Forget Thinking Outside the Box – Who’s Thinking About the Box?

Forget Thinking Outside the Box – Who’s Thinking About the Box?
Joel Newport
August 25, 2014
Lightbulbs overflowing from a box

I was in a meeting recently when I heard the dreaded words creatives hate to hear from an executive: “We need to think outside the box on this…” The “this” he was referring to was the brand of his company. This highlights a common problem for many companies as they search for creative ways to try to communicate their story to their audience – what does “out of the box” look like? It has been my experience that companies who struggle with this have yet to actually define their box. Without that definition and clarity, creative thinking is almost meaningless because it has no context. A creative idea simply for the sake of creative is a shot in the dark. It might be a huge success – but the idea is hinging on luck, not rooted in strategy. Only when a company (and the creative shop it hires) understands its brand and the customers who engage with it can the company look at paradigms and shift its thinking to breathe new life into creative campaigns.

Dove Real Beauty campaign

A good example of this is the Dove Real Beauty campaign. For the longest time, Dove has trumpeted the quality of its product, the benefits of it and how it works, but it took an amazing stat to give the team at Ogilvy & Mather an opportunity. They discovered that only 4 percent of women around the world find themselves beautiful. Now, they could have produced a campaign telling women that if they use Dove, they would be beautiful. But instead, they showed them that they already are. The Dove Real Beauty spot became one of the most shared ads of 2013, garnering over 60 million views on YouTube. This widely successful and smartly executed campaign not only won numerous awards and accolades, it sold a lot of product, a reported $1.5 billion increase in sales. 

Kmart “Ship My Pants” campaign

Now let’s compare this campaign with the social media frenzy that swirled around Kmart with its “Ship My Pants” campaign. When launched, this ad quickly spread on social media, and to date it has over 30 million views on YouTube. Funny? Absolutely. Well produced and executed? For sure. Good advertising? I’m not convinced. While the team at DraftFCB created an ad that took a brand that was almost forgotten and got them back in the spotlight, there is no indication that it actually generated any sales. The campaign represents out-of-the-box thinking that is clever and pushes the envelope, and was very successful for the agency and its portfolio, but that doesn’t make the ad successful for the client. Where I believe DraftFCB missed the mark is understanding exactly who shops at Kmart, or perhaps more important, how to change the habits of a Wal-Mart shopper and turn him or her into a Kmart shopper. It’s highly possible that Kmart’s time has simply come and gone and that no amount of marketing could ultimately cure what ails the retailer, but aligning your brand to sophomoric bodily function humor might be the most telling piece of information on how people view Kmart anyway.

The bottom line is that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is good or effective advertising. As marketers, our goal, first and foremost, is to not only elevate awareness for our clients and their products but to increase their bottom line. If an ad just creates awareness or social media buzz but doesn’t change habits or influence people to take a specific action, then it has failed. The communication piece needs to be more than just “out of the box” thinking. It has to connect with the client’s consumer base to influence behavior and perception. The ad has to ring true to the brand or it will miss the mark and simply become a piece of entertainment.