The Coronavirus crisis has created one massive accidental social experiment in adland. The crisis constrains and reduces every aspect of everyone’s social and economic lives. And it’s put the creative process and how marketers understand and engage with mainstream life right in the spotlight. Here’s a couple of things that occurred to us when we read about ‘What’s for Tea?’, the new campaign for Birds Eye

Creative constraints

We’ve all heard of creative freedom. Conventional wisdom assumes that working under constraint is a barrier to creativity. But, there’s a wealth of evidence that shows that abundance and freedom can hinder creativity and that constraint or scarcity encourages us to work with what we’ve got and come up with novel solutions

Creative constraint isn’t a new idea. And it’s not all about saving money. The history of art is full of creative people who used various forms of self -imposed constraint to enhance their work. One of the most famous contemporary exponents is Brian Eno who developed his oblique strategy cards with Peter Schmidt in the 1970’s. Each card provided a ‘creative-constraint designed to promote lateral thinking’.  Bowie fans have got this process to thank for his Berlin period. Inspired by Bowie, house51 once gave special edition of oblique strategy cards as prizes at a conference. I’d be lying if I said I used mine every day, but I am glad they are on the shelf!

There are several familiar psychological and behavioural insights that underpin this:

  • Humans (including creatives and marketers) are cognitive misers. We have limited mental and physical energy and are motivated to conserve it wherever possible. As with the famous jam jar experiment that illustrated the consumer phenomenon of choice overload, constraints reduce the creative choice set and help to focus our mental energy where it matters
  • Marketing culture insists on labelling certain people as ‘creative’ i.e. it’s a personality type. This is a kind of elitist dichotomy between ‘Big C’ professional, superpower creativity and ‘little c’ everyday creativity. But the science suggests that environment and situational factors play a significant role for everyone (back to Bowie and Eno designing their creative environment ‘by the wall’ in Berlin). Everyone (yes, even creatives), are highly influenced by social norms. Cultural herding reduces friction and conserves mental energy. Introducing scarcity in the creative environment challenges ‘functional fixedness’. (i.e. using something only in the way it is traditionally or conventionally used).

The pitfalls of abundance are to the fore in Marketing Week’s write up of Birds Eyes ‘What’s for Tea’ campaign:

‘Having the luxury of time and face-to-face meetings can often mean you get lost in the idea, whereas with this process the team could never lose sight of what was important.

Here is Sarah Koppens (UK and Ireland marketing director) explaining how they embraced constraint:

“Because we haven’t had the flexibility of choosing a director and not being able to be more specific about the images, there are areas where – if we had all the time in the world and if we were shooting this from scratch – we’d be doing things differently, but that’s not the environment we’re operating in, we have to be pragmatic and say, what are the really important things here?”

The result is an a warm, down to earth and relatable campaign. It’s one that would certainly fit with the more human and holistic advertising style and ethics of community that our Gut Instinct and Empathy Delusion research with Reach advocates or indeed the right brained advertising that Orlando Wood advocates in Lemon, his new book for the IPA. Birds Eye see ‘What’s for Tea?’ as an ‘ad for the moment’. But it raises an interesting question- what would happen if this creative process was adopted as the norm?…

A dangerous idea?

Many will view creative contraint with suspicion. The risk is that it will be seized on upon by efficiency fans and cost cutters, especially in the inevitable recession we are facing. But, unfortunately, doing more with less will be business reality for the foreseeable future. And we already have powerful and robust evidence that creativity works. (e.g. see Field and Binet).

The science of creative constraint isn’t in conflict with this story. It’s about the diversity of creative practice, being adaptable, challenging our mental models, using the resources available to us to create culturally resonant work. Perhaps the crisis provides an opportunity to create new stories about the power of everyday creativity….