Inauguration Week as Creative Brief: 7 Things Brands Can Learn

How to both 'dream' and 'do' in this crisis

Joe Biden's inaugural address already seems ages ago, and it's easy just to see it as a bit of oratory, a fleeting thing. But it's worth digging into after the fact because the inaugural address—and the subsequent speeches and actions of the last week—are not just words: They are a creative brief for America.

JFK's brief was a bold, daring challenge to the American people. FDR's brief was a declaration of truth in a time of despair. Others with less iconic initials used it as a laundry list. Last week, JRB (that a thing?) had to do all three—deliver a bold declaration and a nationwide challenge to tackle a laundry list: pandemic and economic woes, climate change, racial justice, extreme division and even the truth itself. 

As you dig into the activity of the past week, what you see is the brief of both a dreamer- and doer-in-chief: a high-minded yet elusive call for unity mixed with a set of priorities and tactical actions that can't wait. No matter your political stripe, this is supremely instructive for business and brand leaders. We perpetually seek that perfect blend of dreaming and doing, of mixing high-minded ideals with tangible action, always seeking to avoid the murky middle—a land where indecision happens.

So how can brands both "dream" and "do" amid the current chaos? Here are seven things today's brands and strategists can learn from the past week's creative brief for America.

Stare down your brutal truths.

There are 400,000 people dead. It's a hard number to swallow. But President Biden didn't shy away from this reality. Rather, he started the week with a 200,000-flag memorial service—a powerful, visual way to acknowledge reality. Companies should take a hard look at their internal programs to make sure they're giving grief a space in this time. But they should also stare down the brutal truths of their business. There is no better time to examine them, be sober about what needs to be done, and start the work of hard work.

Win inside to win outside.

In a reference to Abraham Lincoln, Biden told the country his "whole soul is in it" during the speech. He wasn't just talking to the American people. He was directing that at people inside his administration and government who need to trust his intentions. Today's leaders must be servant leaders, side by side with their employees. Brands won't just win on big media buys or decks on digital transformation. They win by winning over their own people. The importance of stakeholder capitalism and people before profit continues to accelerate, and this president seems to be setting an example for winning the inside first. On a call with new staffers, Biden said, "If you ever work with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect [or] talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot."

Be the opposite. Show stark contrasts.

Four years ago, the word "unity" appeared just once in the inaugural address. The two words most remembered were "American carnage." In Biden's, "unity" came up eight times, with passages like "Without unity, there is no peace. Only bitterness and fury." Today's brands drawing up a post-Covid blueprint shouldn't be afraid to find their polar opposite competitor and create a stark contrast. Not to just gain audience and market share, but to clarify why they belong in someone's day and how they're more useful in someone's life.

Telegraph everything.

The most powerful thing about the past week is that there have been zero surprises. From rejoining the Paris Climate Accord to creating a centralized Covid response, every executive action this past week has been laid out in a clear, matter-of-fact manner. Just look at @potus on Instagram and what you'll find are well-designed lists of actions that are being taken every day. Today's most successful brands telegraph every brand stand and every business move. Why? Because great CEOs and marketers have learned that the dividing line between company and brand is forever obliterated. The bar is high, receipts are checked, and expectations need to be set. In this era, letting your brief show means letting people know where you stand. And that's not a bad thing. It sets an expectation inside with your people and outside with consumers.

Partner young and old.

JFK, the young visionary, had Robert Frost, a poet at the end of his career. Biden did the opposite. He unleashed 22-year-old Amanda Gorman on the world, and she stitched together the most piercing anthem of a generation in generations. Her words should be on every kid's bedroom door and in every classroom. Today's brands can learn from this moment by sharing the microphone with a new generation and partnering with them on the work of this generation, specifically for diversity and equity—in their companies, communications, partners and actions. 

Create a mission framework for creativity.

Biden couldn't solve everything in his speech or flurry of first-week actions. Brands can't solve everything in their brief. So instead of creating a laundry list, brands need to create a prioritized, ambitious framework for the teams to rally around. Biden's is a "four corners of crises" framework—deal with Covid, the economy, racial justice and climate change. Four intertwined imperatives that all tactics can fall under. What are your four corners? What is your 10-year mission? How simple can it be? If your framework is too smart and complex, you'll get no ideas. But if your framework is smart and simple, you'll see how creative ideas will flourish.

Make a path toward total health.

When President Biden speaks about unity, he talks about dignity of a job, dignity of health insurance, of support from a community. Coming out of Covid, health will consist of four pieces: public health, physical health, mental health and financial health. Brands no longer can focus on one-dimensional aspects of health, for their employees or consumers. The most modern brands are developing plans to address all aspects of health. Telegraph them. Communicate on them. And deliver on them.

In conclusion. Make the speech. Get to work. Take a week to set actions and intentions. And be ready to change. Because everything will.

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Chris Cardetti
Chris Cardetti is executive strategy director at Barkley.

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