Make creativity your advantage

6 minute read

We Canadians are a cautious people. We are the most insured nation per capita on earth. We like to play it safe. We don’t make ripples. We are a culture of pleasers. Unfortunately, that same tentative approach extends to our creativity.

For the most part, we do solid work. It’s always nice and largely pleasant, but often invisible.

As brands, if we want to make our mark in a world that is largely indifferent to us, we need to embrace courage and throw some calculated caution to the wind. We must accept that creative bravery means charting unknown waters to arrive someplace wonderfully unexpected and exciting.

Especially now. We are entering an exceedingly tough market. Every dollar spent is under greater scrutiny than ever before. Budgets are receding despite increasing competition. Timelines are tightening. And as a culture, we’ve become brand nomads. Our tendency to flirt with whatever’s new is on the rise. So, loyalty is under fire. We are living in an odd era of mistrust. Surveys show that our faith in institutions, companies and government has eroded badly over the last four years. In the world of marketing, six out of 10 do not trust a brand to keep its promises.

It’s a pretty grim landscape. But all is not lost. What should a marketer do? Approach every problem as if it were an opportunity in disguise. If you want to amp up your marketing, you must hyper-leverage creativity in all that you do. This is the time to think smarter, go further and create unabashedly. Ours is the business of ideas, and creativity has the power to fix things – to solve problems. It’s like duct-taping a layer of tangibility to blind hope.

Ours is the business of ideas, and creativity has the power to fix things – to solve problems. It’s like duct-taping a layer of tangibility to blind hope.

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I analyzed some of the most awarded creative from around the world, and the difference between ordinary and extraordinary ideas is stark. Brands that stand out use creativity in wildly diverse ways to make their mark. Here are a few tips from some notable examples.

Make yourself useful

Instead of just nattering about themselves, smart brands are earning their keep by making themselves useful. In France, Purina tapped into that insight. Parisians love their dogs, but they tend to neglect their yearly vet checkups. Purina created Street Vet – a clever dog-friendly street activation. The digital billboard provided an instant health checkup by releasing pheromones to encourage dogs to relieve themselves. The urine was analyzed, displaying clinical results within seconds and flagging potential health issues. It suggested food to address dietary issues (a Purina brand, of course) and allowed the owner to download results to share with their vet. Beyond being remarkably helpful, Purina created a tangible, unforgettable brand interaction.

Purpose is powerful

Studies show that over 70 per cent of us align ourselves with brands that share our social values. In fact, 90 per cent of millennials will actually switch to a brand that supports what matters to them. The causes that matter are several: climate change, hunger, sustainability, racial equality, child poverty and many others. Purpose is a powerful way to define your brand. In fact, Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, believes that brands without purpose have no future.

It is worth noting that brands with purpose have been shown to grow twice as fast as those without.

If you purpose-wash, you will be eaten alive on social media. Purpose must be embedded in your brand’s DNA.

But purpose cannot be mere window dressing. We’ve all seen it done wrong, from green-washing to pride-washing. If you purpose-wash, you will be eaten alive on social media. Purpose must be embedded in your brand’s DNA. It has to be external, internal and long term – the lens through which you assess everything you do.

There are some extraordinary brands doing it right. TOMS shoes gives away one-third of their profits to charity. Warby Parker eyewear donates a pair of glasses for every pair sold. Patagonia is a sustainability-driven brand that repairs their clothes for free to encourage thoughtful, long-term purchase over non-sustainable throwaway fashion. On Black Friday, the infamous day of consumer gluttony, Patagonia ran a full-page ad that said, “Don’t buy this jacket.” They gave all their profits from that day to an eco-based charity and continue to do so every Black Friday.

Leroy Merlin, an Italian home improvement store, moved their free do-it-yourself classes from in store to buildings that also housed charities in need. Learning was tied into giving: customers became volunteers. It was brilliant. It gave back to the community and forged an unforgettable relationship with customers.

These have all become fiercely loved brands, and they’ve done so by looking beyond their bottom line.

Celebrate who you’re not

Diversity matters. Inclusivity is about making all feel welcome, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation or ability. Brands that champion diversity are stronger by any measure, from loyalty to profit.

One of the most celebrated brands in the world, Benetton, set the course with their trail-blazing United Colours of Benetton ads years ago. They acknowledged the AIDS crisis and championed racial, religious and sexual freedom. They refused to be defined as merely the “colourful sweater” company.

Brands that champion diversity are stronger by any measure, from loyalty to profit.

IKEA embodies the democratization of design. Their recent ThisAbles project is the epitome of inclusion. An IKEA copywriter with muscular dystrophy flagged the fact that many of their products were unsuitable for those with physical limitations. The company retooled using 3D printers, making chairs, couches and wardrobe handles that are accessible to all. They also made the open-source designs available for anyone to use for free.

L’Oréal is tackling ageism by including age positivity ambassadors. Their new brand ambassador is 73-year-old actor Helen Mirren. Inclusion is what brands with an eye on the future are backing.

Hack into culture

Since 2017, DNA testing has seen a meteoric rise – over 30 million people have had it done. The reasons are many: some are curious about their ancestry or health; others want a better understanding of character traits. Aeroméxico was looking to encourage tourism from the U.S., but Americans were disinterested. So, they hacked into this cultural trend and created a remarkable retail promo. They developed a sliding scale of discounted travel based on percentage of Mexican ancestry. It was a hit that put Aeroméxico – and Mexico itself as a tourist destination – on the map.


With streaming on the rise and cable TV viewing on the decline, brands are looking beyond conventional advertising. Some have created fascinating hybrids with cinema, art and music. Skittles is a perfect example. They had a $5-million problem: they wanted to make a splash during the Super Bowl but didn’t have the deep pockets. Instead, they cross-pollinated with Broadway and created an anti-advertising musical. They also developed branded swag, a Spotify playlist, a Skittles playbill and a fantastically clever breadth of content. It was a huge hit, with tremendous PR pickup, at a palatable price.

Direct in an indirect way

Welcome to “stealth” direct mail. Glade had a problem. Much shopping has shifted online, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Glade was looking to market a new air freshener, but scent is a physical experience. They aligned themselves with Walmart online. Glade filled the little air pillows Walmart used to pack delivery boxes with their newest scent, thus providing a free “sample.” It was clever repurposing and created unexpected brand real estate.

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Don’t act your age

Connecting with a younger demographic of people who are glued to their smartphones is tough, especially when you want to convince them to read great works of classic literature. The New York Public Library turned to Instagram – one of the fastest-growing social platforms. They translated the books into wonderful Instagram stories, beautifully illustrated, to be read on mobile. Brilliant.

ROE is the new ROI

Studies show that 90 per cent of our decisions are made with our hearts, not our heads. That is why return on emotion (ROE) is the new ROI. Brands that connect emotionally are remembered. Gillette’s launch campaign for TREO, the first razor created for caregivers, shows the truly touching story of a son looking after his aging father. It’s not about the number of blades, nor the smoothness of the shave. It is entirely about a man honouring his dad by handling him with care. Unforgettable.

Wit over wallet

No budget? No problem. Archer is a tiny company that creates home-care products marketed toward men, such as whiskey-scented dish soap. They got around their non-budget by offering a C-league baseball player the world’s largest sports endorsement ever: $3.4 billion. The catch? It is to be paid out over 10 million years. It was a remarkably bold idea that garnered global PR and blew up on social media. Creativity compensated for cash.

As a brand, no one is waiting to listen to your message. That’s why the riskiest thing you can do is spineless work. You need creative backbone.

Backbone is everything

We are a distracted generation. Our attention spans are fragmented by tech and the over 5,000 messages we see each day. As a brand, no one is waiting to listen to yours. That’s why the riskiest thing you can do is spineless work. You need creative backbone. This is the year to be brave. Amp it up. Make creativity your advantage.

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Karen Howe
Karen Howe leads The Township Group. She is a globally recognized Creative Director, consultant and keynote speaker who also serves on the Cannes Advisory Board. As a frequent industry commentator, Karen appears on CTV, CBC, TVO as well as in the Globe and Mail and Strategy magazine. She is an authority on global trends in tech, culture and creativity and shows how trends will shape business in the year ahead by showcasing some of the most awarded creative in the world.Read more by Karen Howe