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How you can simply become more creative

Creative ideas are vital in many aspects of communication practice, but many people think of creativity as an elusive skill. We see creative artists working, and so we associate creativity with the artistic heights they reach. But artistic creativity is a different skill from business creativity – anyone can learn business creativity.

What is business creativity?

Creativity is based on ideas. Business creativity is your ability to create as many ideas as possible so you can select the best solution that will help to solve a specific need, problem or issue, which in turn will help to achieve a measurable business objective or result.

Creativity in many people’s minds seems to be narrowly linked to generating ideas or tactics in a brainstorm. However, business creativity is integral to all the processes of communicating strategy, analyzing information and data, or developing and conveying messages to target audiences, according to creativity consultant Andy Eklund, former worldwide creative director of PR giant Burson-Marsteller.

Eklund believes that creative ideas can be generated by combining two ingredients together in the formula:

Goal + concept = new idea

This accords with legendary advertising creative director James Webb Young’s definition of a creative business idea as “a new combination of old elements.”

(I’m delighted to have picked up a copy of his little gem of a book, A technique for producing ideas, published in 1975.) Webb Young’s definition can be extended:

“An idea is two divergent thought-elements brought together to produce a new idea that is fresh and different from original sources.”
(based on Eklund)

“Cook this page”

A great example of this approach to creativity is the IKEA Canada “Cook this page” idea. The traditional way to use a recipe is to read the instructions from a printed or online source, prepare ingredients, and cook as instructed.

Guided by Leo Burnett creative agency, IKEA changed this with the creative idea of printing each recipe on a large page of cooking parchment paper using food-safe ink – and wrapping the food in the recipe page for cooking! Each page displayed drawings of the amount of each ingredient needed, helping people to determine, for instance, how much sauce or salt or chives to add. The size of each item shown on the page was the actual size of the portion. The recipes incorporated IKEA food items and were available in the food section of IKEA stores for customers to take home. The prospective chef just had to fill in the blanks.

When everything was in place, the page could be rolled up and put in the oven with the ingredients inside. The recipe pages were distributed to IKEA stores in Canada where customers could take pages home to use for their cooking. Deliciously simple!


The campaign initiative was promoted in Canadian news and food media before spreading to online media and YouTube. Within 6 months, the search term “IKEA Cook This Page” generated over 4 million Google results.

A ‘Big Idea’ is not needed

The creativity definition above underlines the fact that we don’t need an instant, startling Big Idea for communication campaigns. The need for a Big Idea is actually a Big Fallacy. Creativity is incremental. As an example, 95% of all new patents are adaptations of existing ones.

We all have the ability to create something new by bringing together two or more different elements in a new context, in order to provide added value to a task. The creative idea does not have value merely due to its novelty, but it must produce some form of value that is meaningful to a third party, such as a target audience. Some ad agencies should remember this!

Don’t let creativity spoil your brand

At the same time, the creative idea when implemented must not compromise your brand and its inherent values. This Dove blunder is a good example.

One simple and important risk management step you can take is to imagine yourself facing a hypothetical campaign failure. Ask yourself, “What went wrong?” before the launch activities. This simple step can prevent predictable debacles like the 3-second GIF of a Dove body wash video commercial that went viral, showing implied racial transformation of women using the product. Consumers used social media to slam the ad for being racist. (As usual, the media over-reacted, eg, the headline in the normally staid New York Times shouted, “Dove faces PR disaster over ad that showed black women turning white.”)

The lesson here is that this issue was quite predictable, and Unilever should have incorporated a “What went wrong?” step in this product campaign – and should do it with all its future product campaigns.


Incidentally, the Facebook response by Unilever, owner of the Dove brand, was initially quite tone-deaf. Naomi Blake, the makeup artist featured in the ad, had made some suggestions to the company on Facebook about dealing with the situation, and this was their dumb response, below, completely ignoring her suggestions and trotting out some marketing clichés:


Source: Facebook

The source of a creative idea is not important; it can be triggered and accepted from anywhere. Sometimes, clients and management are against a good idea because it comes from someone they may think should not be ‘creative’ in their role, like a junior executive, a frontline employee or even a family member, so we need to get past that obstacle.

Why are some people with extensive professional knowledge and experience still not creative? The answer is in their flexibility of thought – or lack of it. The ability of creative professionals to adjust their approach when handling tasks distinguishes them from non-creative professionals.

City bus shelters transformed into mini-gyms by Reebok

Here’s another idea in which a traditional concept was changed by adding in a new element.


Competition is fierce among sports brands. To promote Reebok products and address a major community issue of obesity, Reebok commissioned creative agency JCDecaux Columbia to transform 6 bus shelters in Bogota and Cali in Colombia into mini-outdoor gyms for Reebok’s “The Gym is everywhere” campaign.

Bus shelters were prepared with steps, bars and a personal trainer at each location. Participants could also choose to get their pictures taken for sharing on social media. This idea demonstrated the ease with which physical activity can be integrated into the everyday lives of people, and it also set the scene for potential social media sharing.

The fairly low-cost campaign was based on Reebok’s communication strategy of improving people’s quality of life through physical activity (and creating greater awareness and interest in Reebok products, of course).

Obesity is an increasing issue in Colombia. According to a study by the Health Ministry, half of Colombians are overweight and are generally unhealthy. This campaign showed one way to reverse the trend and change the culture.

Within 12 months, this campaign earned 1.5 million Google results.

Ways to unlock ideas

  • Always be curious
  • Define the objective
  • Gather information
  • Eliminate old prejudices
  • Know your target audience
  • Progressively collect little gems of ideas. Plenty of software available to keep such notes, such as Evernote, OneNote, Simplenote, Google Keep, and Zoho Notebook.
  • Analyze the competition
  • Analyze other categories
  • Study consumer trends and cultural shifts
  • Check trends in other countries
  • Investigate idea sharing.

Idea brief

You can use this as a template for creative projects:

  • Project scope
  • Target audience
  • Target insight – capture the ‘that’s just how I feel’ consumer insight
  • The single most important thing: what you want them to think, feel, believe or do
  • Why should they respond this way?
  • Tone
  • Additional factors specific to this project
  • Measurement.

The two case studies in this article incorporate are examples of successful creative ideas you can use as thought starters to develop your own creativity. These examples are not intended to be taken literally; you need to activate you own creative juices to bring your own imagination to life. Look at the IKEA and Reebok cases and review the problem or need, and how the creative approach brought two familiar elements into a new combination to create a solution.

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