Writing creative briefs doesn’t have to be a drag.

In fact, your most creative work can happen in this planning phase. Do your work well here, and the actual creation should go a lot smoother and faster, in addition to producing a more strategically sound product.

In this post, you will learn:

  • What a creative brief is
  • What they’re used for
  • Why they’re beneficial

At the end, I’ll walk you through a template for a typical creative brief. When you’re done, you’ll have the outline of a creative brief you can use for your next project.

Strategy before tactics

Creative briefs are strategic communication plans. They state the strategy behind the tactic—the who, what, when, where, why and how of the assignment.

Creative briefs:

  • get everyone on the same page
  • catch and arrest fuzzy thinking
  • force everyone to discuss and agree on the audience, objective, strategy and message.

Also, they lay the foundation for creative execution. Really, creative freedom. Because once the audience, objectives and messages are set, the creative team is free to do its best work within those parameters. A creative brief should be so well done and self-explanatory, in fact, that you can hand it off to a writer or designer, even if they weren’t around during its development, and expect them to nail the project.

Key components of creative briefs

Here are a baker’s dozen key elements of a creative brief, starting with the big questions you want answered first.

  • Problem: Define the problem succinctly before you propose a solution. What is the issue? A lack of awareness of the product or solution? Poor positioning relative to competitors? Misperceptions about the company, product or issue? Negative associations with a product category?
  • Objective: Once you’ve identified the problem, define the goal (I’m using goal and objective interchangeably here) of this communication. What are we trying to achieve? What do we want people to do? Many communication efforts fail because they have not clarified the objective. Remember the AIDA formula: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action. Which of these are we aiming for? Ultimately, you want people to take action. But you can’t measure your success unless you define your goal now.
  • Solution: What tactic do we propose? Is this a brochure for a tradeshow, a blog post, a web banner, a print ad? Why is this the best tactic?
  • Audience: Who are we talking to? Go beyond demographics. Understand their values. What are their problems? What are their dreams? Are you talking to Generation X? Millennials? Boomers? Where are they on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? The more you know about the way your prospects think, believe and feel, the better you can reach them.
  • Current Positioning: What does the prospect currently think or believe about the product, service or idea? Don’t know? Don’t guess. Remember, you don’t position yourself. Customers do. So do the research and find out what your customers really think.
  • Desired Positioning: What shift in attitudes or perceptions are we hoping to achieve? It’s okay to aspire to an ideal. But if the gap between reality and perception is too great, that static you hear will be your customer’s cognitive dissonance.
  • Key Takeaway: What is the single, most persuasive idea to achieve the objective? Say it in one sentence from the customer’s point of view.
  • Features and benefits: What makes the product, service or idea unique? More importantly, why do those matter to the customer? You must answer the WIIFM question: What’s in it for me? For example, utilities are not really selling energy efficiency; they’re selling home comfort, health and safety, and money savings, which will allow customers to feel relieved, smart, in-control, loved, and so on.
  • Support: What are the reasons, research or facts that make the key takeaway message true?
  • Differentiation: Good marketing differentiates you from the crowd. Marketing has progressed from features and benefits to experience and tribal identification. As Marty Neumeier says in The Brand Gap, “selling has evolved from an emphasis on ‘what it has,’ to ‘what it does,’ to ‘what you’ll feel,’ to ‘who you are.’” Nike is a good example. They’re selling an aspirational goal: We’re all athletes.
  • Brand alignment: How will this communication align with the organization’s brand? Use the organization’s brand guidelines or at minimum describe the elements of brand personality you will tap, including the personality attributes (e.g., confident, optimistic, friendly, cheeky) brand voice and tone (e.g., vocabulary, sentence length, person).
  • Metrics: How are you going to measure the success of this communication? Response rate? Clicks? Registrations? Quantifying your results will help you prove the value of your work to your client. And it will help you refine your approach next time.
  • Timing: Key dates and deadlines

Plan the work, work the plan

So you’ve assembled the team, met with the client and drafted the creative brief. You’ve presented it to the client and gotten revisions and approvals. Now what?

It’s time to go to work. Use the creative brief in a brainstorming session to develop concepts. Then tack it to your wall or open it on a separate screen as you write or design.

When the first draft of the project is ready, pull out the creative brief. Did the creative work follow the plan? If not, why? It’s always possible that a brilliant, yet divergent idea may surface while doing the work. But unless the idea solves the problem and meets the objective, it’s probably off target.

But you won’t know if your work is on target unless you’ve defined the target before you start. And that’s the purpose of the creative brief.

What are your experiences with creative briefs? Do you have a different version that works for you? Share your ideas and comments.