In the area of creative thinking and idea generation, when you opt for what’s obvious or easy, you’re being “basic”. As marketers and communicators, we operate in a world of screaming noise. But our audiences are getting better at zoning out… so much so, that noise isn’t the problem. Sameness is. That’s why my golden rule for creativity is “Either say something no-one else has ever said or say something unoriginal in an original way.”

It brings me great pleasure and some anxiety to quote fraudster and felon Anna Delvey, but here we are: When you opt for what’s obvious or easy, you’re being “basic”.

As marketers and communicators, we operate in a world of screaming noise. But our audiences are getting better at zoning out… so much so, that noise isn’t the problem.

Sameness is.

With this in mind, I’ve developed a golden rule for my own creativity: Either say something no-one else has ever said or say something unoriginal in a completely original way.

The former is hard, but the latter is less hard. So let’s look at how you might nail the latter.

As a modern idiom, “there’s nothing new under the sun” is often used as a world-weary complaint against life’s monotony. But did you know that it comes from Ecclesiastes?

“What has been will be again /

What has been done will be done again /

There is nothing new under the sun.”

Every journo and newshound will tell you it is nigh on impossible to scoop, and scoop, and scoop, interminably, into the future. And I will tell you, less eloquently, that Naartjie 2.0 is still just a naartjie! But you can say something unoriginal in an original way, when you:

1. Reject the first, most obvious associations

I say lite beer. You say, “meh”.

I say Derek Watts, you say, “solemn”. Or “scary”, if you’re a skelm.

And yet, Castle Lite’s Lite’n Up campaign went with the most unexpected celeb beerbassador I’ve seen (til they get Gretha Thunberg). Infectious, funny, self-effacing, but mostly surprising, Derek is the 2022 version of Cadburys Dairy Milk drum-playing gorilla.

To reach this point during the creative ideation process, you must hop right over your first, obvious, comfortable associations. Think paradoxical thoughts (ever noticed, for example, how walking is sometimes less tiring than standing?). These kinds of thoughts make it easier to arrive at solutions you wouldn’t ordinarily come up with.

Consider seasonal milestones. It’s January. So we can anticipate marketing messages to be dominated by resolutions, trends, predictions, back to school… you can finish this sentence, yes? Then it’s Valentine’s Day, Easter, Winter, Youth Month, Women’s Month, Spring/Heritage Day, Summer/Halloween, Black Friday, Christmas, Year-End, AIDS Awareness. And then we start all over again… Honestly, meh.

Go weird. Singles’ Day (November). World Emoji Day (also Nelson Mandela Day). International Day of the Cat (also SA Women’s Day). Be random. Look for tenuous overlaps that you can work into compelling associations, like Checkers Sixty60’s fabulous punning linked to the sky-high petrol price post Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

To reflect the strain on consumers’ wallets Checkers Sixty60 housed several products under categories titled “Petrol Blues” (profoundly random, since Checkers doesn’t sell petrol or anything vaguely fuel-related). Alongside shamelessly listing its low-cost house brands, Checkers Sixty60 revealed that, according to the Automobile Association of South Africa (AA), it’s cheaper for many South Africans to get groceries delivered via its app than to drive to the store themselves. Surprising. Relevant. Clever.

Combining ideas, like Checkers did here, is a well-known brainstorming technique. But we should all be using it more, because juxtapositions actually open up new creative pathways in our brains and put us on the path to shit-hot ideation.

2. Go back to basics – like the five senses

The recommendation that you use your senses to be creative is something you may remember from primary school, when you were trying to pad those English essays to hit the word count. But it still works, especially when you start big and then go ever smaller.

A client of mine, specialising in retail DIY, wanted to target moms and dads who wrestle with their swimming pool. After all, with the endless cycles of circulation, cleaning, and chemistry it takes only one Joburg storm to destroy even the happiest pool.

So that’s the big idea: the pool and keeping it lekker. Then, they went smaller, to maintenance challenges. Then, to one such challenge, cleaning. Cleaning includes three elements: the skimmer, the brush, and the pool vacuum. Staying with the pool vacuum, and moving to the senses, think about the sound your pool sucker makes when it hits the air…

Yes, that sluuurrppp.

Guess what else sounds like that? I’ll give you a clue: It moves along river beds, sucking up debris and detritus. It’s the slow-moving mammal called the West African manatee. And there, dear reader, began the ideation for a magnificent campaign, centred on the bush, wildlife, and nature – which pool-tormented moms and dads also kinda love, per the data.

Here’s a masterpiece ad based on touch (when you can’t say “breast”, “boob” or even “breast cancer” in your country’s media). And here’s another sound one; a local Coke ad.

A tip on research rabbit-holes

You may already know this, but I’m here to make things easy for you: When you ask your team to “come up with ideas” and you don’t give them parameters, you’re going to get a lot of crap. The very best rabbit-hole has walls. A floor. A ‘ceiling’. It’s narrow. Granted, it may snake into the bowels of the earth, but there’s structure there.

3. Capture even the shittiest creative ideas

Guess what? Shit ideas provide fertile soil for good ideas. But you have to record them, otherwise you can’t improve on them. Recording is a creativity-boosting competency.

“It may seem counterintuitive,” says Peter Rey, but if history has anything to teach us, it’s “that all the most inventive and creative geniuses of the past have…produced a staggering mass of works, irrespective of the domain in which they operated.”

When seeking a new idea, start by observing things around you – the environment, people, pop culture, music, etc. – and write down what you see and what pops into your mind. Free form. Loose. Arbitrary. Then, distill what you have, by looking for patterns and relating them to your message or objective. Obviously, it’s important to stay clear on your main point.

If the flow of ideas starts off slowly, consider the possibility that you’re rejecting potential nuggets because you have a subconscious fear of failure. It’s almost aways better to start with a poor idea, that you can refine, than no idea whatsoever. Get out of your own way.

One of the ways brands have done this successfully in the past is via insane honesty. Think Avis and “We try harder”. (I know, I know, I talk about this campaign a lot.) Here’s a local one: The talking dog, with big Tony Robbins teeth, that made Toyota cool back in 2009. I am certain that particular concept started as an objectively dire idea – or even a joke.

I worked on a similar campaign in 2015, where we anthropomorphised an itchy dog called Rex to sell a tick-and-flea product. Rex began as a half-serious quip by an over-caffeinated creative. But he (Rex, not the creative) smashed sales targets, again and again and again.

Bottom line? There’s probably no such thing as new ideas. But there’s definitely no such thing as NO ideas. Go beyond the logical, to the downright flipping weird. Zoom in and in and in, til you find vivid detail you can help your audience to hear, smell, taste. And write everything down, even the utter bullshit. You can always delete it afterwards.

This article by Tiffany Markman originally appeared on MarkLives on 12th January 2023.