Published: 23rd Feb 2021

Why every digital challenge is a creative challenge.

As much of digital marketing descends into boring best-practice, creativity is the key to gaining competitive advantage online.

Dave Jones - Senior Strategist

Effective marketing means standing out

Let’s start from the beginning: marketing is about making brands easy to remember and easy to buy. Or, as Byron Sharp famously puts it in How Brands Grow, maximising the mental and physical availability of a brand amongst consumers. When it comes to marketing communications, our aim is therefore to deliver experiences that build a distinct idea of the brand in the minds of our audience so that - when they find themselves in a buying situation - it comes to them quickly and easily.

The key here is ‘distinct’. Good comms should make a brand both more memorable and more identifiable, by either creating or reinforcing the brand’s own unique set of characteristics and associations. To do that, you need to communicate in a way that’s different to your competitors: you need to stand out. Your brand can’t be remembered in a buying situation if your comms are not noticed in the first place or don’t clearly represent the brand that’s being marketed.

So why is so much digital marketing just ‘meh’?

The incredible success of How Brands Grow suggests marketers have bought into this premise en masse, yet when it comes to digital, it seems that we are struggling to put it into practice. You do not have to look deep into the world of digital marketing to find examples of competing brands herding together rather than striving to stand-out.  

Digital advertising

The Google-Facebook duopoly accounts for a staggering 67% of UK ad spend. Brands in many categories are pouring their budget into just a couple of channels, meaning that they all compete to appear in the same, limited selection of in-feed and display ad placements. Regardless of the quality of creative, building a distinct brand in the minds of your audience is going to be an uphill struggle if you only ever appear in the same places as your competitors.   


Search marketing is often thought of as a performance channel so marketers miss its value as a brand touchpoint. There are therefore many categories in which competing brands all optimise their website content towards the same popular search queries, but then go on to answer them in the same dry, anonymous way. Content listed in SERPs might be the first point at which a customer encounters your brand - it needs to work hard to build the kind of connections you want your brand to be associated with. 


If you use Twitter, you’ll probably have come across examples of ‘brandter’: corporate Twitter handles adopting the same ‘hey guys we like memes, too’ tone-of-voice, regardless of which brand they represent or what they stand for. 


Website design

The rapid improvement of UX design and accessibility across the web is obviously a good thing, but marketers should not let the quest to meet ‘best-practice’ conventions come at the expense of a distinct brand experience. On many ecommerce sites, you have to look at the logo to remind yourself which brand you are shopping with. A talented UX designer should be able to deliver a journey that helps people find what they’re looking for, but in a way that no other brand can do.

How have we got here?

There are two strands in the way digital marketing is delivered that have caused this counterproductive herding effect: standardisation and specialisation. 


The vendors that supply the digital marketing industry have a vested interest in persuading as many brands as possible to use a small, standardised set of tactics and tools. Think about Facebook’s ad manager, Shutterstock’s image library or Wordpress’ page templates. They make it quicker, cheaper and easier to market to customers online, but more difficult to deliver a memorable experience that leaves a distinct impression of your brand. Digital marketers have followed the path of least resistance at the expense of effective communications. 


As each corner of the internet has developed its own quirks and peculiarities, an increasing number of digital specialisms have sprung up to help brands address them. A single brand might have separate teams working on UX, CRM, SEO, social media, digital advertising and analytics. These specialists tend to view problems through a channel or technical point-of-view, rather than a creative or brand perspective, and end up optimising for narrow channel metrics rather than real brand growth. 

What do we do about it?

Make the case for effectiveness

Let’s be honest: the reason that many marketers deliver so many ‘me too’ digital experiences is because they don’t have the budget to do anything else. Compared to ATL, digital is still seen as a cheap option and marketing departments are unwilling to invest heavily in creative or production costs for digital projects. That will only change if we can persuade them otherwise. 

Digital marketers - particularly agencies and particularly strategists - need to show budget-holders that falling back on stock footage or re-purposed creative work is a false economy. There is plenty of research out there to show that the quality of creative is the single-biggest determining factor in a campaign’s ability to deliver an ROI. We need to be better at persuading clients that it cannot be sacrificed in the name of cost-saving. 


Quality, not quantity

As digital marketers, we have not helped ourselves by creating the impression that digital is a beast that needs to be constantly fed. We treat social media, blog content and email as channels that need to be ‘reactive’ or ‘always on’ and too often feel the need to churn out poor quality work that does not deliver the kind of distinct experience that helps brands grow. Our budgets would go much further if we focussed on fewer, better projects - and our audiences would probably appreciate it, too. 

Always bring in creative

Finally, we need to treat every brief as a creative brief. Whether the immediate challenge is improving website conversion rates, search rankings, email opens or social media engagement, we should be trying to solve it in a way that only our brand would. That means involving creative and brand marketers, as well as tactical channel experts in every digital project. 


At true, we know we produce our best work when we come together as integrated cross-discipline teams, when we’re able to take a holistic view of the brand and audience whilst applying our digital expertise to the challenge at hand. In doing so, we find we’re able to come up with more imaginative solutions that leave longer-lasting impressions of the brands we serve. 

If you have a digital challenge that deserves a creative solution, get in touch - we’d love to help.