From brand to bland: How creativity gets suffocated at birth
There’s a concept in architecture called the 'parti'. It means the idea that expresses exactly the character of your design. I learnt this from my mother-in-law, who is an architect in New York. She explained it by making a drawing: “Here is the shape of the land. Here is the course of the sun. Here are the other buildings. And this,” she said, making a bold stroke across the paper, “is the parti for the building I propose”.
The word comes from the French word partir, meaning to divide, or split. My mother-in-law is half Mexican and she would express it in Spanish as toma de partido – which means to arrive at a parti, or literally, to take a position.
You need to take a position if you want to design a great building. You need to express a belief. The same goes for all creative work, including advertising in all its forms.
Mini's 'Not Normal' campaign – an example of taking a position
And this is where it can go wrong. Taking a position means standing for something – not for nothing much. It means having an attitude, not bending with the wind. It means accepting you are not for all markets, rather than trying to please everyone.
This is the essence of branding, isn’t it? Standing out from the crowd. Being different. Meaning something. It’s a bit frightening, though, because the risk you run is that you will put some people off. You’ll alienate them.
A good recent example of this was the Mini 'Not Normal' campaign. Mini clearly recognises that its cars are not for everyone – and made a virtue of it. It took a position. It didn’t do it half-heartedly, either. It might well have annoyed the sort of people who want to be normal, who prefer to blend in, and who are unlikely to ever buy a Mini. But it made those who already own a Mini feel good about themselves and it made the car even more appealing to those who want something other than a standard euro-hatch.
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If taking a position polarises opinion, that’s good. Try to please everyone and you’ll end up pleasing no-one. Worse, you will no longer be desirable. It looks like desperation, and that’s never attractive.
And this is what happens too often in advertising. Instead of drawing a parti – expressing a belief, stating a single, clear idea – an exercise in group-think takes place and the result is inoffensive pap.
Our planners recently responded to a client brief by coming up with the following proposition: “Squeeze more out of your savings.” The client thanked us and went away to think about it. They then came back with a small change: “Get more out of your savings.”
One word, but a huge difference. Squeeze is concrete, emotive, suggestive, human and leads to all kinds of creative ideas. Get is abstract, bland, inoffensive and fails to ignite a single thought. Squeeze has a smell to it, get has none. Or it’s air-freshener, at best.
Squeeze takes a position. Get does not. With this one small change, the entire parti has been rubbed out. There is nothing to distinguish the client from all the others.
Never mind, you may say, the creatives will put the idea back in, and come up with concepts that have the emotional power to separate this client from the other brands in their market. All is not lost, because good can refine mud into clay and use it to make bricks, with which to build a beautiful building.
They can, and they do, but they will be subjected to a further test. The client will look at the concepts and admire them but will ask why they can no longer see the proposition in the creative work. “I love the building you have made with these bricks but I can’t see the mud anymore. Did you use the mud we approved?”
At this point, the battle is lost. You will all trudge back to the agency, having promised to come back with ideas made of approved mud, which will be clearly visible. And you only have yourselves to blame, because you let the client erase the parti, so as not to cause offence.
Paul Kitcatt is chief creative officer at Kitcatt Nohr