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Learn to Master the Art of Content Innovation

All marketers aspire to create memorable marketing moments that get (and keep) people talking.

Historically, the NFL’s biggest game of the year has served as a showcase for many of those moments – from Apple’s signature 1984 spot to Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.

Tubi hoped to add its name to that list with its Interface Interruption spot, which ran during the 2023 event. At first, it seemed like an average return from a commercial break, complete with Fox Sports announcers welcoming viewers back to the game.

But some clever visual overlays quickly transformed the screen into an involuntary streamer-surfing experience. It got viewers to stand up (some literally) and wonder if they might be sitting on their remotes. 

It might not be the stuff of ad legend, but in a space dominated by high-powered celebrity cameos and pricey nostalgia-centric stunts, Tubi won the day with innovation. The brand kept it real (perhaps too real?), kept the focus on a relatable experience, and emerged with the water-cooler moment of the game.

Standing out in a marketplace flooded with content takes that kind of disruptive creative vision built on a keen understanding of your brand and its audience.

How can your innovative content experiences captivate consumers? Dr. Marcus Collins, Wieden + Kennedy’s head of strategy, says it starts by factoring your brand’s cultural perspectives into your creative ideation process.

Use a cultural lens to explore new ideas

For innovation to happen, you don’t just need to generate ideas. They need to be the right ideas – ones that fit your brand’s identity, distinguish you from competitors, and are relatable and resonant for your audience.

“You need to build your creative operations around the cultural identity of the organization, and that effort has to start with belief, says Marcus, who recently published a book on the subject: For The Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be. “What does your brand believe? How does it see the world? What is the driving conviction that’s leading you to seek a change?”

Marcus says cultural alignment also can help leaders expand their team’s understanding of their audience – and add a focused direction to their ideation process.

“As marketers, we’re not just creating videos, images, and text. What we should be creating are cultural products – things that reflect our organization’s beliefs and how it sees the world. That cultural product creates a gravitational pull for people who see the world similarly,” says Marcus.

To create that pull, your team needs to understand what those views are. Conducting conversations with your customers is a good place to start. “The discourse between us is how we start to turn ideas into meaning,” says Marcus. Yet, Marcus also recognizes the need to incorporate outside stimuli and diverse perspectives into those conversations. Otherwise, your team might get trapped in their echo chambers. “That prevents new ideas from emerging or new behaviors and processes from being formed around them,” says Marcus.

Reset your definition of innovation

Marketers are commonly called on to fuel their organizations with innovative ideas. The problem is organizations often mistakenly equate innovation with creativity. Though the two concepts are related, they aren’t entirely synonymous.

In a recent blog post, innovation architect and author of Re:Think Innovation Carla Johnson defines the difference this way: “Creativity is the idea of bringing a new perspective to anything and having it add value. Innovation is the process of transforming that creativity into value.”

While one can’t succeed without the other, Carla asserts that failing to recognize and nurture this small yet critical distinction is why many businesses fail to innovate. “Misunderstanding what innovation is and how it looks keeps us from really understanding how to come up with those ideas and operationalize them in a beneficial way,” Carla says.

Distinguish ‘possibility’ from ‘executability’

Innovation starts with ideas. But your team may need to come up with dozens of raw ideas before they home in on ones that are worth developing.

Content teams often rely on brainstorming to generate a steady flow of innovation possibilities. Improv exercises, word association, and mind-mapping are common approaches that are often incorporated into their creative workflow.

Yet, Carla argues that “free-thinking” exercises like this can be problematic. “Marketers tend to go straight into the brainstorming step without having done anything to prime their work. There’s no inspiration to come up with an idea that’s truly innovative,” says Carla.

That can result in ideas that just rehash something you’ve already done. Or, after you start to create, you might discover they’re unrealistic, poorly focused, or difficult to execute effectively.

Consider this as an illustration of those limitations: In the Instagram video below, actor and Aviation Gin’s influencer-in-chief Ryan Reynolds apologizes to NFL fans for failing to develop an ad for the big game. As a remedy, he conducts an impromptu ad brainstorm for next year’s campaign.

Your creative team will likely recognize the improvisational word association technique he uses. But even Ryan admits the resulting idea isn’t great: It has a clever, brand-friendly name but lacks a clear brand purpose and consistency with other initiatives.

It also causes unexpected challenges for the team members who must iron out the legal and technical details.

A better approach is to focus on developing ideas that account for your brand’s approval and implementation process and can be executed as part of a consistent brand experience. Otherwise, you’ll get “nice to have” ideas that won’t get traction within your organization.

Think iteration, not invention

Remember: Your content team’s ideas can be innovative without needing to be wholly original. Uber didn’t invent the idea of hailing a driver – it just made the process more efficient. Airbnb didn’t invent short-term accommodations rentals. It translated the model long-used by hotels, hostels, and independent homeowners, app-ified the process, and created an innovative new business sector.

Marcus likens this to the work of sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who looked at creativity through the lens of bricolage – a French term for creating something new from a diverse range of existing materials.

“That’s hip-hop, through and through,” says Marcus. “Take a sample of this, a sample from that, add new lyrics and a melody, and you have a new song. I think for creators, a bricolage approach can get us to ideas that feel familiar yet fresh.” 

Manifest’s Creative Pushups initiative is a great example. While the agency certainly didn’t invent the concept of creativity exercises, it evolved the format and introduced it into a new setting, creating something fresh and exciting for the content marketing community.

Creative Pushups began as a series of fun brainstorming and free-expression exercises designed to help Manifest’s team members break away from existing patterns and re-energize their ideation process with some personal flair. Each pushup kicks off with a quirky creative prompt, such as “Write the title of your memoir,” “Tell us what the Mona Lisa is looking at,” or “Rebrand Thanksgiving from the turkey’s point of view” (shown here).

Manifest’s SVP of Growth, Mark Kats, says the idea grew out of the need to substitute their in-person brainstorms with virtual sessions at the beginning of COVID. First launched as an internal Slack channel, its popularity inspired Manifest to expand the program onto LinkedIn and invite other creatives in their community to participate.

“As we were reaping the benefits of Creative Pushups for our team, we thought this could be a cool thing to try externally,” says Mark.

The success of the Creative Pushups LinkedIn group got Manifest thinking about other ways to expand their program’s impact. “We’re passionate about bringing creativity and newness to content. But we became really excited about extending that into a different space,” says Mark.

To test that concept, the agency pitched the idea of launching Creative Pushups as a series of mini sessions at Content Marketing World 2022. It took a little convincing – and a lot of logistics work – to translate “spontaneous creativity in a ‘judgment-free zone’” into a presentation-based educational conference.

As you can see from a photo taken at the event, that work included designing a space that would feel more like a vibrant cocktail party than a convention center breakout room: High-top tables and comfy lounge chairs replaced conference desks and banquet chairs. Snacks, beverages, art supplies, and colorful toys inspired creativity, while minimal lighting and upbeat music created a space suitable for enjoyment and exploration.

All that hard work paid off. Creative Pushups was among the most popular and talked about sessions last year, and Mark says Manifest is looking to bring it back for Content Marketing World 2023.

But the program’s story doesn’t end there. Mark says Manifest is taking Creative Pushups out on the road to help expand its impact and influence beyond the marketing arena. “Lots of organizations have internal creative teams that can benefit from activities or workshops that get them thinking a little bit differently about their day-to-day challenges,” says Mark.

That effort kicked off with a sold-out session at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive event. Manifest shared highlights from the show – and details on its latest creative exercises and techniques – on LinkedIn.

Enable “Operation innovation” to succeed

Content experiences can forge memorable, meaningful connections with consumers. But it takes a culture of innovation to sustain and extend those experiences. Learn how to build perpetual innovation into your ideation process.

Join us at Content Marketing World 2023, September 26-28, in Washington, D.C., for more expert advice to create your innovative vision and evolve your content strategy. Learn more here and use promo code CCO100 to save $100 on registration.

With 100+ sessions, your entire team will benefit from the education and inspiration. Discounts are available for groups of 4 or more. Email us for more information.

Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is director of content strategy at CMI. She describes her role as a combination of strategic alchemist, process architect, and creative explorer. Prior to this role, Jodi spent over a decade developing and managing content initiatives for brand clients in the entertainment, CPG, health care, technology, and biotech industries, as well as for agencies and media brands. Follow her on Twitter at @Joderama.