Why Research Should Drive The Creative Process

By Ivan Imhoff, Managing Director, House of Kaizen

Marketing, creative and brands teams believe that developing creative is an inspired activity, an often mystical task. The creative development process is frequently driven internally whereby the marketers and brand teams develop their own visions of messages and designs anticipating how it will be received by an audience.

But let's consider a few fundamental realities to explain why in-house brand and creative teams are perhaps not best placed to develop designs, content and storylines whose sole aim is to persuade their visitors to become customers.

Consider first that what we, the marketers, are saying matters very little. What does matter is how our potential customers interpret our written and visual message. This is the first creative process weakness. We subconsciously believe that people understand our message the way we meant to say it - and that rarely ever happens.

Secondly, the creative state is in fact a very scientific one. The creative act is rooted in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. This is evidenced by the heavy usage of the prefrontal cortex when the brain is in a creative state. This is the part of the brain that supports executive functions, decision making and rule building. Hardly a mystical state.

Then consider the third theory of Experts verses Novices - I love this one. Borne out of Pittsburgh University back in 1981, before all this digital stuff, the theory explained that people with expert knowledge and experience resolved scientific problems in a completely different way than those without that same level of expertise. Experts use Deep Thought, using underlying principles to resolve problems, while Novices use Shallow Thought where base knowledge uses underlying features to base their problem resolution.

So how does all this affect the creative design process? How does cognitive and consumer behaviour science come into play in the art, or rather, the science of creative development?

Well, in the world of conversion rate optimisation, we measure success by the increased propensity to persuade a website visitor to convert/transact. In order to increase a site's persuasive ability, you need to engineer your designs, messages and content in a way that resonates with the audience. The most persuasive messages and designs are those that spark the imagination of the visitor. Where his imagination actually completes the message for you in the perfect way to suit him.

The creatives' ability to connect with visitors and turn them into customers relies on four key principles:
  • Depth of knowledge of how your different audience segments process, perceive and interpret your content, creative and messages
  • Mapping what your visitors are thinking, how they resolve problems and the criteria used to make decisions
  • Understanding what a visitor would consider a benefit, and the related emotion that benefit would trigger. That if you could generate a specific emotion, it would turn that visitor into a customer
  • The fourth, and most difficult to swallow, principle is this: what you think is right doesn't really matter. Marketers and brand teams are so imbued with the curse of knowledge that building creative solely based on their audience's psychology and cognitive processes is virtually impossible. It's always: "I think my visitors want this, or don't need that."
The creative design process is changing, the artistic Picasso-like approach is hit and miss. Mostly miss. Sure it leads to amazing, perhaps lucky, creative concepts like the
that sold cars. But for every one of those successes there are hundreds of lame, misunderstood, complex and pointless creatives that just dilute attention, increase cognitive effort and beg the brain to be forgotten, quick.

What marketers need to understand is that we should follow a consistent methodology of creative design anchored in consumer psychology and cognitive science that keeps our opinions at bay. Sure, it's not romantic, and yes, it's actually much more complex than waking up one morning and thinking "Wow! What if we used a cat that thought it was a dog?"

A while ago, House of Kaizen worked with a car manufacturer. This big brand wanted to centre its entire new creative concept on the safety of its cars...and no, it wasn't a Swedish car-maker.

We did the research to get an understanding of how consumers researched its cars, the decision hierarchy and thought process and the associated emotive triggers the cognitive process had. We came to the conclusion that safety was not a primary criteria and that it should not be the cornerstone of the new creative. Think about it for a second - if safety was the primary criteria, we would blow our car budgets on buying tanks. It wouldn't matter if the car slid off the road, or that you had to stop at a petrol station every 50km just as long as the 'car' was safe...

Needless to say it was a very short relationship. The creative concepts and ensuing campaigns did centre around safety - and lasted a matter of weeks.

Currently, the creative design process lives in the Shallow Thought camp. Creative and brand teams are not consumer psychologists nor cognitive experts, yet they still want to solve the complexity that is content and design creation.

Consumer and cognitive research-fuelled creative development needs a Deep Thought approach that only detached and unbiased experts can deliver - independent of preconception and unburdened by the curse of knowledge.

About House of Kaizen:

House of Kaizen is an end-to-end digital marketing agency and global leader in the performance marketing space, with offices in the UK, North America and Africa.

With a focus on conversion planning the business specialises in optimising the entire customer journey to ensure client commercial objectives are met.

The agency works with blue-chip clients such as Coca Cola, News UK, Reckitt Benckiser and Bloomberg Businessweek.