There is a formula for generating creative marketing ideas. Knowing that will be a great relief to marketing slaves currently surfing the web for inspiration. This article is going to tell you what that formula is. But that doesn’t mean using it will be a walk in the park.
The formula doesn’t just apply to content production or content marketing. It’s applicable across the board, in art, literature, music and any other creative pursuit.
I thought I better write something about this after I was asked to talk to a group of communications students about creativity. The set reading for the tutorial was an extract from a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is a respected psychologist. He devoted a lot of time and thought into trying to explain the mental state of creative people.
But his work, in this paper at least, was inconclusive. Because creativity isn’t a state. It’s an action. Creativity isn’t something you are. It’s something you do.
That’s an important distinction, because it’s where a formula for creative ideas comes from.
What is creative, anyway?
Some marketers are more comfortable with all the other aspects of their job, but get shy when it comes to the creative stuff. They enjoy strategy, and amplification and measurement, because there’s no mystery to it. But when they think of an example of something really creative—a great work of art, or their favourite book—they say, “I can’t do creative stuff like that”.
Because they’re looking at creative work from the point of view of an audience member. They’re remembering that thrill of seeing something they’d never seen before.
But from a content production point of view, that creative work came from somewhere. In fact, you can often pin down exactly where the ideas came from. The ‘creative’ element that makes it new comes from jamming together a couple of ideas that haven’t been jammed together before.
Great creative moments in art, literature, music and cooking
For an idea of how creativity works from the creative side, consider Pablo Picasso. Back in 1907, he was a successful artist who had done some interesting work. But nothing as exciting or interesting as his avant garde contemporaries like Matisse or the Fauves. Picasso’s work was more reminiscent of the Impressionist painters. It was technically good, but it wasn’t new.
Then in 1907, there was a major retrospective of the Pauls (Gauguin and Cezanne) in Paris. It was the talk of the art world. When he wasn’t appreciating their work, Picasso was fascinated by African and Iberian art.
That year he started work on what would become Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It was a painting that took some of the ideas from Gauguin’s work and combined them with tribal art and mathematical principles to create Cubism.
Picasso’s competitors (especially Matisse) hated the painting. But it kicked off a whole new art movement.
That process of joining two pre-existing ideas to create something new is what we describe as ‘creativity’. It’s what Shakespeare did when he combined stories that his audience were very familiar with, to the idea of individual agency. It’s what Bob Dylan did when he combined beat poetry with traditional American folk music. Which was itself a combination of Scottish and Irish folk songs with the rhythms and chord structures of African, Caribbean and Hawaiian music.
It’s what Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal did when they got inspired by the food and chemistry experiments of Harold McGee. They combined ingredients in their cooking that match on a molecular level. That became the whole ‘molecular gastronomy’ movement that still informs the world’s top chefs today.
Creative marketing ideas
All of those examples grabbed attention from people. Not because the elements were new—lots of other artists in Paris in 1907 were interested in tribal art—but because they combined two familiar elements in a new way.
Think of that famous Volvo Trucks campaign from a few years ago. The one with Jean-Claude Van Damme. We’d all seen Van Damme before, and knew he was impressively physically strong and athletic. We’d all seen Volvo trucks driving up a road before—the driving image is so common in car ads, it’s a cliche. But jamming those two together, having Van Damme do the splits between two trucks while they were driving, was new. It grabbed our attention.
Do a Google search for great guerilla marketing campaigns, and you’ll often find a similar structure. A stock market bull statue wearing a nappy. A park bench painted as a candy bar.
The two things jammed together don’t even have to naturally relate to the subject matter. It can be peripheral to the product.
Creativity and attention
Those various creative ideas were successful because they got attention. Psychologists and neuroscientists have done an enormous amount of work into attention over the years. We know what is happening in your brain when you pay attention to something. It comes from a release of dopamine into the neurons in your prefrontal cortex.
But why does your brain release that dopamine in the first place? It’s a basic response to something new in your environment. If you are looking at or listening to something you’ve encountered before, you pay less attention to it. But when it’s a new combination of familiar things, your brain squirts out all that dopamine to give you a chance to focus on this change. To judge it.
Attention is a limited resource. Because your brain is an efficiency machine, it is good at filtering out stuff you know you don’t need to pay attention to. But novelty demands attention.
Creativity and content production
The final important point to make about creativity is it always happens within boundaries. Those boundaries make it easier to recognise what’s new for your audience. A great 3-minute pop song has to go for three minutes. If it goes for 90 minutes, it’s not a pop song. Just a really repetitive symphony.
Similarly, the wonderful creativity of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came from the fact that it was written as a radio play. The absence of any visual cues for showing ideas freed Douglas Adams up to come up with ideas like the infinite improbability drive, or a hero with two heads.
The boundaries for a creative marketing campaign are its goals and your strategy. Those goals, and your strategy for getting to them, limit your creativity. Those limits give it focus.
Creativity is something you do, not something you are. To say, “I can’t generate creative marketing ideas because I’m not a creative person” is just avoiding work. Everyone is creative.
The trick with generating creative ideas lies in knowing, first, what you want to achieve from the content you’re producing. Then work within those boundaries to jam together two ideas that haven’t been jammed together before.
You can use your product as a starting point if you like. If your product is a blender, jam it together with the idea of blending stuff you wouldn’t normally blend.
Or use your product’s selling point. If you produce hyper-caffeinated soft drinks that make people feel like they can “have wings”, why not find and promote people who actually do have wings?
The important thing is to keep jamming ideas together until something excites you. There are an infinite number of ideas, and infinite number of combinations.
One of them is going to take your content marketing to the next level.