The creative canvas – the key to building a charismatic business

Sometimes people ask me the meaning of my company name, Basic Arts.

It came from the original idea I had for the business, which in essence was to embed advertising-esque creativity and artistry into the very fabric of the company itself, rather than limiting it to external “media”.

Basic = foundational, structural, the bones of the business
Arts = creative flair

As an example consider the way that Hiut Denim have their seamstresses sign their name on the inside of the jeans they put together; or the jokes told by Southwest cabin crew; or the flagship Vans store which is an underground skate park; or the way that Alo yoga clothes come with a subscription to their online class platform.  These are juicy, “talkable” enhancements to these brands which do the same job as a great ad campaign – only they are permanently woven into the operations of the companies themselves.

“Make interesting companies, not interesting advertising” was my way of summing this up.

In recent years I have shifted to focusing more on the strategy that generates these ideas, rather than the ideas themselves – but this doesn’t mean that I’m any less committed to this original idea of embedded creativity than I was before.

Therefore in this piece, I want to expand on it by introducing the idea of the “creative canvas” – an essential tool in building a business like this.

To understand this idea, we first have to be clear on what the role for creativity in a business actually is.

(Sorry to teach you to suck eggs here, but just to get everyone on the same page)

Starting at the top, we must root everything in the realisation that the job of a business – any business – is to deliver value.  There is categorically nothing more to business than this; indeed it is the very definition of the term.  A business is a system that has been designed to deliver value in one form, and to collect value in another form in return.  Any founder who always has this simple concept front of mind is destined to go far.

That settled, we can move down a level to brand.  What is its role?

Obviously, a lot of bullshit is written about this topic (more so than anything else in human affairs perhaps!), however again, like business, it has a very simple purpose: to communicate the value the business is delivering.  That’s it. Communication of value. Anything else is a bonus.

This leaves us with a simple model:

The role of a business -> to deliver value
The role of its brand -> to communicate that value

Now naturally, even if your business delivers tremendous value, that second job is hard.  To do it effectively you need to be:

  • Clear, so people can “get it” in an instant
  • Noisy, because if nobody notices you everything else is academic
  • Viscerally appealing, because, well, people like nice stuff obviously
  • And of course memorable

This is where creativity comes in.  Great brands are those who have used artistic creativity to communicate their value proposition in a manner that fulfills these requirements.

So far this is all pretty standard stuff. Just good tidy branding.  Where things get different is the next level down – where you execute that creativity.

Your canvas.

In the world of traditional branding, the canvas is pretty limited.  It essentially boils down to any “media” which the brand has at its disposal, which typically means:

  • Logo
  • Website
  • Packaging
  • Sales materials
  • Social media channels
  • Bought media (i.e. ads)

These represent the “space” on which you can tell your story, and do groovy creative things.

Now clearly these are important, and should be exploited as much as possible – but the true potential for creative expression in a business is far broader than that.  You can add idiosyncrasies to every single touchpoint of your consumer journey.  You don’t need to be restricted to the “2D” world of images, but can also manifest in the “3D” world of operations.

The process of building your creative canvas is to “map” these opportunities for your own business, so you are left with broad range of spaces where you might come up with and execute interesting ideas.

Imagine for instance if you ran a chain of gyms.  To build your canvas you would need to break down your entire structural operation, assets, and customer journey – anything with creative potential.  E.g.:

  • Where should a gym chain with this proposition be located?  What are we communicating with our geographical footprint?
  • What kind of classes should we offer?  What is in and out of our scope?  Is there a new form of class which we should invent which you can’t get anywhere else?
  • What sort of membership packages should we offer?  How can we get creative in our pricing, our tiers, our cancellation policies?
  • What sort of equipment should we stock?  How should we organise it on the floor?  What should the “flow” around the space be?
  • What about our staff?  What sort of people should work at this gym?  How should they be employed?  How should they interact with our customers?
  • What about our changing rooms?  Should we even have changing rooms?  Lockers, soap, hair dryers, mirrors; do we have a slant on any of this stuff?
  • What secondary amenities should we have?  Things like saunas, cafes, vending machines, lounges?  Is there something most people have which we choose not to have?  Is there something that only we have?

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

All of these things are just as relevant for creative expression as a 30 second ad is – in fact more so, because once executed they continue communicating indefinitely, and more than communicating they actually help deliver on your proposition too.

Every business should go through an exercise of mapping its own creative canvas like this.  What are all the things which you might potentially twist in a branded way?  These then should be “briefed” creatively just like any piece of media, using your strategy as the point of focus – and the resulting ideas should be evaluated in the same way:

Will this get noticed?  
Is it exciting?  
Does it say precisely what we want to say?

Compounded together, the sum of such creatively aligned parts will be a business which glows with such charisma and clarity that traditional forms of branding will become increasingly unimportant

(This is why various brands who do this well, such as Lush, have been able to adopt “no-advertising” policies).

I have used gyms here as an example because they have an unusually rich creative canvas to play with.  Unfortunately not all kinds of businesses are so lucky.  FMCG brands in particular have a few levers to pull in this regard – little more than the product on shelf – hence why they lean so heavily on traditional branding.

The one FMCG brand to have overcome this limitation is Red Bull, who effectively built a whole new business onto the side of their core company with which to express themselves creatively.  This is their genius, and certainly represents one option for brands with a limited canvas.

However, being realistic, such extraordinary lengths are beyond the limits of most of us – so we have to think laterally instead.  No matter how limited your canvas appears, there will be more opportunities for strategic thinking around creativity than you think.

For example, an FMCG brand might want to think about:

Product – It should be an obvious one, but you need to consider how you can adapt your product to fulfil / communicate your proposition more explicitly.  On the subject of Red Bull, they did this beautifully by making their product taste horrible and come in smaller volumes than other soft drinks.  Why did this work?  Because these “negatives” signalled the product’s potency, which amplified their core “energy” proposition.

Format – Most brands come in the same rough format as all their competitors.  But they don’t have to.  Tony’s Chocolonely, despite focusing their messaging on their anti-slavery proposition, actually owe far more of their rapid growth to the usual thickness of their bars.  It seems like a tiny change, but it bought a whole new level of joy and decadence to the category: one which is fast being followed by other brands.

Distribution – Where you are seen has the potential to say just as much about you as any ad campaign.  Look at Oatly; a brand built almost entirelyon performative distribution.  They rose to prominence by pushing their “barista edition” oat milk into speciality coffee shops around the world.  Commercially this wasn’t the heart of the business, but raw sales wasn’t the point – communication was, and they realised this was the most powerful piece of brand building they could do.

These three companies are solid examples of just how much creative brand building you can do outside of traditional media work, even when it seems like you have very little to play with.

We should never make the mistake of siloing creativity into the superficial, secondary parts of our business.  We should never draw a line between the “serious stuff” of the core company, and the “fun stuff” on the periphery.  Great brands are inherently interesting, and need no borrowed credibility from a jazzy ad, celebrity tie in, or viral post to prove that.

Your company should be its own ad.

And, after strategic thinking, understanding your creative canvas is the most important step to making that happen.

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