytical and creative approaches, and working through integrative solutions that "accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative", marketers can bridge the gap.

Marie Taillard is the L’Oréal professor of creativity marketing at ESCP Europe Business School

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