“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
That’s easy for a tech whiz like Apple’s founder to say. Personal computing has only existed for a handful of decades, and there’s still so much potential for discovery and innovation. But people have been telling stories since the first caveman told his cavewife, “No, that pelt doesn’t make your butt look fat.”
Don’t get me wrong. Technological breakthroughs and scientific discoveries certainly require a lot of hard work—and just as much creative thinking. But in storytelling, it can often feel as if there are no new tales left to tell, so we must settle for repurposing or reimagining old ideas.
In photography, there is a term for this feeling. Vemödalen is “the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye.”
Yet, an exceptional photographer can still take a uniquely stunning photo of a sunset. Similarly, a creative storyteller can convey even the oldest of ideas in a way that makes people say, “You know, I never thought of it like that.”
For photographers and storytellers alike, the creative challenge is not in creating something new; it’s finding new ways to tell old stories and adding something unique to the conversation. The same goes for content marketers—brand storytellers who must find ways to not only educate and inform consumers, but also surprise and delight them with memorable stories they can relate to and conclusions they wouldn’t have arrived at on their own.
What is creativity, and how do we unlock it?
There are probably as many definitions for the word as there are creative people, but one seems to transcend disciplines: Creativity is, as Steve Jobs put it, “just connecting things.”
Renowned professor and science fiction author Isaac Asimov made a similar argument in a recently published essay penned in 1959 about the formation of ideas. He writes: “What is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item one and item two, which might not ordinarily seem connected.”
In other words, creative ideas don’t just pop into our heads out of nowhere and fully formed. They’re the result of the right people, with the right knowledge and experience, connecting the right ideas in ways that no one else noticed or articulated before. They have the information and intelligence to understand how things work—and the creativity to see how different ideas could work together.
Neurologist Nancy C. Andreasen has spent decades studying the brains of highly creative artists and scientists, including Kurt Vonnegut, George Lucas, Jane Smiley, and six Nobel laureates from chemistry, physics, and medicine. She discovered that creative people are more adept at using their association cortices, the regions of the brain that help us interpret and make use of information gathered and stored by other parts of the brain. As she concludes, “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.”
This is exactly what great content marketers do; they see their products, companies, and industries in a fresh light and use those insights to connect their brands’ stories to customers’ lives.
For example, when you think “maxi pad commercial,” what’s the first thing you picture? I bet it’s the product demonstration, where someone pours blue liquid into two pads (on split screens), then shows how one of them doesn’t leak. Yes, the blue liquid is a staple of the genre, but the new “Like a Girl” campaign from Always doesn’t have the first drop.
Instead of talking about how strong the product is, these videos highlight the strength of customers. Instead of telling young women to have confidence in their feminine hygiene products, Always tells them to have confidence in themselves. The campaign’s themes are what you’d expect from a company like Always—strength, confidence, femininity—but the perspective is something new. The connections these marketers are making are deeper, more empowering, and certainly more memorable. And that makes all the difference.
Making creative connections requires more than just the ability to do so. It also requires a willingness to think outside the box, to sound foolish, to have bad ideas, and to keep exploring them until you end up with something great.
As Asimov writes:
“Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a ‘new idea,’ but as a mere ‘corollary of an old idea.’ It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable.”
But while Asimov suggests unconventional thinkers are the most creative, he offers a word of warning: “To be a crackpot is not . . . enough in itself.”
This is an important distinction. Not all memorable ideas are good. There’s a fine line between creative and absurd, and marketers usually want to stay on the right side of it. Just consider how many commercials have made you ask, “Wait, what was that commercial for again?” I doubt I’ll ever forget the 2007 Boost Mobile commercial featuring a couple riding a tandem bike, with the woman’s impossibly long armpit hair blowing in the wind. Although the cell phone carrier would certainly like to erase it from our memories, they ultimately could only remove it from YouTube.
Then again, I’m sure at least a few decision makers at Geico scoffed at the idea of making a talking lizard the face of an insurance business. And now that reptile is an advertising icon.
The moral of the story is that creative brand storytelling requires both connections and courage. But like all marketing, it also requires companies to know their customers—what they want to see, learn, feel, and experience, and what will make them go “Huh.”
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