We Might Not Want Creativity, but We Need It. Just Ask Nike

Afraid of an idea? Look at the brand's recent success

Let's start at the beginning, with an inconvenient truth. 

People often reject creative ideas, even while expressing that creativity is their desired goal. Why? Put simply, anything that's out of the norm—or creative, so to speak—makes us a bit uncomfortable. In fact, a study conducted by Cornell University showed there is actually a negative bias toward creativity. They monitored people's brains when exposed to creative thinking and found that the creative ideas that were shared provoked similar reactions to hearing the words "poison," "agony" and "vomit." 

So that now makes me a chief vomit officer. Brilliant. 

One might ask: If there is a natural barrier to creativity, why do we still need it? As a creative, I could plainly tell you it's because creativity just makes things more interesting. But the real reason is that, when it comes to advertising, creativity makes things more effective. Creative ideas are 12 times more effective than non-creative ideas. That means, to achieve the same results, you would have to spend 12 times more money to promote a non-creative message. I bet I've got your attention now. 

Another reason we need creativity is because, as we all know, consumers are behaving differently—and expecting brands to connect with them in more relevant and unique ways. The decline of interruption marketing, as a result of ad-free platforms (adblock, Netflix, etc.), is forcing brands to find new ways to engage with consumers. The ones who embrace that first, and are open to failing and learning, will be the ones to succeed.

As marketers, both on the client and agency side, we know it's hard to intuitively bet on original and never-before-tried approaches. Original thinking does spark fear. But the secret to success is not attempting to eliminate fear at all—but instead trying to recognize it, then move around it. 

I recently watched the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo about Alex Honnold, a man who climbs the riskiest mountains in the world with no protection. His approach to fear really stuck with me. 

''I've done a lot of thinking about fear," he said. "For me the crucial question is not how to climb without fear—that's impossible—but how to deal with it when it creeps into your nerve endings. You're not stopping your fear. You move outside of it.'' 

There is evidence that those brands which structure themselves to embrace fear, then move forward with brave ideas, are becoming increasingly more successful than their competitors. A perfect illustration of this is Nike. Three different campaigns from the brand have just won major advertising awards by taking the route of fearless creativity. 

Nike's Kaepernick work "Dream Crazy," which won a Grand Clio at Clio Sports as well as the Grand Prix for Outdoor at Cannes, provoked some angry reactions—like shoe burning, product banning from the mayor of Louisiana and even President Trump saying, "Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts." But sticking to their values and pushing forward regardless of the backlash—even knowing they were losing part of their fan-base—has definitely paid off for the brand. 

Online sales grew by 31 percent over the last year, compared to a 17 percent increase in 2017. The company compared 2017 and 2018 online sales and found an increase corresponding with the controversy and release of an associated video ad campaign. And Nike has experienced a $6 billion increase in overall value since that campaign. 

The brand also won a Grand Prix in the Industry Craft category at Cannes for the project "Just Do It HQ at the Church." Based on the insight that Chicago kids weren't playing basketball outdoors, due to the spike of gun violence in the city, Nike converted an old church into a culture and sports center for kids, providing a safe space for Chicago youth to play and train off the streets.

Remember the rule that says brands should stay out of politics and religion? Well, Nike just broke it with those two winning ideas. But they didn't stop there.

Nike won another Grand Prix, in Media, for the campaign "Air Max Graffiti Stores." To launch their exclusive Air Max Models, Nike transformed São Paulo's streets into Nike stores. They illustrated sneakers on the feet of the city's graffiti characters and allowed fans to purchase limited pre-sale only by visiting the decked-out walls and using geolocation to unlock real-life versions of the illustrated shoes on Nike.com. 

This campaign was fearless due to the sensitive cultural context. The city's governor had previously banned new street art, erasing hundreds of pieces and forcing artists to simply update existing works. However, during Nike's project, the governor was convicted for damaging cultural heritage, so the brand decided to resurrect six iconic characters that had previously been erased, now wearing six new Air Max models. 

The innovative campaign proved to be extremely successful, causing a 32 percent sales lift for Air Max. 

I asked Rosana Fortes, digital manager at Nike, about this campaign—and why Nike decided to move forward with its execution, despite all the risks.

"We used to say, internally, that if an idea doesn't give us butterflies in our stomach, it's not Nike. And that's the mantra that drove the approval," she said. "We knew about the risks around geolocation shopping, e-commerce integration and all the complex operations behind launching a very limited and desired shoe model in an unprecedented way. We also knew that graffiti was a very sensitive topic in São Paulo. But even knowing about all of those risks, we got around it, planned everything carefully and acted as the brand demands us to do so: We just did it. And it definitely paid off."

With all this said, we know we naturally reject creativity, but we need it. So how can brands follow Nike's successful approach, get around fear and make brave ideas happen? Here are three steps brand marketers can take to create a fearless marketing environment:

Make risk assessment and management part of your routine. 

Play with scenarios and plan ahead for what can happen. Run pilots, live test concepts, get reactions and adjust before going big.

Follow the 20-80 rule. 

Allocate part of your budget to try innovative approaches, isolated from short-term results pressure and with a clear agenda of stretching and learning.

Stretch your comfort zone. 

Encourage your agencies to think out of the box, and if the ideas don't make you at least a bit uncomfortable, ask for more.

In a constantly changing world, doing the same old things definitely won't work anymore. Consumers expect brands to adopt a new approach and to really stand for something fearlessly, even if that means losing some money. The pressure to justify marketing investments increases every day, and CMOs need to do way more with way less. 

The solution? Increase the impact of everything you do. In a world where 89 percent of all advertising is completely ignored by consumers, I encourage every marketing decision-maker to learn lessons from fearless brands like Nike, face fear head-on, and move forward with original, brave, impactful ideas. 

Ultimately, if being creative takes courage, being uncreative, nowadays, takes even more.

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Moa Netto
Moa Netto is chief creative officer at RAPP in the U.S.

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