So You’re Not Going to Test Your Creative Concepts? Here Are 5 Reasons to Think Again

“The President knows what she wants.”

“We did some focus groups.”

“Everyone in marcom feels really great about Concept 2, and we know this place.”

I’ve heard all the excuses. And I don’t buy them. After 20 (gulp) years in this industry, I’ve seen my fair share of brands, campaigns, and logos launched. Most faced a few bumps here and there along the way, but none were as fraught as those that didn’t (truly, quantitatively) test creative concepts before executing. While you’ll never fully escape the trolls and critics, here are five critical reasons for testing that will make the process smoother in the long run.

  1. Testing is an insurance policy for your creative. I vividly remember one of my first higher ed creative projects, in which my then-company was being paid to basically redo a university’s perfectly good campaign that had been summarily (and aggressively) rejected by faculty and staff because they felt it had been “created in a back room.” Concept testing is a very public process that can feel risky, but really isn’t. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to weigh in on creative directions being considered, so that when the arrows eventually start flying, you’ll have a strong shield to deflect them.
  2. Testing is an opportunity to share your strategy with the campus community. I recently read a Medium article cautioning against being too quick to judge a rebrand. The author notes, “Often times when you get to know the strategy behind [a rebrand], … you can start to appreciate the changes made. Creating a rebrand is a big problem to solve, and there are a lot more things to consider below the surface than the logo.” A concept survey can—and should—test more than visuals. It should gauge how well the concept supports and reflects key brand positioning and messaging points that many constituents otherwise may not have been aware of.
  3. Testing provides invaluable perspective. You can never predict how a set of concepts is going to be received by any audience without testing. I once was presenting concepts to a room of marketing and enrollment professionals who were unanimous that they wanted to skip testing and pick concept 1 because they were convinced that its vivid colors and more casual language would be most appealing to prospective students. We convinced them to test, and the results showed that their prospects overwhelmingly favored the more traditional and serious concept 2 because “This is a decision that affects the course of our life—it’s not just a TV show or pair of sneakers.”
  4. Testing allows you to move beyond the subjective. If a concept review process has gotten to the point where you have to consider that Board member Jack hates orange or VP Mary prefers sans serif type, you’ve lost the battle. Through quantitative testing, you can elicit a more strategic response from your stakeholders. In one of our recent concept surveys, for example, we found that a majority of the university’s audiences—students, faculty, and alumni—believed that concept 2 very much reflected the university of today—great, right? A real validation of authenticity. However, in the very next question, they rated concept 1 as best reflecting the way they want the university to be perceived in the future. So it was a no-brainer for a struggling school to confidently move forward with the more aspirational concept 1.
  5. Testing may reveal none of your concepts are quite right. And that’s ok. Creative concepting is an iterative process, and testing should not be considered its end. Even though there are many instances where one concept is a turn-key home run, there are many others where testing provides valuable information about various elements from multiple concepts. We use those findings to guide refinements to language and design for a final concept that resonates in just the right ways for the institution’s target audiences.

I can’t state it strongly enough: Please test your creative concepts. And then keep testing your actual creative periodically once it’s out in the market. But that’s a longer blog post for another day.

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