First published in Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchek and Cara France.
What makes marketing creative? Is it more imagination or innovation? Is a creative marketer more artist or entrepreneur? Historically, the term “marketing creative” has been associated with the words and pictures that go into ad campaigns. But marketing, like other corporate functions, has become more complex and rigorous. Marketers need to master data analytics, customer experience, and product design. Do these changing roles require a new way of thinking about creativity in marketing?
To explore this question, we interviewed senior marketing executives across dozens of top brands. We asked them for examples of creativity in marketing that go beyond ad campaigns and deliver tangible value to the business. Their stories — and the five wider trends they reflect — help illustrate what it means to be a creative marketer today.
1. Create with the customer, not just for the customer
Everyone likes to talk about being “customer-centric.” But too often this means taking better aim with targeted campaigns. Customers today are not just consumers; they are also creators, developing content and ideas — and encountering challenges — right along with you. Creativity in marketing requires working with customers right from the start to weave their experiences with your efforts to expand your company’s reach.
For example, Intuit’s marketing team spends time with self-employed people in their homes and offices to immerse themselves in the customer’s world. Through this research, they identified a pain point of tracking vehicle gas mileage. Based on these marketing insights, Intuit created a new feature within its app that combines location data, Google maps, and the user’s calendar to automatically track mileage and simplify year-end tax planning.
Brocade, a data and network solutions provider, created a “customer first” program by identifying their top 200 customers, who account for 80% of their sales. They worked with these customers to understand their sources of satisfaction and identify areas of strengths and weakness. Brocade then worked with sales teams to create and deliver customized packages outlining what Brocade heard is working or not working, and what they would do about those findings. Later, Brocade followed up with these customers to report on progress against these objectives. The results? Brocade’s Net Promoter Score went from 50 (already a best in class score) to 62 (one of the highest B2B scores on record) within 18 months.
2. Invest in the end-to-end experience
Every marketer believes the customer experience is important. But most marketers only focus on the parts of that experience under their direct control. Creative marketers take a broader view and pay attention to the entire customer experience from end to end. This includes the product, the buying process, the ability to provide support, and customer relationships over time. That takes time and resources – and it also requires bringing creative thinking to unfamiliar problems.
Kaiser Permanente believes that as health care becomes more consumer-oriented, the digital experience becomes a key differentiator. The marketing team instituted a welcome program to help improve the experience for new plan members. Members are guided on how to register for an online member portal, which provides access to email your doctor, refill prescriptions, make appointments, and more. The welcome program required coordination with many areas of the business. As a result of this program, about 60% of new members register within the first six months. These members are 2.6 times more likely to stay with Kaiser Permanente two years later.
Like many retailers, Macy’s has traditionally spent 85% of its marketing budget on driving sales. Each outbound communication is measured individually for immediate ROI. However, recently they began to take a more holistic approach, focusing on lifetime value and their most profitable segment, the “fashionable spender.” This group looks across the business to gather behind-the-scenes information on the runway, newest clothing lines, and aspirational fashion content. The metrics also changed. Macy’s started evaluating engagement per customer across time and platform instead of per marketing message per day. The results? In the last year, customers in the top decile segment increased digital engagement by 15%, cross shopping by 11% and sales by 8%.
3. Turn everyone into an advocate
In a fragmented media and social landscape, marketers can no longer reach their goals for awareness and reputation just through paid media and PR. People are the new channel. The way to amplify impact is by inspiring creativity in others. Treat everyone as an extension of your marketing team: employees, partners, and even customers.
Plum Organics gives each employee business cards with coupons attached. While shopping, all employees are encouraged to observe consumers shopping the baby category. When appropriate, they ask a few questions about shoppers’ baby food preferences and share business cards with coupons for free products as a gesture of appreciation.
For Equinix, surveys revealed that a third of employees were not confident explaining its company story. The company introduced an internal ambassador program for its more than 6,000 employees. This program gives employees across all disciplines and levels tools to educate them on the company, its culture, products and services, and how they solve its customer’s needs. More than 20% of employees took the training online or in workshops in the first few months of the program, and employee submissions to its sales lead and job candidate referral programs were up 43% and 19% respectively.
Old Navy has traditionally dedicated their media budget to TV, particularly around back to school. However, over the past few years, they’ve focused on digital content to engage kids around positive life experiences and giving back. Through this approach, the 2016 #MySquadContest led to 32,000 kids sharing their “squads” of friends for a chance to win an epic day with their favorite influencer, creating 3 million video views, a 60% increase in social conversation about @OldNavy, and a 600% increased likelihood of recommending Old Navy to a friend (versus those that viewed TV ads only). In addition, the program led to record breaking donations for their partner, The Boys & Girls Club.
4. Bring creativity to measurement
The measurability of digital engagement means we can now know exactly what’s working and not working. This gives marketing an opportunity to measure and manage itself in new ways. In the past, marketing measured success by sticking to budgets and winning creative awards. Today, the ability to measure data and adjust strategies in real-time enables marketing to prove its value to the business in entirely new ways.
Cisco has created a real-time, online dashboard where the entire marketing organization can look at performance. The leadership team conducts a weekly evaluation to assess, “Is what we’re doing working?” This analysis can be done across different digital initiatives, geographies, channels, or even individual pieces of content. The result is an ability to quickly adjust and re-allocate resources.
Zscaler, a cloud-based security platform for businesses, created a Value Management Office. The Office helps each client define, quantify, and track their unique business goals associated with Zscaler implementation. Zscaler and their clients hold each other accountable to specific, measurable, time-based results.
OpenTable recently launched a companion app just for restaurants to make better use of the data they’ve been collecting through their reservation system. Restauranteurs can now get a handle on their business right from their smartphone, allowing them to easily answer questions like “How did your last shift perform?” The app can tell them if they are running light on bookings, and soon they’ll be able to activate marketing campaigns to increase same day reservations. More than 50% of restaurant customers on OpenTable’s cloud-based service are already using the app, visiting an average of 9 times a day, 7 days a week.
5. Think like a startup
In the past, marketers needed to be effective managers, setting goals well in advance and then working within budget to achieve those goals. Today, creative marketers need to operate more like entrepreneurs, continuously adjusting to sustain “product/market fit.”
The start-up Checkr represents a trend we are seeing more of in the Bay Area in particular. Marketers are adopting the business practices of entrepreneurs such as lean startup and agile development. For its background check solution, Checkr wasn’t getting the results it wanted from traditional sales and marketing tactics as it expanded into new market segments. They realized they had to think beyond marketing as promoting an existing product. Adopting an agile method of customer testing and rapid iteration, they worked with engineering to rethink the product and bring a “minimum viable product” to market for these new buyers. As a result of this integrated, agile approach, the company easily hit some early 2017 revenue targets with conversion rates that are four times what is traditionally seen in the industry.
The changes happening in consumer behavior, technology, and media are redefining the nature of creativity in marketing. The measure of marketing success isn’t the input, whether that’s the quality of a piece of content or a campaign, but rather the value of the output, whether that’s revenue, loyalty, or advocacy. Marketers of the past thought like artists, managers, and promoters. Today’s marketers need to push themselves to think more like innovators and entrepreneurs — creating enterprise value by engaging the whole organization, looking out for the entire customer experience, using data to make decisions, and measuring effectiveness based on business results.