Creative Latitude

About the author

Cheryl L. Swanson, Principal of Toniq

Toniq, a strategic branding and product development consultancy was founded 1999, on the premise of a proprietary Brand Effervescence Visual Exploratory Process™, a compendium of Ms. Swanson’s background in cultural anthropology, consumer trends, marketing and design, and studies of the psychology of symbolism and color.

Ms. Swanson has used this process successfully to launch and reinvigorate brands in a wide range of industries including consumer packaged goods, retail and professional services for Lycos, Kraft Foods, Gillette, Campbell’s Soup, Kellogg’s, Cadbury Schweppes, Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sears, Taylor Made Golf, and Godvia, to create or redefine brand personalities and visual positioning strategies.



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On Creativity by Cheryl Swanson
(From her speech at FUSE, Brand Identity 2006)
Inspiration fuels our dreams; it unleashes our imagination so we can create, so we can think differently… Frankly, all of the practical
information in the world is useless unless we’re inspired to use it…
because inspiration ignites creativity.

And Just What is Creativity?
Creativity is “the ability to be productive, characterized by originality, expressiveness and imagination.” Traditionally, the definition was confined to an overall set of practices called “the arts”, when in reality, humans are creative beings... and “being creative” is a most challenging occupation.

Where Are We Today?
In his 2002 groundbreaking book “Rise of the Creative Class”, the economist Richard Florida asserted that “creativity is now the decisive source of competitive advantage. In virtually every industry, from automobiles to fashion, food products to information technology, the winners in the long run are those who can create and keep creating.”

His thesis is that we are transitioning society from the Information Age to the Creative Age, or Concept Era, in which 30+% of us (up from 15% just 20 years ago) in the U.S. make a living from ideas. That means people in the arts & entertainment, and people in science, engineering, architecture, education,marketing and design.

Florida draws a picture of the 21st century with an ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit, that captures the talents of previously excluded people, the eccentrics, mavericks, and visionaries who were once on the periphery of the culture — “and setting them at the very heart of the process of innovation and economic growth. The creative individual is no longer an iconoclast... but rather the new mainstream.”

Transition Era: A Time of B+ Quality
The operative word Florida uses is “transition.” We are transitioning to the Creative Era. We aren’t there yet. In this era of cultural conformity in the U.S., with its intolerance for too much difference and anything even approaching the margin, we haven’t realized the full expression of the Creative Era.

Two years ago I was talking to Milton Glaser and he said something to me that really resonated (and I’m paraphrasing), that the business of design in the US was just that... a business. That it is, indeed, very professional, very capable, very practiced and practical... but uninspired. I took this to mean in the B or B+ ish range. More science than art, more process than passion, at least at this point in time, and I agree with him.

Why aren’t we at A+ yet, and more importantly, how do we get there...??? There are at least two broad reasons.

Revival of the Fastest
One of the socio-cultural macro-trends that my firm Toniq identified more than seven years ago, when it was in its infancy, Survival of the Fastest has now become one of the main themes that drives our culture. It started when technology became personal and hand-held. When this happened technology became sustenance. Today we spend as much on technolgoy as we do on food (20 years ago the spending ratio of food to technology was 300 to 1). In 20 short years technology has completely changed our behavior, and even the ways we are evolving as species: we’re sleeping less, living mostly indoors, hypertasking.

Creativity tends to be flattened when we are harried, when we need to boil it down fast, get it done, get it good enough, and then move on to the next crisis, to the next item on the agenda, to the next project that must be completed in typical under-budgeted, under- resourced, under-timelined fashion.

This puts powerful pressures on us to deliver without going out on a limb, without tapping the true wellsprings of our creativity, doing just enough to get by. In fairness, speed ultimately disconnects us from the passions that fuel our creativity. One might call it “succeeding by not screwing up too badly.”

Finally, and increasingly frequently, it results in that unenviable state known as perpetual burnout and Survival of the Fastest turns into the need for Revival of the Fastest.

Corporate Process + Processing
Secondly, there is the business of Corporate Process, which consists of the many “helpful” methodologies put in place by corporations to help us succeed, whether we work inside or out, so long as success is achieved without too great a risk to the bottom line.

Flattening creativity and spark, mandating creativity via process and protocols, paying lip service to the need for creativity while actually wanting everyone to think within carefully homogenized formats, templates, and standards, results in consistency to be sure,but is this the way to “win” in the marketplace? I now understand why the garage is such a hotbed of innovation.

A process of innovation, of course, is all about consistency. Corporations use processes because they work and it’s likely, if implemented correctly, to produce a good outcome, about a B to B+ again –good but not great. So how do we get to greatness. Do we cut our way to greatness? Do we committee our selves to greatness?

In considering how to achieve an A+, we must revisit the idea that technology siphons creativity out of the innovation process by depriving us of sleep and demanding ever more speed, which ultimately leads to heightened stress, anxiety, and eventually burnout. The marketing and design world needs to pay attention to the success of slowness in other industries: food for example. The slow food movement proves that taking the pace down a notch or two creates products and experiences of superior quality that many in our culture crave, seek out, and pay for.

As we wend our way toward the Creative Era, more companies like Method are going to crop up and succeed based on true innovation and creative ideas. It’s worthwhile noting what Eric Ryan has learned: smaller companies that have fewer rules generate more creative freedom, and therefore, groundbreaking product ideas and ways of communicating brand messages. Companies within companies can create ‘Swat Teams’ that better focus on creative tasks without bureaucratic distractions. Bigger companies lack the flexibility for fluid, rapid responses to market needs. As ideas navigate the corporate cycle of product innovation, the spark fades.

These are the hurdles the marketing and design industry faces in striving for an A+: big companies are oafish and inefficient when it comes to innovation; our lives, social and professional, are now inextricably linked to our technology, which creates stress and burnout, the enemies of creativity. To surmount these obstacles is difficult because they permeate both the working and leisure aspects of our culture. But who hasn’t experienced a sudden impulse to chuck a cell phone into the nearest trash can? Who knows, one day we just might.

The very idea of protocols, of processes for creativity and innovation, is interesting to ponder...did Beethoven use them? Or Da Vinci or Einstein? How about Eric Ryan, who co-founded method – the cool, new home cleaning/soap company.

Method is a small company that has taken on the corporate behemoths, P&G, Colgate-Palmolive, Clorox, and has made them nervous. Why? They used creativity, and much like Apple, they thought differently about things in the dishwashing category, where brand communications are very “needs based.” They created a brand story through the use of excellent design that activated people’s desires, and actually managed to make dishwashing an experience, elevating it from CHORE to something intriguing.

In a category of “have to buy” commodities method made consumers “want to buy” dishwashing soap. And now they are leveraging this success into other categories. They foster a culture of creativity that is often lacking in “Risk Averse” , “B+ is okay” corporate America.

As method grows it will double this year), Eric is insuring the survival of the creative spirit by creating little companies within the big company. People working on what one might call “SWAT teams of newness.”

It’s time to take method, and other like-minded companies as our examples and make the move wholeheartedly into the Creative Era, to encourage diversity of thought and opinion, to cultivate a bit of craziness and independent thinking, to embrace individualism, passion and talent. These traits are embedded in the foundation on which this country was founded and we need to start re-emphasizing this kind of thinking in our daily lives if we hope to succeed in the marketplace, and more importantly if we hope to reconnect with our humanity, to rekindle aspirations and realize our dreams.

2006, Cheryl Swanson
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