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Creativity helps brands find new ways of working and forges better connections with consumers, even during tough times. But what advice do creative leaders have from facing these challenges? The Drum and Adobe brought together a panel of experts to find out how ‘creativity finds a way’.

A fundamental lesson drawn from the past year for marketers has been the ability to ‘break the fourth wall’ with customers and let them in. The pandemic has ushered in a new era for empathy from brands as the customers and businesses travel through the same challenges and emotional journey together.

Grace Astari, creative lead for innovation at Diageo, says, “With us all living in a one-dimensional screen reality for the last year, we became closer to our consumers as a result. We all live fragmented lives and we can all empathize with that. The strategy has been to break that fourth wall between the brand and the consumer and bring in more experience into our products.

“It really is an era for partnership between agencies, communities, cultural players brands. We were able to share the tools and our stances, so to speak, by letting people work with our icon. A big lesson was in letting people reinterpret the role your brand plays in their life, and actually not taking control and allowing people to define that,” she adds.

To be able to collaborate in this way requires a vulnerability, which allows brands to open up to new partners for new opportunities. Bella Bain, sales and creative associate director at IBM worked on an app last year that allowed staff in ICU’s to share information about what they were seeing and doing as they responded to the virus across the world. Without this tool, this information would have been siloed in traditional forms of reporting.

Bain says it was the ability to use empathy for collaboration that brought this critical sharing into a useful tool.

“Who would have thought a designer sitting out of Sydney, Australia, in a kitchen, would be sitting on a call listening to the vulnerabilities of healthcare workers. It was how I could use that empathy, collaboration and facilitation (that we all have) to help come to this idea for a tool. If it wasn't for the pandemic, there was never going to be a collaboration like that.”

Letting go of control was also a theme in terms of the more practical challenges that brands faced this year. With almost all plans for filming cancelled or changed, many brands had to turn to alternative means to find creative content. For some brands that meant UGC or influencer-created content, but for the content that needed to be created in-house, many turned to illustration, re-editing old creative or stock imagery.

According to Michael Stoddart, director, strategic business development, APAC, at Adobe, the trend has been towards an “absolute tsunami explosion of image requirements”.

He cites Adobe Digital Index research which found that 60% of people watched the entire videos once they started them. This, coupled with the necessary use of video conferencing has made people realise the quality of video content doesn’t need to always be broadcast quality.

From an image perspective, he adds, “A lot of our customers have a lot of imagery, they are also just extremely risk averse. It is not just the pandemic, but social matters like Black Lives Matter and, certainly in Australia, there are lots of discussions around women in workplaces. These are a lot of the areas where our brands want to be absolutely sure that the imagery that they're using is appropriate, so we saw a huge uptake in our image collection for that.”

Lego Agency APAC head of creative Primus Nair shares the view that pursuit of perfection, or top quality, in content was a wasted one as the sheer level of content needed meant other factors such as relevancy and timing could drive more connection with audiences than perfection.

“Not to give Covid too much credit but I think one of the things that we have had to learn is that perfection is starting to become solely unnecessary. When we think about the amount of content that we're creating, the lesson that we're learning from TikTokers is that they're not as hung up as we are traditionally about things like production values and qualities. Is there a charming idea in it? Is there truth? Content is not something you keep in your pocket for years and years, somebody consumes it, and they move on,” he explains.

Perhaps the epitome of letting go was discussed by Sagar Kapoor, chief creative officer at Lowe Lintas, who joined the panel to talk about Unilever’s flagship brand Lifebuoy, which found itself at the epicentre of Covid marketing as a major hygiene brand.

According to Kapoor, the brand pivoted early on into being entirely purpose-driven as it knew it had a chance to make a difference in the world. Specifically, the brand suggested in its marketing that people wash their hands with soap, any soap, it didn’t have to be Lifebuoy.

“We put our heads and hearts together to figure out, what do we put out in a crisis like this? We totally focused on purpose in this case for a big campaign that we rolled out in the first half of the pandemic, which was not an advertising campaign, but it was a public service announcement campaign. We gave the message ‘use any soap, not just LifeBuoy’. It was a new area we went into and we were kind of totally honest to the audience,” he adds.

With tools starting to solve for the pain points of a more digital collaboration, and people finding empathy by breaking through the fourth wall, creativity is not only helping brands to survive but it’s thriving. While there will always be a need for glossy perfection in some formats, brands have been offered a pass to experiment and connect with consumers on a more emotional and imperfect level.