10 reasons to work from a creative brief in bank marketing


two young girls lost, looking at map

We’ve talked about this before, but it is so important to community bank marketing that I feel it’s worth talking about again.  Plus, this gives me the opportunity to wax nostalgic about “the good old days” in advertising.

I’ve spent decades  in the ad agency world and over the course of those years, certainly learned a lot. Over those years, I worked in every manner of marketing communication asset, from direct mail, email, and print, to outdoor, television, and radio. Those “early” years – and how “early” they were is really not important to the story?!) were spent working in these traditional media. Later, after Al Gore invented the internet (so I hear), we made that digital transition … to websites, online advertising and social media.

Back to learning a lot. Here is probably the most important thing I learned: That a creative brief, and understanding how to work with one, is essential to building a marketing message, regardless of the medium, regardless of the industry. It’s as relevant to marketing banking services as it is to marketing soft drinks, pizza, or auto insurance.

I also learned that nearly everyone who works in the advertising biz, no matter their paid role, wants to be either an art director or a writer. And, why not? It’s the most fun one can have and still get a paycheck; at least that’s how I looked at it … and still do. Writing and designing social media posts, emails, videos, print ads, radio and television spots, etc. has, and continues to be, the kind of work that everyone, it seems, wants to do.

Many, many times over the course of my career, having completed an ad campaign or a concept for a television spot, I’d be presenting my work to the agency stakeholders when, inevitably, everyone in the room would take on the role of either writer or art director. Headlines and visuals that had been sweated over, often for weeks (sometimes months), were summarily dismissed and now open for discussion with the goal of improving them significantly over the course of a one-hour meeting - and by individuals who had no experience whatsoever in crafting a marketing message.

At first, I was bothered by this. My writer partner and I had labored long in the development of the work we were sharing, and now this committee of individuals was going to make it work “better” by throwing out suggestions and “fixing” it in the fifteen or so minutes that were left before lunch was brought in. As time went on, I grew a thicker skin, resigned myself to this being just another part of the process, and enjoyed lunch when it arrived.

While it’s all well and good that everyone wants to “contribute” to the creative because it’s fun, there’s a part of the process that’s not so fun, but even more important than creative development; the development of the strategy behind the creative: The almighty brief.

Penning a creative brief is the first step in the development of any bank marketing messaging and, by far, the most difficult. The best metaphor for the creative brief is the roadmap, as it serves as a guide that will take a creative project from concept to completion. Take it from me, (after having to write many myself) writing a creative brief is hard work. While it’s tempting to simply wing it on strategy and go directly to creative development — because a brief is so challenging — the results can be disastrous. Without a roadmap, it’s very easy to take a creative project in the wrong direction. The brief serves that very important function of keeping everyone on the same path, which is essential in getting to the desired destination, that being a marketing message that’s truly effective.

In brief, a creative brief is a relatively compact document that sums up the key points that must be considered in the creative development process and to ensure alignment across all of the project’s stakeholders from start to finish. Not only does that ensure the desired outcome in terms of the creative product, but it also facilitates the process, making it far more efficient and cost effective. And, it serves as the yardstick against which the final product can be held, validating the approach that’s been taken and making the judgment of it, well, completely objective.

Easy enough, right. Not quite. You see, there are “deniers” involved in the process who would like to think that judging creative is simply an objective process. (NOTE: These are usually the individuals who are the most opinionated when judging the final product, and the most forthcoming with “solutions” of their own.) Because creative is subjective, in their minds, their opinions about the work are just as valid as anyone else’s, including the professional writers and art directors who slaved over it. But, creative is definitely not subjective. It’s objective. And it’s the brief that makes it so. 

With no diversions or questions, (which you can often encounter when you work without a plan/guide) we all get to our final destination together … and faster, which means saving both time and money. Just as importantly, when we get to that final destination and its time for deniers to take pot shots at the work, the brief can be held up as that road map we were all supposed to follow. At that point, either the work checks all of the boxes, or it doesn’t.  Simple and objective.

Okay, so what goes into a brief?

1: Provide some background/context

Context is critical. Start your brief with a short, concise paragraph of 10 sentences or less (a guideline, not a rule!) that answers questions, according to Hubspot, like these:

  • Has the company launched a campaign like this before?
  • Why is the company choosing to launch this campaign right now?
  • What's happening in the market and how will this campaign respond to it?

2: Deliverables

I.e., what is the team tasked with delivering? This is an easy one! Is it a campaign of print ads, a video, a social media campaign across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn? Here’s where you let everyone know what the expectation is.

3: So, what’s the objective here?

I guarantee you that this is the first question that your creative team will ask. Makes sense, right? What are we trying to accomplish? As with all of these steps, make it concise and specific. How about a bank marketing messaging objective of, say, “To sell more HELOCs"? This is an admirable objective, but it's vague and too broad to measure. How will you measure effectiveness? An objective such as “a 10% increase in online HELOC applications,” for example, is a much better objective. So, be specific. Perhaps you want to grow deposit accounts by 10%. Specificity now will make it much easier to determine effectiveness later.

4: Who are we talking to?

Now, who is your target audience? Here’s where your personas come in handy, providing you with real insight — both demographic and psychographic — into the individual to whom you are speaking:

Demographic: Age, geographic location, household income, education, occupation, ethnicity.

Psychographic: This is how the audience thinks and feels about your brand and the product or service you’re offering. Stage of the buyer journey, personality, lifestyle, social status, activities, interests, opinions, and attitudes are all components of a persona’s psychographic profile. These insights will help you personalize your messaging, giving your audience that much-desired “emotional tug.”

5: With whom are we competing?

Knowing what your competitors are doing is of tremendous benefit here. They’re offering similar products and services, right? How are they positioning them and talking about them? Are they promoting free checking or reduced late fees, for example? Lower closing costs on mortgages? Use data on your competitors to gain insights into what seems to work, and not work, in your space. An effective brief provides the answers to questions like these: Which banks are you competing with? What products and services are they pushing? What are their weaknesses and how can you capitalize on them?

6:  And now, the USP. Unique Selling Proposition

What is your USP or key message?  And don’t say you have several. You can’t. There’s an old saying around key messaging: “When you have more than one, you have none.” The key message includes the pain point, (i.e., the problem that needs solving), how the solution you’re offering addresses that problem,  and the benefits your reader will enjoy by adopting that solution. That’s why this is the most difficult section of the brief; identifying the single most important benefit of your solution to your audience. Another old ad agency adage: Put on your consumer hat and ask yourself this one, simple question:  What’s in it for me? The answer is your USP.  And for a community bank, it could be something like this:  “Bank X is now reducing its late fee charges to the lowest in the area.”

7: How should our message look and sound?

This section addresses tone, manner, and attitude. This is, or at least should be, the easy part.  The tone and voice of your messaging should be consistent with the tone and voice of your brand…which you established already and have been adhering to all this time, right? Is the voice conversational and casual, or formal and authoritative? What colors and fonts should the designer use? The answers to these questions should be found, ideally, in your brand standards guide. Don’t have one?  Better get crackin’!

8: What do you want your audience to do?

You want them to act. It helps, as always, to be specific.  In order to do that, you need a Call to Action (CTA). Here’s where you take your audience to the next step in their buyer journey.  Do you want them to visit your website, or provide their contact information in exchange for a white paper?  Here’s where your marketing funnel comes into play. Are the members of your audience in the awareness, consideration, or decision stage of their journey? Make sure that your CTA aligns with where your reader is in their “buyer journey” so that when you ask them to act, they’re taking yet another step toward your end goal, i.e., opening an account, applying for a loan, or signing up for a webinar. 

9: What’s the timeline?

Oh, right.  After your creative team has asked their first question, “what are we trying to accomplish here?” they’ll probably ask you how much time they have. Not a whole lot of creative thinking goes into this one.  Set a deliverable date, ideally with milestones, and stick to it. PS: Anyone who has watched “Madmen” knows how important it is to give your creative team a timetable and a deadline. Otherwise – and this was still the case well after the 1960’s – those three-martini lunches could very well throw the project off schedule!

10: Get buy-in from everyone involved.

Make sure to get input from all stakeholders and, most importantly, agreement. And do it right at the start; identify all of the stakeholders and make sure they are involved in the beginning and give input, not just at the end, when they want to give feedback. 

Wrapping up…

I’m sure that some of you out there have experienced this in days before GPS and Google Maps.  You’re on a road trip. You’re in the passenger seat. You have one of those fold-out maps that you just purchased at the Sunoco station. You come to a fork in the road. What happens?  You tell the driver to bear right.  What does the driver do? They bear left while telling you that they “know a faster way.” Of course, it’s not faster. In fact, you soon find yourself, well, lost. “Hitting the road,” if you will, with a creative project – and without a creative brief – is much the same. Stick to it and you’ll find your way. Try going without it and you may find yourself lost.

Bank Marketing Center

Here at bankmarketingcenter.com, our goal is to help you with that topical, compelling communication with customers — developed by banking industry marketing professionals — that will help you build trust, relationships, and revenue.  

Our web-based platform puts our client partners in complete control of their marketing production process – and for a fraction of traditional marketing costs. We’re also proud of the fact that we currently work with over 300 financial institutions.

Want to learn more about what we can do for your community bank and your marketing efforts?  You can start by visiting bankmarketingcenter.com. Then, feel free to contact me directly by phone at 678-528-6688 or via email at nreynolds@bankmarketingcenter.com. As always, I welcome your thoughts.