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Creative thinking

Why read this? : Creative thinking helps your business grow. We share how it helps you stand out from competitors. How it improves your customer experience. And how you use it in developing brand assets. Learn how the right culture and processes put creative thinking at the heart of your business. Read this to start thinking creatively about creative thinking.

Creative thinking

How this guide raises your game :-

1. Understand why and how creative thinking grows your business. 

2. How to encourage, enable and execute creative thinking.

3. Learn more about idea generation, screening and testing.

The core purpose of marketing is to understand customer needs, and meet them better than your competitors.

Market research helps you work out what customer needs are. But, you need creative thinking to work out how to solve those needs better than competitors. 

For marketers, creative thinking how you generate new ideas to better solve customer needs.

But it’s also about how to identify which ideas are most likely to succeed. And how and where you use those ideas in the customer experience and brand activation.

In this guide, we cover the role creative thinking should play in your business. How does it help drive the success of your business? And how do you set up your business to encourage, enable and execute great creative thinking? 

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about creative thinking?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains creative thinking quiz and see how much you know about creative thinking already.

Why creative thinking matters for your business

For businesses, creative thinking has 3 key benefits. Think of these as the 3-D benefits of creative thinking.

Firstly, there’s how you use it to differentiate your brand identity from your competitors. Creative thinking helps you stand out, so customers know who you are. 

Then there’s how you use it to drive the customer experience. Use creative thinking to put yourself in the shoes of customers and generate ideas to improve their interactions with your brand. 

And finally, you need creative thinking to develop brand activation assets. All the words, images, videos, stories, designs and other assets that bring your brand to life.   

Creative thinking slide showing three benefits - differentiate from competitors, drive customer experience, develop brand assets

Differentiation of brand identity

Differentiation is an important part of your brand’s positioning you develop during the segmentation, targeting and positioning process.

The benefit you deliver to the target audience, backed up by your reason why and reason to believe creates a point of difference that makes you stand out from your competitors. By definition, you can’t have a point of difference that’s the same as your competitors. 

Creative thinking helps you identify ideas that bring to life this point of difference. It’s a key part of your brand identity. 

Whether you’ve identified your brand as the biggest, fastest, tastiest or coolest brand, you need creative thinking to bring the point of difference to life.

3 steps of the process - Segmentation - divide the total marketing, targeting - pick the most attractive, positioning - build your brand

Creative thinking helps you persuade and influence your customers to choose your brand over competitors. 

Creative thinking also helps you be the first to do new things. This gives you a strong competitive advantage by being the “first mover”. Customers remember brands that did something new first better than those who followed. 

In this case creative thinking covers both how you deliver on that point of difference though ideas, and what it actually looks like through your brand activation. 

Drive the customer experience

Of course, the target audience never actually sees your documented brand identity. They never see your brand wheel or brand diamond.

They only see the brand identity in terms of how it’s brought to life at the different touchpoints of the customer experience journey. These are the points where they interact with the brand.

From the brand point of view, these are usually the key parts of the marketing mix like the product, the price, the place and the promotion. 

The customer experiences your brand identity though the outputs of the marketing mix.

Customer Experience Journey Map

They see it in your advertising, on your website and in sales promotions for example. But you need to apply creative thinking to each of these areas to plan what you’ll say and do, to bring the brand identity to life. You need to apply creative thinking to make sure what you say and do is relevant to the target audience and stands out from competitors.

Creative thinking helps you solve customer needs and problems in new ways. And doing that is what drives sales and grows your business. 

Develop brand assets

Creative thinking also has to convert into creative action. If creative thinking never makes it out of your head, or from a workshop post-it to an actual tangible “thing” the customer can see, hear, smell, taste or touch, then it has no impact. 

Creative thinking is the start point of all brand asset creation including writing, graphic design, photography and video content. It’s used in each of these process to improve the novelty, distinctiveness and impact of each brand asset. 

It comes through in key brand activation activity like your advertising, website, packaging and sales promotions.  

How to encourage, enable and execute creative thinking

Creative thinking can be a challenge in many businesses

While most businesses like the “idea” of creative thinking, the “practice” is usually much tougher. There can often be many barriers to creative thinking

Most business activities focus on routines and efficiencies. The important day to day processes like operations, supply chain and finance rely on predictability and certainty to drive efficiencies. 

Creative thinking is the opposite of that. Creative thinking means disrupting existing and inventing new routines. It’s not about efficiency, it’s about effectiveness.

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

There’s no direct relation between the time and effort you put in to creative thinking, and what you get out of it. In fact, often you have to discard many ideas you generate through creative thinking. This feels inefficient and wasteful to many people.

Creative thinking lacks predictability and certainty. To be great at creative thinking, you need to take some risks and accept there will be failures as well as successes. This can be confronting for many people.

What creative thinking adds to your business

Creative thinking doesn’t replace routine and efficiencies, but it drops in as harmonious counter-point to those sorts of activities. Like the yang to business efficiency’s yin.

It makes businesses more rounded in their approach when they can do both. 

And in fact, they aren’t always mutually exclusive. You can apply creative thinking to operational efficiency problems to find ways to be more efficient. To do things better. 

And when you apply efficiency to how you do creative thinking, you reduce some of the chaotic nature of creative thinking. You can apply efficient ways of working to make it a more ingrained and repeatable process in your business.

Creative thinking - operational efficiency

To encourage, enable and execute creative thinking in your business, there’s three areas you need to consider. 

First, you need to build the right culture. This helps people see creative thinking as a positive part of your business.  You need a clear way to generate, screen and test ideas so that you have a steady pipeline of creative thinking feeding into your business. And finally, you need to connect the creative thinking to other processes in your business, so it drives your brand identity and customer experience.

Creative Culture

Your business’s culture drives how things get done in your business. It’s what your business looks and feels like to the people in it.

However, that often feels like a very intangible concept. So, to make it easier to understand and act on, it’s often split into more tangible action areas. 

There are 8 specific culture factors you can look at. But to make it easier to understand how they affect creative thinking, we’ve grouped these into 3 bigger themes :-

  • People.
  • Leadership.
  • Environment.
Diagram with culture written in the centre and eight spokes - people, organisation, values, reward, leadership, environment, standards and policies, systems and resources


People can be a culture factor on its own, but as an overall theme, it also pulls in organisation and rewards. 

It’s important to consider creative thinking and creative doing as 2 separate (though related) skills. Creative thinking is about coming up with ideas. Creative doing is about applying those ideas to make things happen. 

For this guide, we focus more on how to make creative thinking easier. It’s what happens before the doing stuff like writing and design happens. And it’s something everyone can do if they put their mind to it. Successful creative-led businesses encourage creative thinking to come from ALL parts of their business.

You get more and better ideas when they come from a wider and more diverse group of people. You want open-minded and curious types who like to nurture rather than kill off ideas. That diversity is usually related to areas like thinking styles and personality.

It’s why businesses use approaches like the Kirton Adaptive Innovation (KAI) model for example, to hire different types of thinking style. (see our creative culture article for more on this).


There are many different tools you can use to make sure teams are made up of diverse, but compatible styles. 

As per our creative culture article, one of the most common tools is the Kirton Adaptive Innovation (KAI) model. It shows how some people have a preference for easy to implement but relatively safe ideas. While others prefer to go after more breakthrough ideas.

Other common tools used to organise teams to have diverse styles include models from Myers-Briggs, Insights and Belbin.

Rewards and motivation

How you reward and motivate creative thinking is also part of the people element of your creative culture. 

It can be a challenge to set Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for creative thinking.

You need to have some sort of quantifiable measure (e.g. number of ideas generated), but also some sort of quality measure too. It’s not just about how many ideas people come up with, but how many good ideas make it. 

These can be related to monetary rewards. Raises, bonuses and promotions based on increased sales and profits when ideas make it to market, for example.

Close up of a hand with thumb up

But usually, motivation is more intrinsically driven when it comes to creative thinking. You want to recognise and encourage more breakthrough ideas, and the responsibility for that is usually up to the business’s leadership team.


The leadership team is responsible for setting the direction on creative thinking in the business.

It’s up to them to acknowledge its value, and encourage it in people in their teams. 

For example, it’s normally the leadership team who drive areas like creative evaluation and approvals. These shape how ideas make it through a business.

It’s up to the leadership team to demonstrate that open-mindedness and curiosity which support good ideas. 

They also need to set the boundaries on how conflict works when it comes to discussing and building on new ideas. 

Close up on a man's hand on the steering wheel of a ship

Constructive conflict which results in better ideas is good. Destructive conflict which kills ideas  isn’t good. It’s up to leadership to show what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Standards and policies, systems and resources

How and where that leadership shows itself is usually in the standards they set, and the policies they apply. These drive the systems used in the business, and how and where resources are deployed. 

For example, you see it in key areas of the brief. The goals you set for projects in innovation and communication, for example. The mandatories which drive how projects get delivered. It’ll also drives whether the business uses a formal innovation process, or goes more agile. 

It’s also built into how, where and when leadership gives project teams feedback on their progress.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

Feedback should always be given with positive intent to help ideas thrive. It should always relate to meeting the needs of the target audience and growing the business.

It’s part of the leadership team’s role to make sure that happens. They make sure resources – people, budget and time – are deployed in the right creative areas. They encourage teams to make the best use of those resources to come up with the most creative ideas.

It’s a key part of your creative culture so teams feel safe pushing the boundaries with new ideas. The leadership team need to encourage teams to take calculated risks, rather than avoid taking any risk.


Environment in terms of creative culture mostly covers where and when creative thinking happens.

Where is all about physical location. Is your office layout, for example, conducive to creative thinking. Do you have spaces where people can work collaboratively on new ideas? And other areas where people can have quiet time to think about new ideas on their own? 

Many business spaces are set up to focus on operational thinking, rather than creative thinking.

A change of place from the day-to-day location can often help creative thinking. That’s why so many workshops happen at off-site locations like hotels and agency offices.

Many open rainbow coloured umbrellas

It’s also why those locations come with lots of support materials for creative thinking. Whiteboards, flip charts and marker pens, for example.

When creative thinking happens can be trickier to plan for.

People often get ideas in random places. Out for a walk. In the shower. Looking at their phone on the train. You need your environment to be flexible enough to let people’s minds wander like this, but also structured enough that there’s places where new ideas can come together so they don’t get lost.

Many businesses encourage idea boards in the office, for example. Or they set aside specific times where people can just think about new ideas.

These are all part of your environmental considerations of your creative culture for coming up with new ideas.


While culture creates the conditions  for creative thinking to happen, it’s ideas which are the lifeblood of creative thinking. But coming up with ideas isn’t always a clear process, so how and where do you start? 

We recommend the first step you take is to clearly define the problem which needs to be solved. If it’s a business issue related to a consumer need, it’s worth setting out the problem as a question to be answered.

You should try to frame this problem / question in a positive way and it’s worth starting the question with “How to …”

So “How to persuade more customers in (customer group) to try more (your product)?” is a good problem definition. Or “How to switch (customer group) from choosing (competitor) to (your product)?” 

It’s also worth making sure you’re clear on what the real problem is. Not “losing sales” but “convincing customers of the need for (benefit)”, for example.

It’s common to use the technique of creative problem solving with the word “Why” to diagnose underlying problems at this stage. This is where you interrogate a problem by asking the word “why” at least five times until you get to the root cause of the problem.

Get more playful

It’s often said we lose our creativity as we get older. We fear it more, and our minds become less open as we leave childhood behind us.

So, many creative experts suggest looking back to childhood and the world of play is a great place to be more inspired when it comes to creativity.

A lot of common creative techniques originate from the world of childhood behaviour. This includes the previously mentioned 5 Why’s technique.

But there are many other similar techniques which can help you get in a more creative mood.

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

Creativity is often driven by curiosity and a lack of knowledge of what the answer is. Asking ‘naive’ questions or thinking through the problem from the point of view of someone who isn’t an expert can often lead you to new solutions.

Example – write a future headline

As an example, one brand we worked with was trying to set out its 5 year brand vision.

That’s actually quite challenging to articulate or even imagine. So we set them the task of writing the vision in the form of a future headline. We asked them to mimic the style of various newspapers, magazines and online sites.

So what would a tabloid writer say about your brand in five years time? What would a sports journalist write? What would the press manager of your biggest customer write in their in-house magazine?

When you take away the existing pre-conceptions of what the brand is and see it from a very different perspective you help to build a creative thinking mentality.

Man calmly reading a newspaper while it's on fire

Knowledge and data is good, but don’t drown in it

Obviously, the more you know about customers, competitors and the category, the more likely you are to avoid wrong answers.

But there is a point where you can get “stuck” by having too much marketing data. This analysis paralysis can kill creative thinking. It can create too many options and drown people in presentations and spreadsheets.

Before you start to generate ideas, it’s important to identity what are the key bits of knowledge and data that’ll help.

And which won’t.

Aim to be concise. If there are ideas which definitely won’t work for legal or other reasons, make sure this is clear. If some ideas have been tried before and failed, share these. But focus on key lessons learned from these experiences. Don’t dwell too much on the details. 

The creative thinking process

There are many books you can read on creativity and creative thinking.

One of the best known authors in this area was Edward De Bono. He proposes a couple of different techniques including the Six Hats approach which we cover elsewhere. But for this guide, we’ll touch briefly on his suggested approach from his book Lateral Thinking*.

In this he outlines four types of creative thinking tools. Firstly, idea-generating tools to break current thinking patterns. Then focus tools to review the idea search area. Next harvest tools to create more value from ideas. And finally, treatment tools to build in real-world constraints.

In reality, most businesses operate this as a three-step process.

For example in our marketing innovation guide, we share examples of how this overall process works to launch new products and services. But from a creative thinking point of view, it’s the first three steps which require the most creative thinking. 

The first step is an idea generation or ideation session to get the most number of potential ideas out. 

The second step is then an idea screening. This is a refinement process to get to the one or more ideas which have the greatest chance of success. 

Marketing innovation process - formal approach to screening and approval

At this stage, there’s often the start of a business case, which secures the resources to test the idea with customers. You use market research to gather customer feedback. From this, you make the idea stronger and more relevant.

Step 1 – Idea generation

Most people would recognise this as ‘brainstormingA group of people come together to generate multiple ideas of how to solve a problem.

The name brainstorming dates back to 1942 when advertising executive Alex F. Osborn first coined it.

There are many ways to run brainstorming sessions.

We recommend you identify someone as the role of facilitator to own the process of running such a session. Make it clear their role is to manage the process.

Their purpose is to make sure everyone gets an opportunity to participate and that the process is followed and the required outcomes delivered. 

hand holding a black marker over a blank paper page with other marker pens and ruler

Example idea generation activities

When you have articulated the problem, some examples of how you could generate multiple ideas from different perspectives include :-

  • How would “x” do it? Where “X” might be a celebrity, a politician, a competitor, an alien, a member of your family and so on. It doesn’t really matter who the “x” is too much. But for example, how would “Donald Trump” sell more dog food? Or how would “your grandmother” attract more visitors to your cafe for example? This can generate new and outside the box thinking.
  • Pictures and word associations – Often, people can articulate ideas with visuals better than they can with words. So another option is to ask brainstorming participants to take images out of magazines or from websites. Then ask them to use these to make a collage or mood board to come up with a different solution. Or you can pick say five random words – zoo, dog, disco, shirt, glasses – and ask teams to give an answer to the problem by telling a story that has to use those words.
  • Use opposites – Let’s say your creative challenge is how to attract customers to a new store opening. Rather than come up with ideas straight away, you could tackle the problem from the opposite point of view. Say ‘what if we wanted to keep people away’? This might spark different ideas about what you could do to solve the original actual problem of building appeal for the opening. 
  • Vary the attributes – Depending on the product or service, you could also look at the adjectives that describe the product and see if the lens on the problem changes if you play around with them. What if it was bigger or smaller? What if it was faster or slower? How about if we made it men-only or women-only?

Quantity counts

These are only a few examples, there are many other brainstorming techniques  you can use when running creative thinking sessions. 

The key point at this stage is to aim for many ideas.. Quantity counts here, not quality. You filter the ideas for quality later. There’s no judging ideas at this point. (in the Six Hats approach, this is called Green Hat thinking). 

At this stage, there are no bad ideas. In fact the more ridiculous or outrageous the better. The idea is that when you generate more ideas, you spark ideas in others.

When one of your idea generation methods starts to run out of steam, take a quick break. And then come back and use another method. 

It can be a tiring process to come up with many new ideas. Make sure you manage time and energy levels. 

Keep reminding those involved, that somewhere among all those ideas, there will be a winning idea.

Workshop post its generic contents

Step 2 – Idea screening

The next step is to screen or filter out the ideas.

Look for common themes that come out from the ideas in step 1. 

Start to group ideas that sound similar together. Ask the team who came up with the ideas to do a preliminary vote on which ideas sound most exciting or engaging to them. Identify any ideas which sound risky or challenging. (in the Six Hats approach, this would be Yellow Hat thinking which looks for benefits, and Black Hat thinking which looks for risks). 

Each idea then needs to go through a refinement process where you either discard it, merge it into another idea to create a bigger idea or polish it, to take it forward for testing. 

Which criteria you use to screen ideas depends on your business and your appetite for risk.

If you lean to the more innovative side of the spectrum, you may prefer to take more ideas forward to customers and be happy to have them relatively unpolished. 

But businesses who prefer a more adaptive approach might apply stricter criteria such as we can see in our example from the marketing innovation guide.

Here, the idea needs to be built up and refined before it moves forward. It’s usually up to the idea originator or team leader to complete this sort of information. But they can pull in teams and experts in the business to help. 

Idea generation to idea screening template

Step 3 - Idea testing and refinement

Depending on the nature of the creative thinking idea, and  whether it needs resources like budgets, people or time, the idea might then need a business case. This is especially common in formal innovation and creative thinking processes.

You can read more about what goes into a formal innovation business case in our guide to marketing innovation. But for the purposes of this guide, we’ll cover a few things that might happen at this point.


If the idea is relatively small, and resource has already been set aside to work on “creative thinking”, it may be that the team then develops a prototype to test. This is very common in teams who follow the agile process. Small team create mock-ups or very basic versions of the idea and test these with customers. 

This broadly falls within the scope of market research. It’s likely to be a qualitative style approach to generate first impressions and get feedback. Quantitative research may come later. But this usually requires more budget and therefore a business case.

Live tests and A/B tests

If the idea relates more to advertising or customer experience, there are opportunities to test out the idea “live”. Digital media channels for example let you select very specific audiences. So, you might choose to put an advertising creative idea in front of a small number of people in a specific location. Websites can let you run what are called A/B tests. Here you show different pages to different groups at the same time, and compare and contrast how the pages perform.  

It’s important to think about what you do with customer feedback. It may not always be valid or relevant. You have to consider how customers will respond to the idea if it goes all the way to launch. If test audiences don’t like it, it can be hard to let go of ideas. But ultimately, it’s your target audience who decide if your idea is any good. If something just isn’t working, fix it or let it go. 

You’re looking for that one winning idea which is going to rock your target audience’s world. But you may have to work through many other ideas to find that one.

Creative thinking to action processes

For those ideas that “make it”, the creative thinking then transforms into creative action and brand activation. Customers need to experience the tangible outcomes of the creative thinking. Otherwise it’s all fluffy nonsense. 

This is where the more practical elements of creativity come in. When your creative thinking relates to communications for example, then your creative idea links into creative skills like writing, graphic design, photography and video content. 

But these also then feed into all aspects of your brand activation. So, what your logo and packaging looks like for example depends on creative thinking. Your advertising and media approach depends on creative thinking. The outcomes of creative thinking support customer experience elements like your website, your social media and your blogs for example. 

Conclusion - Creative thinking

Creative thinking is a way to differentiate yourself from competitors by coming up with new and valuable ideas.

It is a way to drive the customer experience by coming up with new and better ways to meet customer needs.

And it’s a large part of your brand identity. Creative thinking is how you start to develop all your tangible brand assets.

But it can be a challenge. Great ideas transform businesses. But nobody wants to be transformed.

Often the better idea, the harder the sell.

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

It’s important to build culture and processes that lead to ideas and great creative thinking. Think about how you encourage people and teams to work creatively. Think about what you need to do to lead creative thinking, and how you set up a creative environment in your business. 

The great advantage you’ll have if you do this is that most other businesses don’t do this. They tend to be conservative and resistant to change. The more creative thinking in your business, the more of a competitive advantage you’ll have.

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Three-Brains and creative skill development

The Three-Brains team know a lot about creative skills. We work with businesses like yours to help you with creative thinking, so you find more and better ideas. 

We can then helps you turn those ideas into action, with creative advice and support in areas like writing, graphic design and brand storytelling

Check out our coaching and consulting services to learn how we can help you. Contact us directly, if there’s specific creative thinking skills you need help with.

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