The Creative Hierarchy of Needs

You may have noticed that when I talk about the work Creatives do, I prefer to say “tackling a challenge” rather than “solving a problem.” Creatives solve problems of course, because clients typically hire them when they have the kind of problem that needs a creative solution. So there’s that. 

However, to me the language of problem solving is, er, problematic. It suggests that without an identified problem, Creatives have nothing much to contribute. Oy vey. As anyone who works with them can tell you, Creatives will be contributing something whether it solves a problem or not. 

In my experience that’s because, left to their own devices, the question that Creatives secretly yearn to tackle is definitely not “what’s the solution to this or that problem?” but rather “how cool would it be if…”

IMHO any client that learns to harness that yearning (yes, even to solve problems) will have Creatives giving them the best work of their lives.

And it will be because they’ve stumbled onto something I’ve come to call The Creative Hierarchy of Needs, a Maslow-inspired pyramid that peaks with Creatives asking themselves “I wonder if…”, then diving in to find out

The Creative Hierarchy of Needs


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere


Where Big Brands Go Wrong With Consumer Insights

A multi-billion dollar client of mine was struggling with the performance of a new product extension and commissioned their in-house HI (Human Intelligence) team to evaluate why consumers weren’t all that into it. 

Here’s the insight the marketing team got back from HI a few weeks later:

Insight 1:   Consumer confusion between Existing Product X and New Product Y. Need to differentiate more

Insight 2:   Emphasize ease of use

Ok, raise your hand if you already know that a new product needs to be differentiated, and that being easy-to-use is a good idea? Really? All of you know that? Wow. /s

I’m just gonna say it — those are not useful consumer insights. They’re table-stakes. The real question is, why weren’t they understood as table-stakes during product development? Sigh. In my experience, this is a cycle that too many companies get into — thinking that Captain Obvious ideas like these are insights. They’re not.

Ok, if you think you’re so smart, Chris, how about you tell us what an insight is. 

Thank you, I will. But first…


What does the Internet say?

Let’s look at how the Internet defines it:

Wikipedia: A customer insight, or consumer insight, is an interpretation of trends in human behaviors which aims to increase the effectiveness of a product or service for the consumer, as well as increase sales for the financial benefit of those provisioning the product or service. 

Trustpilot: A consumer insight is an interpretation used by businesses to gain a deeper understanding of how their audience thinks and feels. Analysing human behaviours allows companies to really understand what their consumers want and need, and most importantly, why they feel this way. 

DemandJump:The word “insight” is defined in the dictionary as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep, intuitive understanding of a person or thing.” Consumer insights highlight more individualized shopping behaviors, and may restrict data to a specific market, industry, or company. This is how consumer market insights provide actionable revelations companies can implement to improve business performance. 

My take? There’s lots more where these came from and omg make it stop.

Two Thoughts

Most of these definitions revolve around the “the opinions and behaviors of consumers,” with a few tacking on something about what “consumers want and need, and… why they feel this way.”

Two thoughts here: first of all, “opinions and behaviors” is good to know when developing insights, so I buy that. And knowing why someone feels the way they do is super-helpful.

What I don’t buy is that people always know what they want or why they feel what they feel! 

Or as Steve Jobs famously put it:

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” 

Exactly. And here’s the kicker:

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Now to be fair, Apple does rely on market research and always has. They just don’t use it to ask customers what they want. Instead, Apple looks to their internal experts for that insight.

So no it’s my turn… almost. First we have to talk about Informed Intuition.

Informed Intuition?

The term Informed Intuition was coined by Organizational Theorist Geoffrey Moore in his seminal book Crossing the Chasm, where he writes about how innovative companies can ‘cross the chasm’ between early adopters and mass audiences with their products.

Moore explains that at some point in its growth trajectory, every new product faces a crucial moment where a low-data, high-risk decision has to be made and the decision-makers have no solid case with which to make it. So what do they do?

Moore says they should rely on Informed Intuition, an analysis technique that merges the useful data fragments they do have with a few high-quality mental images of the audience they’re targeting. 

When the book was published in 1991, Moore called these mental images “data characterizations” because they encapsulated “characteristic market behaviors.” Today most strategists would call them Personas (or Composites as I like to call them — more on that later).

My Definition of Insight

Ok, NOW it’s my turn.

Stealing from Jobs, here’s how I define an insight:

An insight is informed intuition about what an audience wants and why they want it, often before they even know they want it themselves.

That’s it.

Everything else is just run-of-the-mill research data that every competitor has access to. But insights about what your audience wants before they know they want it? That’s unique to you and your client.

And being unique is of course the whole point of strategy.

WTH, you may be thinking. “Informed intuition” sounds like new-agey bullshit, not strategy. And knowing what an audience wants before they do? That sounds like voodoo. Nope. Let me explain.


From Informed Intuition to Insight

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re helping a client position a new product, so don’t have a lot of historical data to guide you. Or you’re trying to reposition an underperforming product and most of the data are bad, except for a few useful fragments. Or maybe you’re just trying to figure out a seasonal campaign message that will break through.

If any of that does sound familiar, then guess what? According to Moore, you’re facing the exact kind of low-data, high-risk decision that informed intuition can help with. 

The good news is that you already have one a very useful tools to help you cross that chasm: Personas / Composites. That’s because building them right can help you do one very specific thing — inform your intuition about who your target audience is.

Which in turn sets you up to develop deeper insights about what that audience wants and why, often before they even know it themselves.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere


Consumer v. Audience

We need to talk about the word “consumer.” 

I hate it. 

I think it makes human beings sound like flesh-eating bacteria. Or maybe post-apocalyptic zombies. Take your pick.

Whatever. I think we should stop using it.

For a while there I thought I was the only person working with brands who felt this way. Then I finally cracked open Marty Neumeier’s book Brand Flip and read this:

“The best customers are no longer consumers or market segments or tiny blips in big data. They’re individuals with hopes, dreams, needs, and emotions. They exercise judgment, indulge in whims, express personal views, and write their own life stories. They’re proactive, skeptical, and creative. They’ve reached the top of Maslow’s Pyramid, where the goals are autonomy, growth, and fulfillment. They don’t ‘consume.'”

Hear hear.

And while we’re at it, can we stop using “user” too? Another terrible word.

There’s no stopping the use of either one of course, not inside the world of marketing and MBAs and spreadsheets and analysts and all that. 

But in my own strategies and strategy teams, I avoid both words as much as I can because I think they are one of the reasons that too many marketing messages fall flat. They’re disconnected from everyday humans because, in terms of language, they focus too much on this abstract thing called a consumer or a user, instead of on the living, breathing people around us everyday. 

Sometimes the fact that I’m avoiding either word is obvious and a colleague or client will ask about it. I’ll tell them that I use the word “audience” or “visitor” instead, since we’re focused on getting people’s attention and attending to them once we have it. That usually does the trick. 

Very smart strategists I know use both words constantly and seem to do fine, so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. But IMHO the best brands and messages appeal to our humanity by treating us like we actually are human, starting with the words they use to describe us when we’re not around.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere


What are Creative Strategists?

In his article For All You People Who Have No Clue What A Strategist Does, Harry Innes explains that Creative Strategists “tell the creatives what to make, what insight to use and why.”

That’s true as far as it goes, but deeply unsatisfying. Because not only do Creative Strategists tell the creatives “what insight to use and why,” they are regularly called upon to develop those insights in the first place. 

Not always of course; sometimes they’re handed premade insights and told to make them work. But if you don’t already have the insights you need, you know you can turn to a Creative Strategist to develop them. 

That’s not true of all of the strategists from CX Strategist Emily Vernon’s list, but I would argue that when any strategist from that list is tasked to develop insights, they are acting as a Creative Strategist in that moment regardless of their title. 

And that my friends is why the Creative Strategist role is unique. Their main purpose on any project is to develop the insights that will make all of the rest of the work possible.

Tweaking the Definition

That purpose leads quite nicely to the small (but important!) tweak I make to Innes’ definition of a Creative Strategist. Here it is: 

Creative Strategists develop the insights that tell the Creatives what to make and why.”

Those insights then set the entire process of Creative Development in motion, where all of the different Creatives bring their skills and talent to bear on tackling a specific challenge.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere


Calling all strategists

It seems like everyone’s a strategist these days. Take a look at this list from CX Strategist Emily Vernon:

  • Account Strategist – Develop strategic plans and solutions to help clients achieve their goals, while managing and growing relationships. Leverage insights, data and product offering to improve solutions and planning for clients.
  • Brand Strategist – Create a strategic recommendation, connecting brand objectives to a vision, purpose and plan. Establish brand positioning, architecture, naming, identity, visual comms, etc.
  • Business Strategist – Determine targets for organisations and prepare an approach on how to achieve this. Analyse existing plans, practices and data. They can focus on specific areas or the overall business. 
  • Channel Strategist – Identify the best way to expose potential consumers to a company’s product or service. This includes the end goal of both selling the product, as well as delivering a relevant, meaningful consumer experience.
  • Client Strategist – Define business objectives based on client needs to craft concepts, brief and framework for new client projects. Guide existing client projects on an ongoing basis.
  • Communications Strategist – Develop communication and media approach across numerous platforms. This should be scaled according to reach, promote products and tell brand stories. 
  • Content Strategist – Conceptualise, generate and manage digital content for a consumer- or business- based audience. Content should reflect the brand’s or company’s positioning and expertise.
  • Creative Strategist – Translate brand strategy into consumer experiences for the short to medium term. This can then be used by design teams to execute campaigns, environments, advertisements or interactions. 
  • Customer Experience Strategist – Orchestrate a positive, purposeful experience between the consumer and the business, pre- and post- sales. This involves setting an overarching approach and managing multiple touchpoints. 
  • Digital Strategist – Develop an approach to connect the brand to an online consumer. This can include connecting through a website, social media, email, mobile or e-commerce platform. 
  • Influencer Marketing Strategist – Manage influencer partnerships to drive brand awareness and acquire new customers. Source talent, as well as execute and optimise campaigns across multiple channels. 
  • Marketing Strategist – Identify and implement an effective approach to promote a product and/or gain customers. This is done through data analysis, market research, budget management and campaign development.
  • Media Strategist – Plan and execute custom media partnerships for content development across display, video, mobile and social channels.
  • Omnichannel Strategist – Create a seamless, interconnected experience across multiple marketing and sales platforms. This includes both on and offline channels. 
  • Product Strategist – Define, develop and create products and solutions for a client or target market. This includes scaling existing products, while identifying new opportunities. 
  • Qualitative Strategist – Provide insights into the consumer through market research, while identifying key opportunities. Utilise various methodologies to gather information and communicate this to key stakeholders.
  • Retail Strategist – Develop an overarching plan to expose consumers to a product or service. Identify the relevant retail channels, as well as the price, presentation and promotion around the offering. 
  • Social Media Strategist – Create an approach around the brand’s use of social media to reach, inform and influence its target audience. Each social media channel will feed into this, while having their own nuances.
  • Web Strategist – Plan, develop and create a long-term plan around the brand’s online presence. It is necessary to understand the consumer, brand and the business’s technical abilities.

Personally, I have never worked with anyone called a Channel Strategist, Client Strategist, Influencer Marketing Strategist, Product Strategist, Omnichannel Strategist, or Qualitative Strategist, though I’ve certainly worked with people who did those jobs.

On the other hand, I have worked with several strategists whose titles are not on the list, namely:


  • CRM Strategist – Plan, develop and create a long-term plan execution of email-driven customer journey initiatives and optimize customer loyalty, acquisition, retention, personalization and promotional strategies.
  • Data Strategist – Plan, develop and coordinate all activities related to the integration of data across various sources. 
  • Experience Strategist – Represent user interests between concept design and product design, ensure that users achieve their expected outcome as elegantly as possible. 
  • Experiential Strategist – Plan, develop and execute real-world events that focuses on getting the consumer to experience the brand IRL.
  • Integrated Strategist – Plan, develop and execute integrated brand, digital, and communication strategies, and support those strategies from kickoff through to delivery. 
  • UX Strategist – Define the overall UX vision throughout the digital ecosystem and shape user experience strategies and design accordingly.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere


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