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How to Write a Great Creative Brief – and Inspire Great Brand Design

Lightbulb over strategy notes

“I feel tremendous pressure when hiring a package design agency. I can’t afford to get it wrong,” my good friend, and client, confided recently. Fear – of wasting time and money, of coming up empty-handed – was clear in his voice. Despite decades of successful collaborations with designers, each new project feels to him like throwing proverbial spaghetti against the wall.

As a brand marketer, you want brand design that fits your strategic objectives, and a great package that will propel your brand to the top of the sales charts. Because the creative process offers no guarantees, however, launching a new project, especially with a new agency, can feel daunting.

What if you had a tool that allowed for more predictability in the design process, without compromising creativity? A great creative brief can be that tool. It lays the foundation for results that are strategically on target and inspired.

As Creative Director for my agency, I am both the recipient of client input and the director of a design team. Over the years, I’ve learned how to provide enough guidance to ensure results that are on the mark, while leaving ample room for creativity. The last thing we want is for designers to “turn off their brains” and crank out uninspired work. The best briefs are strategically focused, and invite the design team to engage their creative brains while working towards a clear target.

A well-written brief does the following:

  • Brings project objectives into clear focus for everyone – including you
  • Outlines available assets, “givens,” and strategic goals
  • Creates metrics for evaluating creative options throughout the process
  • Anticipates and avoids potential pitfalls
  • Describes brand challenges and opportunities
  • Steers clear of specific design direction, thereby encouraging your design partner to engage their creative problem-solving skills

Time Well Spent

It’s tempting for time-strapped marketers to skip a written brief in order to get a project rolling. However, this shortcut will cost you time in the long run and may lead to compromises that limit your brand’s potential. Time invested up front in a good brief is time well spent.

Our clients use a variety of formats for their briefs. Choose the format that works for you, but do put it in writing. The written brief is a reference to be used throughout the process.

Components of a Written Brief:

  • List of deliverables
    • What tangible assets are needed – brand name, label, custom structure, closure, etc.
    • Number of SKU’s
  • Schedule – include key milestone dates such as:
    • Sales team presentations
    • Mockups for testing or photography
    • Art to legal team
    • Art to print vendors
  • Brand essence and positioning
    • Core brand values
    • Brand story/ Reason to believe
    • Brand history
    • At least 3 key words and no more than 5 that describe the brand essence. Make them evocative, specific and meaningful.
  • If a multi-tier brand, explain the brand tier architecture
  • Target consumer profile, including:
    • Demographics
    • Psychographics
    • Emotional and functional benefits your consumer is seeking by buying your brand
  • Motivation for redesign (existing brands)
  • What is the current perception about your brand among the trade and consumers?
  • Competitors
    • List of key competitors
    • List of indirect competitors – brands competing for mindshare from other categories. For instance, what might the target consumer buy that meets the same need?
    • Describe competitor strengths and weaknesses relative to your brand/concept
    • How does your brand fit into the competitive landscape now, and where do you want to take it?
    • Chart how your brand fits into the marketplace.
      • Show its current location on the continuum of competitors and where you want it to be.
      • How are we differentiated visually?
      • What do we offer emotionally to consumers vs. the other guys?
  • Distribution channels
  • If available, research on market perceptions about your brand, market opportunity and/or competitors.
  • Brand assets (existing brands)
    • Existing packaging
    • Existing marketing materials
  • Glass molds and/or dielines for current structures
  • Hierarchy of information – what do you want the consumer to see first, second, third?
  • Printing capabilities and budget
  • Production line limitations and requirements
  • Other packages you think work well and why
  • Other packages you don’t like and why
  • Equity elements, if any, we must keep, and what degree of change is acceptable with these equity elements

Yes, it’s a lot of work. And, it can be scary to put a stake in the ground and say with conviction, “This is who we are and what we want to accomplish.” However, what we need from you are clear objectives and points of reference.

If any of the above questions don’t yet have answers, engage your creative team to work with you to define the project goals and parameters in a discovery phase. Investing in comprehensive discovery work up front will yield a superior outcome, and can save money over the long run. You can also download our Brand Essence Analyzer at the bottom of this post – use it to organize your thoughts and clarify your brand vision.

BUT WAIT…. Designers Think in Pictures!

It’s happened to all of us. We think we’ve expressed ourselves clearly, using concise language, only to discover that our intended meaning was not conveyed. We had a clear picture in our mind of what we were describing, and the other party walked away with a completely different mental image. Usually, we don’t discover this until the creative comes back, and it’s way off base. This is the challenge of using words to describe visual goals.

A client may say they want “a modern look and feel.” Modern can mean different things to different people. To some, modern means edgy and of-the-moment. To others, modern means stark minimalism. Still others picture modern as fresh, clean and timeless. Not only does “modern” have many definitions, it’s also a relative term. Design can feel modern within a traditional product category despite having many traditional elements. Similarly, “royal” can conjure images of crowns and scepters to some, while it suggests simply a rich color palette to others. How to overcome this pitfall? Use supporting visuals.

Mood boards are invaluable. The key to creating a mood board or selecting visual references that clarify and inspire, but don’t get taken too literally (and generate look-alike solutions) is context. Provide several images to illustrate each point, and note what about that image the design team should focus on. Is it simply the color? The sensitive typography? Use of an iconic image?

Present visual reference to illustrate the territory you’re describing with your words. Pull from a range of examples – not just the packaging of your competitors. Pinterest is a great resource, as is Google’s image search tool. We recommend including three visual examples for each main point.

Inspire – Don’t Prescribe

While we do need clear parameters, please don’t prescribe design solutions. Your role is to define the problem, and use examples to illustrate the problem and objectives. Our role as your creative partner is to figure out what the visual solution to your problem looks like.

So, I’m not asking you to say, “We want something kind of like X brand’s label.” I’m asking you to tell us, “X brand’s label really works for its audience, and here are the reasons we think that is.”

Information Powers Creativity

A great brief is concise, yet includes the information your design team needs to understand your brand vision. It describes the challenges and opportunities in its competitive environment and the needs, desires and motivations of your consumers.

One worry I hear from clients is that if they are too specific, they’ll stifle our creativity. Not true! Great design is never done in a vacuum. Our ability to provide great creative solutions is directly tied to your ability to define the problem. Ask any creative – without parameters we have nowhere to begin. All meaningful ideation flows from a well-defined challenge.

The more specific your brief, the more inspired we’ll be.
Need help? Click here to get your Brand Essence Analyzer instantly.

How to Write a Great Creative Brief – and Inspire Great Brand DesignSterling Creativeworks
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