Traditional brand guidelines are unused and unloved. A study by Lucidpress found that while 85% of organizations have brand guidelines of some sort in place, only 30% are consistently enforced.
Why? Many brand guidelines are ambiguously defined and not enforceable at scale. But changes in the advertising industry over the past two decades have further limited their adoption, including:
According to the Lucidpress survey, 77% of companies deal with off-brand content. But what does “off-brand content” really mean? Marketers across many organizations would have difficulty identifying creative that is “off-brand,” partly because brand guidelines are too often scattered, vague, or – most vitally – not scalable.
Traditional examples of brand guidelines can include many elements, such as:
But brand guidelines can also include a wide range of other elements that tend to be more difficult to codify, much less incorporate, even if they’re still essential to brand building. These tricky elements can include purpose statements, core values, brand voice, etc.
Not adopted and unenforced brand guidelines are one of the key contributing factors to the current crisis in creative effectiveness. How can it be addressed? Successful modern brands are showing it might be a matter of rethinking what brand guidelines are, or what more they could be.
Research shows that the creative is the biggest driver of sales lift from advertising. At the same time, it remains one of the least objectively understood marketing campaign elements. Teams have historically struggled to accurately measure the quality of creative or the impact of good creative, let alone solve these equations at scale or rally around a common framework.
If marketers struggle to ensure their content is high quality, how do they hope to ensure their brand is properly maintained across the growing number of channels they exist on? In their traditional form, brand guidelines haven’t delivered the alignment required to deliver effective, on-brand, and consistent content. So what should marketers do, and where should they start?
Creative-first principles - also called creative excellence standards, creative best practice, creative hygiene or even ‘golden rules’ - is a framework of guidelines applied in creative production to deliver consistently impactful creative (to achieve goals like media efficiency through to brand uplift). Building, refining, and driving adoption of these guidelines in creative production has led to new creative excellence departments and job roles in the past three years alongside a new host of KPIs dedicated to explaining the business impact of their creative.
Many organizations have started this creative transformation journey with improving efficiencies in creative production. It’s no secret that in the past decade the rise of new platforms and ad formats has led to media fragmentation and a subsequent explosion of new content formats that marketers have lost control of. Brands have begun codifying industry-validated platform guidelines like Meta’s brilliant basics and YouTube’s ABCDs (Attract, Brand, Connect, Direct), which have been statistically linked to improved media efficiencies and driving adoption of these across their content production cycle.
This approach is being adopted by category leaders across nearly half of the world’s largest advertisers, but is yet to trickle down to the broader market, leaving an opportunity for creative teams to grab a competitive advantage. These principles de-risk creative decisions and help marketers invest more effectively by analyzing the right creative factors. For example, research by Nielsen found that while adherence to ABCD guidelines resulted in a 31-38% improvement in sales lift and return on ad spend, less than 30% of ads delivered on YouTube were ABCD-optimized.
“Take an average FTSE 500 company,” Anastasia Leng writes, “that company has likely scaled content production 5-10x in the last 5 years. As a result of this speedy content proliferation, over 70% of their creatives are not meeting platform-recommended creative best practices - logo usage, product framing, usage of supers and subtitles, and more. Together, these creative ‘first principles’ make up something called the Creative Quality Score, a KPI that has been statistically linked to improved media efficiency, like cheaper CPMs and Cost-per-Completed-View.”
Standards of excellence are flexible by nature. Different organizations will inherently define them in their own ways, but there are some baseline best practices marketers can begin with. The best way marketers can overcome any complexity that might bleed into the process of defining, scaling, and maintaining their standards of excellence is to keep things simple. The first goal in this journey is behavior change.
“You know it when you see it,” as a barometer of Creative Quality, has typically been decided by the most senior person in the room. Creative data can help check marketers’ bias, closing the empathy gap between them and their consumers to deliver more relevant and effective creative work. Measuring Creative Quality pre-flight and in-flight provides, in the words of Heineken's Sander Bosch, "an impartial machine that looks at performance related to business impact, and that introduces some sort of objectivity."
Large brands (especially those overseeing numerous sub-brands) have much to account for and manage. In order for this endeavor to be successful, simplicity is key.
Marketers should start by identifying a select few creative drivers that work hardest for their brands and scale those. These will set boundaries around the proverbial sandboxes within which their marketers are empowered to take risks and experiment.
“Creative best practices are absolutely fundamental because they are proven to work,” said Laetitia Lacour, Global Digital Senior Manager at Mondelēz International. “I mean, we know from our main digital platforms, we work with Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snap, and more on what is working on their platform.”
These guidelines might seem basic, but 20-30% of creative assets aren’t set up to meet them.
Getting the basics right requires mass adoption of these creative quality drivers. Aligning teams around a common language of effectiveness and scaling across the business are essential components – but getting this right will allow marketers to build a repeatable engine for driving efficiencies in their media investment.
Heineken, for example, discovered 15 creative elements that drove creative effectiveness for their brands. To promote adoption and accountability at scale, they reduced this to four key creative elements and mandated them across their entire organization. They took it a step further, by mandating that any creative without these elements would not be allowed into their DAM.
Nail the basics, then innovate for greater effectiveness, efficiencies, and creative learnings.
Take informed risks through experimentation and measure relentlessly to evaluate and optimize. Create a unified system of record to help track and manage creative quality standards. Continually test new creative drivers to generate a larger pool of actionable insights.
Meanwhile, there are best practices that are more objective and unwavering. Major digital platforms each have their own data-driven creative best practices, which marketers can develop and adopt at scale across operations. Experimenting within these guidelines will help ensure each creative is primed to make an impact, every time.
“We start with the fundamentals and get those right. That drives the biggest impact,” said Bram Reukers, Global Smart Creative Lead at Heineken. “We are actually trying to identify these creative multipliers to actually unlock even further how we can drive effectiveness. So there's more to come.”
For this culture of creative effectiveness to take hold, it needs to be tightly aligned with the organization’s key branding objectives.
“Our key objective is driving business impact for our brands,” according to Bosch, Global CMI Manager of Communication Effectiveness at Heineken. “So if you want to decide or determine what the right creative factors are, we need to look back at what is driving the business, what is driving business impact, what is driving sales, what is driving brand? What is driving brand KPIs? So that's ultimately how we determined the key factors.”
The right software will be pivotal in aligning teams around this framework and scaling it across organizations.
“We've developed a two-year roadmap with CreativeX, and with the four key stages,” said Lacour. “So the first one was the audit. The second one was the introduction of the preflight, the third one is to DBAs [Distinctive Brand Assets]. And the fourth one is really to measure the long-term impact on the effectiveness”
As the engine churns, marketing teams will formulate data-informed practices that can be communicated and scaled across the enterprise. These creative learnings applied dynamically and consistently across all teams, agencies, and creative partners, provide a recipe for dependable and measurable excellence combined with innovation and growth.
It also helps ensure standards of excellence are dynamic enough to keep pace with a fast-changing media environment.
“The industry keeps evolving, the creative platforms and media platforms keep evolving, performance changes, and the measurement models keep evolving as well,” says Luiz Barros, VP, Data, Analytics, and Global Media for AB InBev, which took home Creative Marketer of the Year at Cannes Lions 2022.
“What was effective in the past may not be effective in the future,” he continues. “So having a very structured way of measuring not only Creative Quality Score and the Brilliant Basics, but mainly what is the impact of media and creative and isolating them on business outcomes to make sure we understand what is meaningful, what drives results.”
Embedding creative data into the creative process will help creative talent focus on doing what they do best: creating.
"We're freeing the team up to optimize creative and focus on developing more effective content," said Nandus du Plessis, Global Head of Content Excellence at AB Inbev.
Leading companies and creative teams around the world are gravitating toward a new model of brand guidelines, which can be powerfully scaled through a creative data platform. Creative data, or granular data built up from information in and around image and video content, turns guidelines into data points that can then be tracked, measured, and turned into meaningful KPIs that help drive behavior change.
Creative data is a foundational asset in helping make this transformation successful. Without creative data embedded into creative processes, any change will not likely be possible. With advertising unbundling and content proliferating at rising speeds, moving from brand guidelines to creative quality guidelines and other creative excellence levers like brand consistency and representation will flounder.
Brand guidelines are perfectly suited to a world of advertising that doesn’t exist anymore. But that doesn’t mean they should be binned. Rather, they should be subsumed within a broader framework for delivering great creative work at scale.
If you’re ready to take this essential step in your journey toward creative excellence, get in touch with CreativeX today.