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Creative Strategy in Integrated Marketing Communications

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The concept of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) makes absolute sense – so much so that novices in the field may wonder what all the commotion is about. IMC suggests that marketers look at the customer first – his or her preferences, buying patterns, media exposure, and other factors – and then expose that customer to products and services that fit the customer’s needs via a mix of communication methods he or she finds attractive and credible. As Don E. Schultz, the late Stanley I. Tannenbaum, and Robert F. Lauterborn asserted in their book, The New Marketing Paradigm, IMC challenges marketers to “start with the customer and work back to the brand.”

Why was this revolutionary? Not because it was a new or controversial concept, but because a whole culture of agencies, in-house departments, and consultants had grown up around the notion of separation for advertising, direct marketing, sales promotion, and public relations efforts, rather than the harmonious, customer-centered planning process that IMC requires.

At its worst, this old-style culture leads to arguments among professionals as to how a media budget will be split: how much for general advertising, how much for direct marketing, and so on. Such “turf wars” have very little to do with what the customer wants or needs. They rely on chauvinistic notions that “my method is better” – that direct marketing is inherently superior to sales promotion, for example, or that general advertising is more refined, and therefore more appropriate, than “pushier” direct marketing techniques.

Because of the paradigm shift required in order to implement IMC, advertising professionals and their counterparts in direct marketing, sales promotion and public relations continue to work to come to grips with this concept. As with other deep cultural changes, intellectual acceptance may long precede the ability to embrace the gains and losses inherent in this new way of doing things. While the evolution continues, this conceptual framework may help creative people to understand IMC and use its tenets to their advantage.

The Four Elements of IMC

Integrated Marketing Communications encompasses general advertising, direct marketing, sales promotion and public relations. Some IMC campaigns feature aspects of all four elements, while others may eliminate one or more elements for strategic reasons. The American Association of Advertising Agencies defines IMC as follows:

Integrated Marketing Communications is a concept of marketing communications planning that recognizes the added value in a program that integrates a variety of strategic disciplines, e.g., general advertising, direct response, sales promotion and public relations and combines these disciplines to provide clarity, consistency and maximum communications impact.

In an integrated campaign, general advertising shines at strengthening brands and brand equity while direct marketing builds relationships and dialogue, and provides the means to close sales. Sales promotion provides short-term buying incentives for both consumers and the trade. Public relations – mainly publicity in this case – offers third-party endorsements and extra reinforcement for the paid advertising messages. None of the four elements is inherently superior or inferior; they all have important functions in an integrated campaign. The campaign should focus on a “big idea” and a graphic look that threads through all four elements. This maximizes the chances that consumers will get the message and then have the message reinforced and layered in their memories without the “cognitive dissonance” that arises from mixed messages or incongruous graphic elements.

The Creative Process in Integrated Marketing Communications

The best integrated marketing campaigns begin with the disciplined application of creativity theory. We all are gifted with the ability to exercise the creative process.

However, optimizing our results requires us to understand and apply that process patiently, and step-by-step.

The Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto said that an idea is merely a new combination of old elements. Take a kaleidoscope, for example. It contains myriad bits of color, forming into many different patterns as the kaleidoscope turns. The pattern is never the same twice, yet it combines all the same ingredients. The Bible says that “there is no new thing under the sun” – only unique ways of relating old elements. Creating a marketing idea, then, is the result of a step-by-step process designed to identify relevant elements and arrange them in new and effective patterns.

Creativity Formulas

There are as many written creativity formulas as there are technique checklists for copy and art. Some of these step-by-step processes come from advertising “creatives,” while others are advanced by academicians through their study of the history of ideas. Following are capsulated version of two such helpful creativity formulas.

1. James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas:  Gather raw materials Mental digestion Incubation Eureka!


2. The late Eugene B. Colin’s How to Create New Ideas: Pick a problem Get knowledge Organize knowledge Refine knowledge Digest Produce ideas Rework ideas Put ideas to work Repeat the process until it becomes a natural habit

A quick read through these idea-generating formulas shows that the basic process follows a predictable pattern: outlining the problem, gathering information, evaluating information, walking away from the problem to let the mind do its work, enjoying one moment when ideas strike, weighing the pros and cons of various ideas, and then implementing the best idea.


One of the most effective resources for idea generation is brainstorming. While it’s possible to “brainstorm with yourself,” most creative experts agree it’s not preferable.

Working with others lets you benefit from different perspectives, experiences, and thought processes, and also builds excitement and enjoyment. Here is a brief, step-bystep plan for effective brainstorming.

1. Identify a specific question that brainstorming will attempt to answer 2. Select a neutral and nonjudgmental facilitator 3. Gain agreement that all participants are to be considered equals during brainstorming, no matter what their usual status in your organization 4. Shake things up with a new location, new space configuration, music, lighting or other elements designed to change perspectives 5. State your question beginning with the phrase “In what ways can we…” and begin brainstorming, with people calling out their ideas one by one 6. Encourage participants to build on the ideas of others 7. Use the resulting “laundry list” of ideas for a later refinement process based on budget, logistics, timing, uniqueness, target market and other factors

Creative Strategy and Positioning

In a good marketing plan, creative objectives and strategies are clearly articulated. And before the first word is written or a single line drawn, the copywriter and art director should accept and understand the creative strategy statement for the job they’ve undertaken. While many agencies and companies employ more comprehensive creative

strategy formats, an informal creative strategy can be used as a minimum
entry point. Such a “simplified creative strategy” must include descriptions of:

The target market – demographics, psychographics, segmentation strategies and characteristics. Smart marketers often discuss both the general target market and one specific prospect – described by name and in so much detail that the copywriter is able to write “one on one” to that person.

The competitive benefit – What your product or service delivers uniquely and meaningfully to individuals in the target market. Ideally this section will also include support for the benefit – sometimes called “permission to believe.”

The objective – In general advertising, objectives focus mainly on informing, persuading or reminding people about the product or service. In direct marketing, it usually focuses more specifically on attracting leads and/or selling products. Sales promotion objectives concentrate on maximizing short-term incentives, while public relations objectives – when they are part of an IMC plan – generally have to do with generating non-paid publicity.

Discipline yourself to agree with your creative partners, clients and/or account people on at least these three concepts, and you’ll stand an excellent chance of delivering creative work that all agree is “on strategy” the first time around.

In addition, a well-written positioning statement helps creative people to focus on the members of their target market with strong and specific messages that answer the

prospective buyer’s question, “What’s in it for me?” You can create a simple positioning statement by filling in these blanks:


Here is an example of a positioning statement using this format:


Creative Concepts in IMC

While some creative strategies and tactics are unique to certain elements of IMC, there are other concepts that apply across the board. These include print ad how-tos such headline writing, layouts and illustrations and tips for readability.

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