What’s creativity got to do with it?

Credit: Dragos Gontariu
Credit: Dragos Gontariu

Volatility isn’t going anywhere, and creativity helps brands grow amid uncertainty.

Use of the word “Creativity” is at an all-time high

It’s part of countless briefs, news articles, TED Talks and agency mission statements (including my own). But while we use it, we rarely describe its value to companies chasing it for growth.

If marketers ever needed a lesson on growth, it’s after last year. A pandemic, two impeachments, wildfires, elections, economic disruptions and a reckoning over racial injustice have led to massive changes in human behavior and business. 

Some brands flourished amid these shifts, while others withered. Many factors determined their fates: resilient business models, essential industries, killer products, leadership, dumb luck ...  the list goes on. But perhaps something else also played a big role: creativity.   

In times of crisis, creativity thrives. Last year alone, The Flaming Lips held concerts in personal bubbles. Bud Light filled empty stadiums with cardboard fans. Patagonia sewed calls to “Vote the assholes out” into their shorts. KFC even made a movie on Lifetime.  

But what impact did it all have? Did this creativity drive growth? And if so, how? 

We decided to find out. First, we narrowed down the definition of “creativity” (no easy task) by boiling it down to two factors: “originality” and “value,” with six specific interpretations for brands. Then we used this rubric to evaluate how 100 brands in 10 industries used creativity in 2020. 

We determined the brands that grew the most last year based on Les Binet’s share of searches and evaluated how many drivers were creative versus endemic using a simple binary measure. 

This method has some caveats. More highly considered categories tend to be more searchable — and therefore measurable — than others. Moreover, share of searches depends on the defined market. So we chose five brands from each vertical, combining upstarts with incumbents. 

We found that out of 100 brands, Nike, Airbnb, Peloton, Lowe’s and Delta Airlines used creativity most effectively to drive growth last year. 

Each of these brands moved quickly to adapt their communications to the current moment. Nike, for instance, reinterpreted “Just Do It” to implore people to “Play Inside, Play for the World.” 

They also used creativity to rethink their operations and experience. Airbnb, which rolled out enhanced clean protocols when the pandemic hit, continued to move decisively in real time by halting all reservations to Washington, D.C. amid threats surrounding the inauguration. 

Brands that leveraged creativity to grow were also inclusive. Peloton, for example, launched a brand campaign with the hashtag #FindYourOwnTribe, and Airbnb opened its IPO to hosts. 

These brands found everyday ways to help individuals. Lowe’s Transformation Tuesday series suggested new ways for people to reimagine their spaces while sheltering at home. And Delta’s “quarantine-free” flights allow travelers flying for essential reasons to avoid quarantines. 

For the most creative brands, surprise alone is no longer enough. Nike’s meticulously edited film, You Can’t Stop Us, inspired awe and made the brand’s mission more meaningful, rather than shocking for the sake of it. Awe has a higher propensity for growth, according to Orlando Wood’s Lemon.

Finally, clarity and conviction helped these brands weather the storm. Our top brands all committed to clear missions, built consistently over years of energy and focus. They reinforce these missions beyond their communications in everything they do, from new products to business commitments.

Volatility isn’t going anywhere, and creativity helps brands grow amid uncertainty. Brands can use creativity as a ballast to keep long-term growth straight and true.

Scott MacLeod is director of planning at VIA.

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