April 25, 2024 @ 12:00am

AI-generated image of a man's torso popping out of a box as he exclaims, with an oversized brain hovering above him, representing out of the box thinking


When it comes to marketing, the phrase “think outside the box” gets tossed around so much that it has almost become synonymous with creativity. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a marketing agency that doesn’t have that phrase on its website. So what does it mean? No, “what does it really mean,” with concrete examples?

Before we dissect and criticize the use of this hackneyed cliche, we need to explain its origin. According to the Psychology Today article “Thinking Outside the Box: A Misguided Idea,” the phrase originated from a study of creativity done by psychologist J.P. Guilford in the early 70s. 

The study consisted of subjects trying to connect nine dots (placed in a 3 x 3 arrangement) using four straight lines without lifting their pencil from the paper. Looking at the solution, you see that the lines need to extend outside “the box” to solve the puzzle. The majority of subjects failed to see past the self-imposed obstacle, hence the ones who succeeded were able to “think outside the box.” Boom. There’s your origin.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s start griping. First of all, it seems that many people confuse solving a problem with thinking outside the box. In marketing, we use creativity to solve a lot of problems. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are always thinking outside the box. 

A great example of creative problem solving that I wouldn’t necessarily classify as outside-the-box thinking was a campaign we did for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The ask was simple: educate the Wisconsin public on infection prevention and control practices. So we thought, how can we get people’s attention so that they absorb our message about a topic that I wouldn’t exactly say is exciting? And we came up with a character who hosts a late-night talk show with a Wisconsin/public access feel. Oh, and he happens to be a hand puppet named Wally VandeHand. Who better to talk about hand hygiene than a hand?



It was a highly successful campaign featuring video content, display ads, social posts, and a landing page. (Did we mention award-winning?) We are incredibly proud of this work, and by no means are we discrediting it, but it was simply a creative solve for the client’s ask.

On the other hand, an example of work that I would classify as thinking outside the box was when Citizens Bank, a community bank in southeast Wisconsin, asked us to help with an awareness campaign. They wanted something that would make a splash and convey it is a community-centered bank. 

We thought outside the box of a traditional campaign and said, “Let’s literally go out into the community and get people and local businesses involved.” So we created the Citizens Bank Holiday Hunt, a scavenger hunt in which community members received a stamp card they could fill out by receiving stamps by visiting participating local businesses. Winners were invited to the town square, where each one chose a wrapped gift ranging in value from $50 to $1,000 cash. 

It was an “everybody wins” situation. Participants won prizes and got promotional discounts from the businesses, which saw an increase in foot traffic, and Citizens Bank gained a lot of exposure. And it all started from someone thinking, Let’s do something totally different.



Another highly imaginative example of outside-the-box thinking is Publicis Italy’s campaign for Orphea 4D, an insecticide spray. 

The goal of this billboard ad was to convey the effectiveness of the insecticide. Thinking outside the conventional restraints of a billboard, Publicis Italy turned it into an actual insect trap, applying a clear glue to the billboard in a particular area next to an image of the product so that as insects got trapped, they formed what looked like aerosol spray coming out of the giant can. 

The billboard was located in a busy location and gained the attention of thousands of curious people who noticed the changing image as insects accumulated on the billboard. That’s some serious outside-the-box thinking, if you ask me.



And I say, “if you ask me” because, well, nobody asked me. I’m writing this blog in an effort to get people to stop throwing the phrase “think outside the box” around all willy-nilly. It’s a powerful concept, and successful executions of it are impressive. So when we overuse the phrase, it cheapens the meaning. And that’s not fair because it is difficult to pull off. You have to tell your brain to think in a way that it isn’t used to thinking. 

It also involves risk. What if the glue on the billboard had not worked? What if nobody showed up for the prize giveaway? If it isn’t at least a little bit scary, it’s likely not truly outside-the-box thinking. 

The best way to accomplish outside-the-box thinking is to look at the problem you’re trying to solve, see what ideas come to mind right away, then take a step back and ask yourself what assumptions you were making without realizing it. Eliminate those assumptions and think of more ideas. Rinse and repeat.

I don’t know that this blog will change the world, but I do know that getting this all off my chest will help me sleep better. 

And if you need marketing assistance from a great agency full of creative thinkers who have been known to pull off some great, actual outside-the-box thinking from time to time, contact us at 6AM Marketing.

About the author:
Post tags:

comments powered by Disqus