Whether you’ve worked in Marketing for 15 years or 15 months, coming up with fresh ideas on demand can be a bit overwhelming. How many different ways can we advertise an auto loan promotion anyway?

The constant pressure to attract attention with our marketing and advertising efforts can be daunting, especially for those who may not consider themselves creative. Are you one of the many marketing people who might have a marketing degree, but didn’t spend much time studying video, design or copywriting? You’re likely more comfortable with the research, planning, and data analysis side of marketing. It’s OK. Even if you don’t think of yourself as creative, developing new ideas is something everyone can do. Studies show it’s a skill which can be taught and practiced. Think of creativity as a muscle you can strengthen and train!

Artistic is not the same as creative

We might hear of a cousin who paints lovely landscapes as being ‘so creative!’ Same for a musician who has an amazing ear and doesn’t even read music. Or maybe you have a sister-in-law with a great eye for interior decorating. Yes, some of this can be taught to a certain degree, but there are those who have innate, natural tendencies towards seeing or hearing in certain ways. These are artistic talents. This is very different from being creative. In fact, I think a person can be artistic but not creative.

So what then is being creative? In academic circles it’s defined as the ability to generate novel and useful ideas. Which means anyone can be creative! For instance, scientists are being creative when they develop vaccines. Lawyers are creative in how they present a case to a jury. Mechanics are creative as they diagnose your screeching tires. They are being creative – generating novel and useful ideas – without ever touching an artistic tool.

When we view being creative as the ability to generate new ideas, it might feel a bit less intimidating! You don’t have to have innate talents. In fact, you can practice generating new ideas right now. Here are a few exercises to get those ideas flowing, to get you thinking with a fresh and curious mindset:

Exercises to encourage creativity: 

Thirty Circles 

This is a great warm-up exercise for getting your mind ready to do some big thinking. Good for groups or on your own. Put 30 circles on a sheet of paper (yes, paper). Then using a marker or pen, make as many ‘things’ as you can with those empty circles within a set amount of time (one minute, five, whatever feels good to your situation). Most people start with the more obvious solutions: baseballs, basketballs, etc., but then see how ‘out there’ you can get and how quickly!


You probably know about brainstorming, but also consider brainwriting as an idea-generation exercise too! Both of these involve groups of people (about 6 or 8) and a limited time session. With brainstorming, a given topic or challenge on the board, then the group calls out whatever ideas come to mind. All ideas are welcome and encouraged as this exercise is meant to develop a long list of ideas first. The culling of ideas will happen at a later session. Some people may not feel comfortable expressing ideas verbally in front of others, so consider the writing version of this exercise. Brainwriting has everyone writing one idea to one sticky note. People are encouraged to write for maybe a minute at a time, then post their notes on the board. While up at the board, examine the other notes, then write for another minute. This encourages the building off of other ideas, which often happens during brainstorming’s verbal exchanges. 

Six Thinking Hats 

Developed by Edward D Bono, a researcher in creative skills, Six Thinking Hats encourages a shift in thinking patterns by wearing different ‘hats.’ Each hat is labeled with a color and type: white/information, green/possibilities, red/emotions, black/risks, yellow/benefits, blue/thinking. As the group reviews the problem to be solved, they spend a few minutes wearing each hat, considering the problem or challenge from that point of view. For instance, the problem might be how to  increase loans. “Wear” the red hat then think of the emotions involved as a member considers a loan. They might be anxious about their credit score, confused about the terms, happy to get a new car, etc.

Storyboard For Empathy 

Credit union marketing people usually have a deep understanding of mortgages, online banking, and all other products and services, but when was the last time you saw those from a members’ point of view?  One way to see these in a fresh light is to use a different part of your brain to explain them. And to do so from the member’s point of view. Draw stick figures on a sticky note to storyboard the member’s buying journey – one note for each step. From when they first think about using mobile deposit, then through each step of the process. And remember, it’s not about how well you draw the step or emotion or benefit, but that you are using a different part of your brain – the one involving drawing – to open up some new idea pathways.

Daily Dozen 

This is a great solo exercise and even an amazing habit to incorporate into your daily routine. Set aside time each day to write 12 new ideas. It’s helpful to select a theme/topic for each day even if it’s not work related. Need topics? Notice what frustrated you on the way to work. A traffic jam maybe? Think of 12 ideas for relieving congestion at that spot. Just the process of generating 12 new ideas (on any topic) will keep your ideation muscle strong. Put 30 minutes on your calendar and stick to it!

Mind Map

Similar to brainstorming, mind mapping is a tool for generating as many ideas as possible. The difference? Brainstorming is a group activity within a set amount of time. Mind mapping can be done by a group or on your own and is completed over a longer time period. Start by placing the challenge in the center of your space. Have a large whiteboard in your department? Perfect. Write the challenge in the middle of it. Or use a digital space – those work well too. Then as people have ideas about the challenge, have them write each idea out from the center, with a line connecting the challenge to the idea. When someone sees the ideas, they might get a derivative idea. So they’ll connect or map the first idea to the second level. And the ideas continue to spread out like spokes on a wheel. Typically, the obvious ideas are ones written first, then as more ideas are written, they tend to become more novel and hopefully useful too!

Create a Culture of Creativity

While these exercises (and others like them) have proven to strengthen and train creative muscles, the culture in which these exercises are practiced needs to support and encourage creative thinking. And let’s face it, financial institutions have a reputation for not exactly being open to free thinking. That might be why so many are facing stagnation. Encourage growth in your organization with these practices:

  • Allow space and time for ‘doing nothing’. Our brains need moments to process all of the inputs and stimulations, to connect the dots. Encourage your staff (and show them by example!) to take a walk outside, to stare out a window, to find a quiet corner and some headphones.  
  • Foster member empathy through observing interactions in a branch, in the call center, even job-shadowing a product/service team (mortgaging, lending, online banking). The more we can see how the members interact with a product or service, the more likely we’ll be to find fresh relevant ways to describe it, show it, promote it. (see storyboard exercise above for ideas)
  • Promote fresh perspectives and new thinking in your office and/or in meetings. One method is to have a Doodle Wall. Designate wall space in an area as a chalkboard. It’s easy to do with chalkboard paint and it feels more tactile than a whiteboard! Extra points if it’s located in a busy area people pass several times a day. Encourage random fresh thoughts which build on each other, such as sketching an empty aquarium so others may draw in silly underwater creatures, or telling a story where each person contributes a sentence at a time.
  • Consume the content you seek to create. For instance, want to make better videos? Watch more videos, especially the videos your target members might be watching. Becoming familiar with the content will help connect the random dots and lead to an idea which feels familiar to your audience, yet new enough to draw attention.

So the next time you find yourself grasping for marketing ideas, try one of these creativity exercises! And in the meantime, take a fresh look at the culture you’re creating to ensure you and your leadership are welcoming creativity and innovation.

Several of the exercises and ideas listed above were inspired by David Kelley and Tom Kelley of IDEO and their book “Creative Confidence” as well as Allen Gannett, author of “The Creative Curve”