How to Have a Killer Creative Platform

Everyone talks and talks about building a consistent brand and creative platform across channels. But how many of you have actually accomplished this? Would an outsider truly be able to identify your “look” by experiencing a single channel without the benefit of a logo? Would they be able to recognize your brand from one campaign to the next?

Does creative consistency really matter? It sure does — to customers and prospects alike. Would you recognize an old friend if every time you saw him his color had changed and he had gained or lost 100 lbs.?

Celebrities understand the power of their “creative platform,” or the way they look. They know they need to be red-carpet ready for public events, because that’s what fans expect. On the other hand, when they don’t want to be recognized, famous people try to change their appearance, usually by hiding behind sunglasses and headwear.

Your brand — including your catalog, website, stores — is a bit different from a movie star in that you should always strive to make it recognizable to those who know it. While change is good to an extent, some brands change their “appearance” every year, or with every campaign, and that’s way too much.

Why is it so hard to maintain creative consistency? Many blame it on poor integration of channels and management teams and, to some degree, they are right. But the real problem lies within three inherent mistakes:

  • A failure to create a solid brand foundation
  • Not building a creative platform that translates across the channels
  • Poor communication among the stakeholders

In the beginning … a solid brand foundation

Good planning begins with a vision. It’s hard to accomplish any task without a clear plan or an understanding of why you are doing it. The same applies to building a consistent, sustainable creative presentation. In this analogy the “vision” is your brand and its unique and relevant differentiation. At the core is a brand promise and its higher order benefit.

In previous articles, we discussed brand integration and identifying the importance of the brand promise. We explained that the brand promise is articulated by filling in the following sentence: Only (your brand name) offers (a higher order benefit) to (your target audience).

What does this have to do with developing consistent creative? Too often, marketers and creative directors begin their design with what looks good instead of asking “what is right for the brand?” or “what creative elements will best communicate our brand promise and its higher order benefit?”

Creative teams will typically begin with the tactical components — color, type, photography — of a brand. They might even think about copying someone else’s brand because it’s the design du jour, which is a bad idea. How will you be known for anything or by anyone if your own team doesn’t know what you stand for?

The goal of every creative team member should be to deliver the brand promise in a tangible way. The good news is that once everyone understands what you aim to deliver, you can then answer most tactical questions. For example, What should our tagline say? What is our color palette. All creative decisions are tactical, supporting your brand promise and ultimately your brand.

Building a creative platform

Once your team understands the brand, all must work together to develop a creative platform that best supports and proves your brand promise. The final product should be a tangible document that everyone comprehends and, more important, have bought into. The team gets it. They know how to use it and they know how to deliver it to customers.

The document should include as many visuals and examples as possible so that everyone on the team, no matter which channel they work in and whether they are an internal employee or an outside partner, can use it. The creative platform should be a part of your brand manual. It should include as many creative components as possible for every channel. Here’s a quick checklist of some of those components:

Creative platform:

  • Brand components (pulled from your brand manual): Brand language, promise and higher order benefit; logo; tagline; editorial presentation
  • Design components: Color palette; iconography; use of white space; density; copy/photography ratio; use of lines and rules; format; footlines (copy along the bottom of the page); use of “heroes” (images presented larger than others)
  • Copy: Copy tone and voice; use of editorial copy; headline and subhead style and usage
  • Photography: Styling and props; backgrounds and surfaces; cropping; lighting and focus; models
  • Organizational tools: Online — tabs, sidebars, drop-down boxes, search, etc.; catalog — page numbers, category designations, table of contents; retail — signage, store directory, end-caps
  • Internal communications (business cards, stationery, signage, etc.)

A word of caution: While the creative platform is a must for your brand, it does not take the place of human ingenuity. Your creative team should always push the envelope and think outside the box on how they can better promote what makes your brand so special.

We mentioned the term “footlines” earlier. Most catalogs already place the phone number and URL in this location. Why not add a brand-enhancing message? How about including the same message on your constant Web pages? What about e-mails or purchase confirmation e-mails — do you add a consistent message that proves your brand promise?

Communicating to the stakeholders

Who are the stakeholders within your organization? Ideally, everyone who touches any part of the creative presentation, or anyone who ultimately has contact with the customer in any way. While not all of these individuals will have creative input, every one of them should understand what it is you stand for and why you present your marketing materials in the way that you do.

So it’s appropriate to share the creative platform — as well as your brand manual — with everyone within your organization. It’s just as important to share it with those vendors or freelancers involved in the creative process.

Here are a few other ideas for presenting a consistent creative platform:

  • Create a one-page, edited version of your creative platform that the designers can use as a guide and post it on the wall of their working area as a handy reference.
  • Encourage the team to constantly ask these three questions:
    • Will this creative treatment help or hinder in delivering our brand promise?
    • Am I adhering to the established creative platform?
    • How else can I support the brand differentiation — what haven’t I thought of yet?
  • Plan an annual critique of your creative platform. Ask yourself, how are we doing? Can we do better? What worked and what didn’t? Ideally, this should be a part of your annual (or biannual) marketing strategy meeting in which a larger team is present. Never rest on your laurels.
  • Assign a “creative platform guru,” someone who really gets your brand and will review all creative presentations (across all channels), keeping vigil over consistency. Ideally, this should be a creative person who can also spot opportunities.

Why is it that very few multichannel companies execute a consistent, creative presentation across all channels that delivers on a solid brand promise? Perhaps it’s because most companies do not understand the nucleus for building a creative platform: the essence of your brand.

The companies that do understand this concept also realize the importance of evolutionary change over revolutionary change. Your creative platform should evolve as your brand evolves, but never overnight. You always want to improve, but you never want to confuse customers with a radical transformation. That’s why a consistent — and killer — creative platform is key.

Lois Boyle is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a Mission, KS-based catalog consulting firm.

This article was originally published in 2007 and is frequently updated