Creative slump? What it actually means

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Stuck in a rut? You might have yourself to blame for that.

Any writer can speak to the complex and dark pit of despair known as writer’s block — but of course, that slump is not just limited to writers. Any creator has or will at some point experience a blip in their creative process. For some who are fortunate, the slump is a short-term lapse, a small amount of time grasping for the right words or a new idea. But for others, the lapse turns into a slump, which then becomes a rut, and suddenly it’s weeks or even months before you’ve made any progress.

Creative slumps are usually self-induced

It’s an issue that can plague not just individuals but companies or brands as a whole. But here’s the thing: creative slumps are usually self-induced. They don’t feel that way, but they’re often the crushing result of bad habits that have built up over time and amalgamated in a crushing collapse in creativity.

“It’s just a slump” is not an excuse — it usually means one (or several) of the following:

1) You weren’t ahead of the game to begin with.

Sometimes ideas or products are well-received because they piggyback off of current trends — creators luck into good ideas because they’re essentially doing the same things that everyone else has already done, maybe with one or two little tweaks. It works for awhile, but sooner or later something will happen to shake up the brand landscape, and you realize that you were only treading water the entire time. Take, for example, retailer JCPenny, which was stuck playing perpetual catch-up to other department stores and “reinventing” itself numerous times in the 2000s. Their 2012 rebranding resulted in a 20% drop in sales for the first quarter of that year. The key is starting out fresh and strong, doing and saying the things that no one else is saying. When you spend your entire career treading water, odds are low that you’ll magically start to soar when times get rough.

2) You have tunnel vision.

Creativity is supposed to be all about you and your vision, right? In a perfect world, yes. In the real world, there is competition, and you have to pay attention. Observing your competition is not to say you must imitate them — on the contrary, you need to know how to set yourself apart, and to do it right. Last week, we looked at fast food brands who have been losing business to fast casual chains for this very reason. When you’re used to dominating a market, you don’t think you have to sleep with one eye open.

3) You’re trying to reinvent the wheel over and over.

It’s hard to approach the creative process full of energy and enthusiasm when you think everything has to be a Big Idea in order to get people talking. While Big Ideas are great for dinner table debate and grabbing headlines, what builds trust and intrigue is practicality and accessibility. Subtle changes and small improvements that are geared toward your consumers’ needs show respect and awareness. Attempting to always come out with attention-grabbing Big Ideas is like trying to climb a mountain over and over, which is not only too daunting, it can put you out of touch with what your consumers want.

4) You haven’t been paying attention to why people like you.

When Blackberry felt the squeeze of competition from the iPhone, their instinct was to rely on their physical keyboard as an advantage over iPhone’s touch screen — ignoring the evidence that very few people switched to iPhone for their touchscreen alone. That left Blackberry toting a single trait versus its competition’s total package. It’s not enough to know, “They like me!” You have to understand why they like you and capitalize on that. Engage with your audience (it’s not hard these days), find out what they like (and don’t like) about you, instead of playing guessing games.

5) You think creativity is supposed to come spontaneously.

“Waiting for inspiration to come” is just a fancy way of saying you’re being lazy. Inspiration is something you have to go looking for, which means actually being engaged 100% of the time. Very few people actually have “aha!” moments out of nowhere — those “aha!” moments happen to people who have trained themselves to think creatively all the time, to look at a situation and think, “How can I make this better? How can I apply this to my project?” It’s a learned process and one that needs to be trained, not something which merely happens.

Creative Block is Normal

If you’re stuck in a creative rut, it can be difficult to get out of. It takes a lot of sweat to even stay creative, let alone pull yourself out of a hole — which is why you need to start exerting that effort now instead of suddenly finding yourself unable to recover. A little creativity block is normal and happens to everyone once in awhile, but the worst thing you can do is lie back and use that as an excuse to wallow for even a few minutes.

South Park’s Lincoln/McConaughey parody is brilliant

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South Park's parody of Matthew McConaughey's Lincoln commercial was bloody brilliant.

Three years ago, few people would have thought of putting the king of stoner flicks and rom-coms behind the wheel of a Lincoln to boost the car’s cool-factor (okay, starring in the 2011 film The Lincoln Lawyer, which centred largely around a Lincoln car, may have been foreshadowing). But Lincoln was clearly going for cool with their September ad, which featured a slow-talking, sharply-dressed Matthew McConaughey saying he didn’t drive a Lincoln because he was paid to — he “just liked it.”

Bravo to the writing team over at South Park for lampooning McConaughey’s spot in a fashion that was true to their style — starting out as standard jabs before descending to downright absurdity.

Should Lincoln be mad or even care? Probably not. Marketers should have a sense of humour — and if you’re going to hire a popular Oscar-winner with a public persona that is somewhat divisive to sell your product, you know it’s ripe for parody. It’s clear here that South Park is mocking McConaughey himself, not Lincoln.

Not everyone believes that all publicity is good publicity, but in this case it’s all pretty favourable for Lincoln. No one is going to watch this episode and suddenly realize that they hate their Lincoln and never buy one again.

South Park points out something about McConaughey that resonates with many movie and TV watchers: he’s a “fake, soft-spoken douchebag that everyone loves.” And they’re right. McConaughey comes off as insincere and kind of douchey (see: his various acceptance speeches this past awards season), but everyone still loves him. And even this episode can’t make us turn on McConaughey — or Lincoln.

Who wouldn’t want to hire a spokesperson whom everyone loves, even their critics?

Our prognosis: alright, alright, alright.

Throwback Thursday: Oscar Mayer & the golden age of jingles

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Oscar Mayer really knew how to catch us with a jingle.

If you could pick one thing that’s missing from current commercials, the absence of which has truly been a black mark on society, what would it be?

Jingles, right?

Okay, so that may have been a bit of an exaggeration. Jingles were great, but they’ve had their time in the sun, and it’s probably for the best that the days of tiny and adorable children singing out of key about their favourite brand names are behind us. But you have to admit it: the good ones were downright catchy.

Oscar Mayer had quite a knack for jingles in the mid-20th century. First there was the song, “I’d Love to be an Oscar Mayer Wiener” introduced in 1965.

Ten years later lighting stuck a second time with the introduction of a little boy named Andy Lambros fishing off a dock and singing, “My bologna has a first name!”

The commercial went on to become one of the longest-running commercials in TV history. The “O-S-C-A-R” jingle became so ubiquitous that even those of us born long after these little hot-dog-loving tykes left the airwaves knew the songs.

They also spawned numerous cultural references and parodies including this 1990’s Simpsons send-up.

It’s rare these days that commercials actually become such ubiquitous cultural objects, but Oscar Mayer really had it down to an art with these catchy jingles.

Plus, this commercial taught us all how to spell “bologna.”

As a side-note, isn’t it amazing how simple food commercials, especially kid-friendly food commercials, used to be? No bones made about what was or wasn’t in the food, where it came from, what the cows were fed. Food commercials used to have one simple message: “Here’s a food. You can eat it!” So simple, yet so effective.

While the golden days of jingles may be long gone (and we’re not really holding our breaths for a comeback), these Oscar Mayer bits are great examples of everything jingles were supposed to be.

All brands can learn from the fast-casual revolution

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Fast casual inspired selections from U.S. Taco and Wendy's.
Fast food has always been synonymous with cartoon characters, kids meals and grease-stained paper bags full of salty French fries. The thought of going to a client lunch from a place where you pay for your food at the counter or to grab a coffee and study for four hours at a place with a kids’ play-land never really crossed a lot of minds.

The seeds of change in the fast food industry were planted years ago, with the establishing of gourmet-inspired yet financially accessible eats such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. Add in a dramatic economic downturn and a rise in “foodie” culture and you have a recipe for a drastic shift in fast food trends — sophisticated diners opting for those more affordable, fast-casual choices such as Chipotle and Panera Bread Co. As a middle ground between fast food and casual dining emerged, fast food chains quickly realized they had some catching up to do.

What we’re seeing now

The fast-casual “shift” has manifested in a few different ways. Some restaurants have made their menus more minimalist, offering a more customized approach to food assembly. Others have added whole new sections to their menu in an attempt to attract a more grown-up crowd — like Wendy’s and their growing list of “premium,” pub-inspired menu items, their latest being pulled pork, either as the main event or a burger/poutine topper. Other premium menu items Wendy’s has introduced in the past two years include the Asian Cashew Chicken Salad or its Pretzel Bacon Burger.

McDonalds has taken a different approach. The introduction of their new McCafé line of smoothies, espresso and foamy milk came around the same time that free wifi became standard in their stores, which has helped diversify the brand just slightly.

Despite these efforts, same store sales at McDonalds and other fast food chains have experienced a recent decline as fast-casual giants Chipotle and Five Guys grasp at not just the Instagram generation, but the business lunch crowd too.

This past August, Taco Bell parent company Yum Brands opened up U.S. Taco, a fast-casual California haunt with a tiny menu of American dishes with a Mexican twist. It’s all about presentation, as if ready to be snapped on a smartphone camera, and the colourful ingredients give the illusion of straight-from-the-farmer’s-market freshness.

Why marketers should care

There are so many lessons to be learned here that stretch far beyond the realm of deep-fryers and tray liners.

Relying on the status quo and calling it a “classic” is not enough.

But attempting to pull a fast one on your audience and give yourself a partial facelift is not a guaranteed win either. You can’t make a burger joint into Starbucks — you may be able to lure in a few college kids with your reasonably-priced coffee, but unless you want to get rid of your dollar menu and kids meal toys (which you probably don’t want to risk doing), everyone knows that you haven’t really changed.

And no, this doesn’t just apply to restaurants.

Branding is now something that needs to be done with a lot more precision and care, and that precision and care has to be taken right off the bat.

Successful re-branding rarely involves hitting a metaphorical reset switch — look at JC Penny’s disastrous attempt to make their department stores into sleek, Apple Store-like boutiques, or Radio Shack’s 2009 re-naming to “The Shack” in an attempt to skew young and hip when it had been known as anything but for so long. These re-brandings were expensive, with little payoff.

Re-branding is a process that needs to be done artfully and meticulously — with a scalpel, not a chainsaw. So it’s best to establish a brand that you’re confident can withstand the test of time.

Now, it may seem demanding or even unattainable to say, “Create a brand that will remain timeless and relevant in a rapidly changing world.” But it’s possible.

If you’re an entrepreneur or pushing a new brand, you have to ask yourself: is your brand rooted in values that are temporary and trendy, or do they go deeper? Because when hash-tags and irony are no longer the coolest kids in school, the audience will notice when you suddenly pull the old switcheroo. Brands should be adaptable to trends, but not transform every time something new comes along — bend, don’t break. That’s why Chipotle’s image and menu has remained relatively unchanged since the late 90s while Wendy’s have gone through countless transformations.

So yes, you can learn a lot from burger joints.

Don’t be afraid of a little “sadvertising”

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Budweiser's recent puppy ad was wrought with emotion.

Yesterday, we shared one of our favourite commercials from the 1990s: a Bell cell phone ad which was pretty heavy on the sentimentality, not unlike many others during that period. The early 90s seemed to be a golden age of sentimentality in advertising — but years later, irony, cleverness and humour rule the advertising world. Only lately is sentimentality — or “sadvertising” — is seemingly making a comeback.

It’s everywhere — even in beer commercials

While the stories aren’t overt tear-jerkers, many companies have been not only promoting their products themselves, but a sense of togetherness, gratitude and family. Look at the “Share a Coke” campaign — share a Coke with Laurie! Share a Coke with Andrew! Share a Coke with your co-worker! It’s a simple yet adorable gimmick from Coke, whose other recent campaigns include a sweet and cutesy tribute to summertime teenage puppy love and security camera footage of random acts of kindness.

If Coke’s new spots don’t put you in a good mood, maybe Proctor and Gamble’s “Pick Them Back Up” campaign will — it showcases the dedication of the mothers of Olympic athletes. Then there’s Skype’s “Stay Together” ad about friends from across the globe who have never met, but converse every night and talk about their impact on one another. Recently, Budweiser released a powerful video which used the bond of a young man and his dog to urge customers not to drink and drive — yes, Budweiser is literally giving you puppy dog eyes.

Some cynics call it “sadvertising”

Despite the “sadvertising” label, there’s very little that’s actually sad about seeing friends say hello from halfway around the world, a mom cheering on her champion athlete child or a man reunited with man’s best friend.

The jaded among us may see this as exploitative, but it’s pretty hard to not feel touched by some of the messages. And response to these ads has been undeniably positive.

Why do we love this stuff? Why are we so taken in by advertising that is undeniably fuzzy and warm, when for several decades now commercials have had an increasing focus on being funny, clever and quirky?

Quirky and funny aren’t dying, of course, nor are they getting old (just last week we sang the praises of GE’s new commercial featuring a very weird Jeff Goldblum). But there is now more space for emotional advertising to walk alongside the quirky and the edgy.

Why do we love it so much?

It’s obvious that emotional advertising is working better than before, simply due to high standards and advertisers rising to meet those standards. The situations are less contrived and the writing sounds like actual conversation. But there’s more to it than just that.

Emotional advertising is something we need right now. It’s appealing because it offers an escape for those who feel disconnected in our increasingly technology-driven world. These commercials present a version of our world that is free from bombarding headlines and hashtags — and while that may sound a little too “you dang kids get off my lawn,” it’s true that many long for an escape from that world.

Don’t be afraid of your sensitive side

Too many companies want to make the next Old Spice Guy commercial. But sensitivity pays. Don’t think of it as sadvertising — it’s about inspiring.

You don’t need puppies or cheesy songs and you don’t need to make people cry. For some products, that just doesn’t work.

But you should ask yourself: how does your product or service bridge the gap between the world we live in and the world we want to live in?

Maybe you want to live in a world where people share more — so figure out how you can relate your product to sharing. Maybe you dream of a world with more equality and justice, so your ad should show how your product can be a part of that achievement. Maybe you just want to see a world where people are happier — so you need to let your audience see that your product can inspire people to dance down the sidewalk and smile at strangers.

Don’t think it’s absurd to believe that a can of soda can inspire people to share or help random strangers. If you can take your product and use it as a bridge between the way things are and the way things should be and really, truly believe it, then you’re doing emotional advertising right.

Throwback Thursday: Bell Mobility

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Remember the scene in Dumb and Dumber where Harry and Lloyd are watching TV in the hotel and they become overcome with emotion from watching a long distance phone commercial that they begin bawling?

The scene is hilarious, but for those of us who watched a lot of TV in the 90s, it’s particularly poignant because it comes from truth.

The early-to-mid-90s were a golden age for phone commercials — AT&T and Bell would use themes of family and togetherness to emphasize the importance of contact. But this cell phone ad by Bell was probably one of the most genuinely moving.

The minute-long spot feels more like a short film than a commercial, with a narrative that takes the viewer into pretty deep emotional territory.

When the original commercial was released, it contained a more overt sales message, which drew a slew of criticism toward Bell for seemingly using the Dieppe raid as a marketing tool. However, following criticism, Bell re-released the video focusing entirely on the story, re-releasing around Remembrance Day to pay tribute to World War 2 veterans. The reaction was far more positive.

One thing that makes this commercial special is that while it pays tribute to veterans, it does so without sobering statistics about the number of infantrymen who died in the raid or dramatically re-enacted “footage” from the scene. Instead it focuses on the emotion and human connection to the event, and also contains a strong moral to the story: young people should take the time to learn about the sacrifices made by veterans. The mobile phone and long-distance meta-message (you can use Bell to call anyone from anywhere) was subtle, but it was the driving force that carried the commercial along.

All that from a cell phone commercial.

Since the 90s, more and more commercials have had an increasing focus on being funny, quipping and clever. But once in awhile, you need a commercial like this that makes a genuine effort to touch your heart and put a smile on your face.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the return of overt emotion in advertising — what will be the “Dieppe cell phone commercial” of our current era?

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