Book Excerpt: Where does the Single-Minded Proposition spring from?

I’ve been writing about the Single-Minded Proposition in recent posts, so I thought I’d continue with an excerpt from the second edition of my book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief2nd edition art. The following is from Chapter 12:

No two creative briefs are exactly alike, but most contain a box that asks for “communication objectives” or “reasons why we’re creating this advertisement.” These two mean the same thing.

A brief also asks for the Single-Minded Proposition (SMP). Sometimes it’s called the key proposition or the One Unique Thing. Whatever you call it in your brief, it must list the one overriding reason why people will or should want to buy your product or service.

So where do you find the SMP? In the short list in Communication Objectives. It starts as a product feature for which you, the brief writer, must assign a product benefit (assuming your client hasn’t done that already).

From there, the Single-Minded Proposition emerges from the product benefits. A product can have hundreds of benefits, ranging from the core benefit that gives the product its singular appeal, all the way to very tenuous benefits that may in fact be valuable but aren’t going to have a significant impact on sales.

For example, it’s hard to argue with the unique design appeal of an Apple iPad. That’s central to its huge popularity. You just want to reach out and hold one. And play with it.

That could be the benefit that turns into the SMP.

On the other hand, my favorite chewing gum comes in a sleeve of 12 pieces. Why not 15? Or 9? Is this particular sleeve size a benefit? Well, yeah, but it’s not terribly significant. And it won’t necessarily effect my purchase decision.

So all product features translate into some kind of product benefit.

They also have the potential to translate into communication objectives, or reasons why we are asked, as creatives, to come up with an ad. However, we’re not given a list of eight or nine or 15 communication objectives.

It should be only three, four tops.

But…

The path from product feature to product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition isn’t direct. It’s not literal.

This spot on the brief is exactly where I think brief writers stumble and over-think things. That’s why I’m a big advocate of using a common vocabulary when you write a brief. It’s a matter of eliminating confusion and inexactness, and finding the right words to describe what you really mean.

I suggest that you use verbs to write communication objectives. (Review Chapter 12 on page 74)

Why verbs? They’re the John Wayne of words. They’re about action. About doing something. And we want our targets to do something: Buy the product we’re selling. John-Wayne-p15

Let’s use Apple again. We know that Apple stands apart in the tablet business because of its clean, intuitive design. I’d argue it’s at or near the top of the list of product benefits.

But I wouldn’t list “cool design” as a communication objective. It’s too vague. It doesn’t tell the creative team what to do about this…coolness.

Instead, I’d rather use a verb to guide the creatives in their thinking. I say “guide” rather than “instruct” or “direct” because as a brief writer it’s not my job to write the ad. I’m the first step in the creative process.

So, what might I say? Romance…excite…thrill (the verb, not the noun)…energize…

You get the idea, right? Keep it simple. Use direct verbs to describe the reasons why the creative team has been asked to write the ad.

The progression looks like this if we’re using the Apple iPad as our example:

Product feature: Uncomplicated, simple design (what the product is)

Product benefit: iPad’s cool makes you cool too (what the product gives you)

Remember: The feature talks to your head. The benefit talks to your heart.

Communication objective: Jolt the target into falling in love (again) with the latest Apple device (what we want the creative team to do)

Single-Minded Proposition: “________________________________” (how to communicate the product benefit that achieves the communication objectives)

(Hey, I know how to do this. You’re the one who needs practice. So practice!)

One tip: the SMP can be off the wall and outrageously over the top. How so? It’s not meant for public consumption. Its purpose is to inspire the creative team. Get their juices flowing. As the brief writer, you get to take the first crack at writing a headline.

So brief writers, arise and be daring. But don’t confuse the product benefit with the SMP itself!

 Do them in your head.

You can write a brief in three simple steps. It’ll take you less then five minutes. Do this once a day, say during your commute to or from work, and you’ll discover your brain will add creative-brief-writing muscle before you know it.

Now let’s try something harder: the object on which you’re sitting right now. A chair.

Step one: identify the features of your chair. As I type this, I’m sitting on a counter stool in my kitchen. My stainless steel and leather stool is comfortable. It’s attractive. It was inexpensive. That’s three features. stool

Next, identify what the benefit is for each feature.

Comfort: I gravitate toward this chair because it’s comfortable, so I like it. A lot.

Attractive: I feel proud of my excellent taste in design.

Inexpensive: My, aren’t I the clever chap for finding something so wonderful and at such a bargain.

Three features, three benefits.

Oh, and guess what. We’ve already found the hardest thing to write on a creative brief: the Single-Minded Proposition. It’s always one of the benefits. Always. The question is, which one?

For your practice exercise, it doesn’t matter. Write (in your head) an SMP for each benefit. I sometimes provide my creative teams with multiple SMPs. When you did as much creative testing as I did, you often need different creative approaches.

For comfort, try this:

 You’d give this chair a standing ovation except you’re too comfortable to get up.

For design, try this:

 You keep a photograph of this chair in your wallet and show it off any chance you get.

For inexpensive, try this:

 If they gave out Nobel Prizes bargain hunters, you’d get one.

Notice that each SMP could be a headline. They don’t have to be good headlines, however. You’re the pioneer headline writer on the assignment. Your job is to write the first one to inspire something better from your creative team.

Now, you try it. Pick everyday objects—a pencil, your bedroom slippers,  your cereal bowl, a coffee mug, your reading lamp. Keep them simple and unremarkable. It takes the pressure off.

Remember: three features, three benefits, three SMPs.

Also remember John Hegarty’s rule that the proposition is the first ad for the creative team. So don’t be lazy. This is a test.

Be pithy. Be clever. Be succinct.

Before you know it, SMPs will become second nature to you.

Write a killer single-minded proposition in 4 steps.

(Re-posted from April 6, 2015: This essay is by far my most popular, most read, most Googled blog post to date. I bring it back to give you another opportunity to read it. I’ve made some minor updates, but it is otherwise the same content as the original four months ago.)

When I was a kid back in my hometown of Milwaukee, I loved basketball. Around the age of 13 I attended a week-long basketball camp hosted by the legendary coach of the 4641939331_0fee32dc15Marquette Warriors, Al McGuire. Coach McGuire put us through drills morning and afternoon before we had scrimmages after dinner.

It was grueling work, but when you’re a kid, it was just plain fun. Non-stop basketball. I loved it.

Looking back on that experience, I understand why we spent so much time practicing fundamentals: dribbling, layups, free-throws, jump shots. And running. Back and forth. Back and forth. I can still hear the sounds of pounding feet and squeaky sneakers on the polished hardwood courts.

These days, I teach Freshman English at community college in Los Angeles, which means I teach students about how to write an essay. If you think back to your days as a student, you might recall that the hardest part of an essay was the thesis statement. After more than 25 years as an ad copywriter and creative director, reading and working from creative briefs, the first thing I discovered about teaching students how to write a thesis statement was the remarkable similarity between it and the creative brief’s most challenging box:

The Single-Minded Proposition (SMP).

The essay’s thesis statement and the creative brief’s Single-Minded Proposition (or One Important Thing or Key Message or whatever you call it on your brief template) essentially work the same kind of magic: They tell the reader the point.

In an essay, the point is, What is your argument?

In a creative brief, the point is, What is the compelling reason why anyone wants this thing we’re selling?

It’s the hardest part of the creative brief to write because it carries so much weight. It’s typically the first thing a creative looks at when the briefing process begins. It is, as John Hegarty says, the first ad.

So what can be done to make this impossibly vital and important little sentence just a bit easier to write?

Go back to fundamentals.

Always, always, always: Go back to fundamentals. Whether it’s in sports or college writing, when you return to basics, you return to the things that help you develop mastery. layup-00

The reason why the Single-Minded Proposition is so difficult to write is that, like a thesis statement, it is entirely subjective.

It is an opinion.

Which means it has to express some point of view. And someone may disagree with it.

Don’t be intimidated. The Single-Minded Proposition springs from the product itself, so your opinion will be based on fact.

Here, then, are four basic steps on how to arrive at a good Single-Minded Proposition. Remember, as the first ad, in Hegarty’s words, the Single-Minded Proposition does not have to be great.

1. Identify the product’s most important features.

Every product (or service) has a feature. It is one of the aspects of the product that makes the product what it is. One feature of any Apple product, for example, is the intuitive nature of the software. It is easy to use. It’s why a toddler can pick up an iPhone or iPad and start using it without a manual.

2. When you identify the important features, figure out each feature’s benefits.

In other words, why does anyone care about this particular aspect of the product? Why, for example, does Apple’s intuitive software matter? Who cares? What’s in it for me, the user?

Yes, this is very basic stuff. When you figure out the product benefit, you’re halfway to figuring out a Single-Minded Proposition.

I say halfway because the leap from product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition is not direct. It is not literal.

The product feature talks to your head. The product benefit talks to your heart.

3. One of those feature/benefits will be the compelling reason to make a purchase.

Focus on the word “Single” in the Single-Minded Proposition. No matter what the product manager or senior marketing executive at your client says, the product you’re selling is not a “unique package of features,” a term I have heard repeatedly. The best communications are focused messages telling a story about one thing.

This may require some discussion, but you must agree on only one of the items on the short list of feature/benefits. This one will be your candidate for Single-Minded Proposition.

Like all good writing, a Single-Minded Proposition will probably not appear on your first try. Write many drafts. Be more daring with each try. Which leads to the final step:

4. Try the Times Square Test

When you have a draft of a Single-Minded Proposition, give it this test: Imagine you’re standing in the middle of Times Square at 11 PM on a Saturday night. If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s a sea of people, mostly tourists. timessquare

Now imagine you are standing on one side of Broadway and the person you think is the ideal purchaser of your client’s product is standing on the other side of Broadway. If you yelled your Single-Minded Proposition at the top of your lungs and your ideal purchaser heard you, would she get it? Would she understand the reason to buy this product?

You get only one shot at this test. And you have to be honest—with yourself. If you think the line communicates the compelling reason to make the purchase, you probably have a good Single-Minded Proposition.

A word of caution: The stronger the “emotion” that your SMP provokes, the more compelling the idea, and your creative team will have more substance to work with. People respond to brands with their hearts, not their brains.

There’s one caveat: The Single-Minded Proposition can be off-the-wall and outrageously over the top. It’s not meant for public consumption, but rather to inspire your creative team.

As the creative brief writer, your task is to deliver the most inspired and inspiring document you can to your creative team or teams.

That job is hard. Stick with fundamentals. This is how you develop mastery.

A trap every brief writer must avoid.

Perhaps you’ve read this line:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

With apologies to its author (or authors), allow me to amend it:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of an inspired creative brief.”

While every question on a creative brief presents opportunities for missteps, one in particular routinely gets the best of brief writers. In other words, the answer to this question often leaves the readers of a brief scratching their heads, wondering why the answer is either fuzzy, incomplete or both.

The moral to this story is clear: Brief writers, stay vigilant!

Bullets kill, they don’t enlighten

Bullet points, that is. I cringe every time I read a creative brief that uses bullet points in the box reserved for describing the target audience of your product or service. Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 5.40.42 PM

Never use bullet points. Ever. This is the lazy brief-writer’s answer. It does no service to the creative team, the client, least of all the product.

Creatives require a rounded, three-dimensional picture of the person, or people, who is the potential user of the product. You can’t accomplish this with a list of bullet points. Which typically look like this (creatives, avert your eyes):

  • HHI: $75-100K
  • 45% male; 50% female; 5% politicians
  • 30% HS education; 40% AA degree; 15% BA

A word picture, by contrast, breathes air and puts flesh and emotion into the air-breathing, fleshy, emoting human being who actually uses the product.

Remember this Indian proverb:

Tell me a fact, and I will learn. Tell me a truth, and I will believe. But tell me a story, and it will live forever in my heart.

Building a brand is about telling a story and triggering an emotional connection to the brand. It is not about pouring facts in a receptacle. This can only happen when you create a real portrait of the “target audience” for your creative team, which requires honesty and genuineness. And sometimes a sense of humor.

Dart on Target and  People

I’ve cited this example many times, including in my book. Take a look, and enjoy a great read. It is from a brief written by a Leo Burnett planner for a familiar Proctor & Gamble cold remedy, Vicks:

Cold sufferers. You know how you feel when you’ve got a cold—that pathetic little inner-child of yours suddenly wakes up and, before you know it, you’re moaning & whining, you’ve gone all whiney & wimpy, all snivel, snot & slovenly; red raw puffy eyes, pale skin, lank hair—everything seems to be sagging! You feel like something from a Salvador Dali painting; you want to snuggle up in bed and dammit—you want your Mummy! But it’s not fair, is it, because no one else takes your suffering seriously—”Good God, pull yourself together, man, we’re not talking leprosy here! Don’t be such a baby, get on with it, stop moaning!”

Yes, your instincts tell you to be a child, but you’re not allowed to because you’ve “only” (only!) got a cold. And worse still—oh, the cruel irony!—even your attempts to retain your adulthood in the midst of your suffering betrays that sniveling little inner–child of yours: “oh don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right…”, “…no, no, please, I don’t want to sound like a martyr…”, “…well, I’m feeling a little better now, thank you…”

I’m sorry, but when you’ve got a cold you’re doomed to be a Child–Adult.

Entertaining, yes? Of course it is. But put yourself in the shoes of a creative who has to conceive a message to someone who either doesn’t yet have a cold, but will certainly get one some day, or who in fact is already on death’s door and wants relief.

You instantly shove a creative’s work to a new level by this word-picture. You are now in the head (and snivel-ly nose) of the ideal customer for Vicks. You are inspired.

It’s your job, brief writer, to give your creative team a significant push in the right direction. Why not have fun in the process? Get them in the mood!

You can’t afford to give creatives a fast-food version of a haute-cuisine delectable like this Vicks brief writer’s piece of art. This brief raises the bar and communicates to the creative team what is expected of them.

When the bar gets raised at the creative-brief stage, where it should be set, expectations will (or should) be equally raised. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The brief becomes the measure for the work produced from it.

Eternal vigilance is the price a brief writer must pay to create a killer brief. Don’t get lazy. Your creative team depends on you.

Blame the Brief: A limp ad from Viagra.

CLl6Nc5WcAMx_UA.jpg-large

Pfizer’s Agency Pulls A Boner In Its Ad For ED Medication.

Even professionals make mistakes. This one, um, stands head and shoulders above its competition.

Is it just me, or do you, too, see the classic error?

Break it down: Viagra is the brand name for a prescription medication designed to treat erectile dysfunction. Its generic name is sildenafil. Viagra is but one of a number of brand name medications to treat ED.

So what does this medication do? It relaxes the tiny blood vessels in and around your junk and allows the blood to flow. Et voila, an erection. In other words, the key feature of this product is that it can produce a woody. My research tells me that unless you have a serious case of diabetes, this drug works on all guys. Every adult male who takes it as prescribed will get a hard on. It works.

Which is why this ad sucks. It’s an advertisement for the category, not Viagra. It does nothing to distinguish the brand from any other brand.

The mistake Pfizer’s agency made was to confuse the product’s feature for its benefit.

In fact, this billboard ignores the product benefit completely, in favor of a cheap, sophomoric joke.

How did this happen? I blame the creative brief, and by implication, the brief writer.

As the first step in the creative process, the brief sets up the project with parameters and the means to measure them.

Somewhere on the Viagra brief the creative team likely found words to this effect:

Viagra is safe and efficacious (meaning it works).

But it’s the brief writer’s job to identify the benefit derived from the feature.

Ergo, the main, and almost singular, feature of Viagra is that it does, in fact, do what it promises: It produces erections in men with ED.

And that means the benefit is….?

It makes a man feel like a man again.

It gives him back his life.

It revitalizes his confidence.

The ad below, produced by a UK agency for Viagra, is much closer to addressing the true benefit of the product. It makes an emotional connection with guys. It talks directly to a human need: the freedom to be yourself without fear. It appeals to the…shall we be honest? The horny devil in all guys.F_200408_august19ed_125383a

I loved this approach when I first saw these ads. I was happily surprised that Pfizer would sign off on this tack. Whoever thought of using the “V” as devil horns deserves a Clio in the category of visual solution (if there is such a category).

I was also not surprised when I noticed it went away, rather quickly too.

Sadly, too many of the early ads for Viagra fell victim to the “show the feature” creative solution. If the creative brief had been clear about the true benefit of the product, the creative solutions would have been more benefit oriented. That would have been the measuring stick…er…rod…er…you know what I mean.

Instead, the agency and the client chose the joke.

No matter how you look at it, the creative solution you see in the billboard ad at the top ignores the benefit.

Which is why, as a communication designed to connect the brand to its user with an emotional bond, it fails.

“Get back to mischief” addresses a human emotion. That makes it a convincing piece of communication.

 

10 ideas to polish your creative briefs.

As we enter the Dog Days of Summer, I offer 10 thoughts and observations as you toil on your briefs. dog days

1. Get out of the office! Live!

There is nothing more stifling to creativity than routine. Break old habits and make new scenery part of your routine.

If you ever watched spy movies, remember the advice: “If you think you’re being followed, take a new route to work.” Maybe it was paranoia, but the rule fits.

This is the ideal rationale to visit your new client’s showroom, factory, event or go on a sales call with a representative. Live the product or service, and learn by getting down in the product dirt.

Creatives often visit art museums, galleries, concerts, film, performing arts and other forms of stimulation to get inspired. Take a page from their book and try it yourself. The idea is to change up your thinking to see things in a new light.

2. Where do you get your best ideas? Build that space into your day.

Okay, so maybe taking a shower after the 10 AM staff meeting isn’t convenient, even though that’s your favorite “idea generating” space. But if taking a walk, sitting in a crowded bus station, or browsing the aisles of your favorite book store are reliable kick-starters, they are legitimate places to visit from time to time.

Creatives hijack routine and monotony on a regular basis by acknowledging their need for different sources of stimulation. Creative brief writers must do the same thing.

3. When you collaborate with a colleague on writing the brief, get accustomed to sharing credit.

This idea is central to the success of the copywriter/art director collaboration model, which is the basis for my recommendation for a brief-writing team. Two minds, which often view the world from different perspectives, solve a problem from different angles. Sometimes, one plays the role of idea generator to the second’s BS detector. Sometimes, both generate ideas and both have finely tuned BS detectors.

The truly successful partnerships find the balance, work off the other’s strengths, and share the glory (and the occasional mis-hit).

If you are in account management, learning how to team up with a creative to write a brief may take some practice and accommodation. Creatives may face the same challenges.

It’s good practice. The results will be well worth the effort.

4. Never forget the basics.

Writing basics: Keep your vocabulary accessible, clear, direct, friendly. Remember that the creative brief is designed to be an idea spark. It’s the first step in the creative process. Focus on keeping things simple. basics-alphabet-blocks-web

Partnership basics: If you are a new team, learn how to listen. Silence may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of the brain-storming process. Figure out how both of you process information. Respect each other’s ideas and approaches.

If you’re a veteran brief writer, but still relatively new to working in a team setting to write a brief, bring your A-game, but be generous. Let the less experienced member of the team do the actual writing. This is an invaluable teachable moment.

5. A creative brief is essential to good storytelling.

Think of the creative brief as the opening chapter of the story that leads to the finished work. It’s the “once upon a time” set up for the creative team to follow.

The best brands tell stories. These stories are about us, ordinary people who live and use and rely on products and services.

If you can’t imagine where your brief is headed based on how you assemble it, how can the creative team ever figure it out? storytelling1

6. Never submit a first-draft creative brief.

As an English instructor who works with college students, I learned quickly that if I don’t require multiple drafts of an essay assignment, I’ll end up reading first drafts that were written the night before, and sometimes the morning of.

You must approach the creative brief from the same mindset. You cannot allow yourself to submit a first draft.

How many drafts should it take? There’s no rule, but I’d recommend at least three drafts before the final draft.

The first draft is your creative starter. You don’t need to share this draft except with your partner. The second draft should be submitted to multiple eyeballs. The third draft can return to a select group for a final review. Now it’s ready for final editing and then the briefing.

I’ve read thousands of briefs in my career. Believe me when I say that I can tell a first draft when I see one. keep-calm-it-s-only-a-first-draft-2

7. Always have a point of view.

It always strikes me as odd when I read a creative brief without a clear “position.” It’s almost as if the writer were afraid of offending someone.

You can tell when you read a brief without a point of view: The proposition is weak, or tries to include too much information. There’s no clear consumer insight.

Another way to look at a creative brief: It’s a review of the product, but always a positive, thumbs-up rave!

Pretend you’re channeling the late Roger Ebert. His passion for movies was infectious. Your passion must be evident, obvious, palpable.

8. Who says you can’t have more than one brief on a project?

This one perplexes me. Most products have more than one selling point, more than one emotional connecting point. If this is true for the product or service you’ve been assigned to (and it should be), there is by definition more than one brief at your fingertips.

It comes down to writing more than one proposition. The rest of the brief can be the same. If you have more than one creative team on a project, why not give a different brief to each team?

It’s not a waste of time. It’s an investment of time into a different approach. Why not?

9. Seek feedback. Always.

I love Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps my favorite line from one of her essays is something I use on my English composition syllabi: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I’ve written.”

This is her way of saying she needs the feedback of her eyes on the words that came from her pen to make sure they align with her true self.

You need feedback too, but before your brief is even written. This idea is different than #6 above. When I say feedback, I mean input, up front input. Before you put a single word on paper.

If your client has provided a client brief, use it to interview product managers, marketing folks, sales reps. Talk to your agency colleagues, too. Get their ideas.

This is a way to give everyone a stake in the outcome. They will have some buy-in before the brief is even written. Don’t underestimate the value of this kind of team building.

10. Go back and re-read the first briefs you ever wrote. What did you learn?

This can be a cringe-inducing experience, but that’s why it’s a teachable moment. We learn by making mistakes, by figuring out what went wrong and fixing it.

When I look at my earliest creative solutions, I often laugh. The same happens when I read early writing. This is the mark of maturation and…am I allowed to say it? The onset of wisdom.

The only way to understand your progress is to return to your beginnings.

A few nuggets to polish your brief writing.