Laura Jones: are you smarter than a five year old? Why brands should embrace childish thinking

What wouldn’t we give to be young again? To relive the magic and wonder of being a child, when the world was our playground and everything was so unpredictable. Not yet burdened by social expectations, we lived in a world of complete creative freedom.

But this free and creative spirit almost completely disappears the moment we hit puberty. In a study of 1,600 school children, 98 per cent were considered ‘geniuses’ at divergent thinking at age five. At ten years old this number dropped to 32 per cent, by age fifteen, ten per cent, and down to just two per cent by full adulthood.

For an industry which is built upon creativity this dearth of playfulness and lack of freedom is a significant business pressure. For despite the fact that creativity is the engine of our marketing economy ‘Play’ remains one of the most under-appreciated and neglected skills in our industry.

However smart brands have started to take up this challenge, putting in place initiatives to help their employees rediscover their wilder creative side. Playfulness is part of the brand DNA at a number of the world’s most innovative companies and in line with that is an integral part of how they communicate both to consumers and employees.

Take for example Zappos, the online shoe company. One of their core values is to “create fun and a little weirdness.” Every quarter Zappos has a four hour company-wide talent show where employees can play an instrument, dance, sing or show off a new skill. By tapping into their playful side, employees bond with their colleagues and can express themselves more openly in the workplace.

Innocent Drink’s HQ ‘Fruit Towers’ (below) is full of playful spaces where employees can gain both physical and mental space. Playfulness is also a key part of their marketing and communications, where customers are encouraged to ring the ‘banana phone’ to leave customer feedback. Another brand embracing this playfulness throughout their business is toy manufacturer Lego, whose Denmark HQ has been designed with a focus on spontaneous and playful interactions.
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Creating the space and freedom to be creative and play with new ideas and creative disciplines has also been at the centre of the marketing evolution of some of the world’s biggest technology brands. Facebook has a screen printing studio, its famous Analogue Research Lab, where designers screen print posters, and random Star Wars etchings, by hand. The creative space, which also hosts designers in residence as well as a host of Facebook staff, aims to “create and direct projects that influence culture and challenge thought.”

Then there’s Google whose most famous management policy is it’s much-celebrated and imitated ‘20% time’ where employees are actively encouraged to work on projects outside of their day-to-day responsibilities. Staff also have the opportunity to take time out to relax in a range of spaces including its Lego room.

At the heart of embracing the creative power of Play is affording your employees and consumers greater freedoms to connect, interact, communicate and create. Without the burdens of a restrictive, overly-structured workplace culture, employees can bring their lighter, more spontaneous self to work. They are less self-censoring with ideas and more likely to explore and try new things. And that works wonders for creativity. As Laszlo Bock, the HR chief of Google writes in his ground-breaking book Work Rules: “If you’re comfortable with the amount of freedom you’ve given your employees you haven’t gone far enough.”

In our ‘always on’ digitally-driven working environment, making the space for Play has now become a business imperative. If you don’t give your employees the space to relax and enjoy themselves, you will never get the imaginative ideas and clever problem-solving you want from them. It’s time for us to forget the idea that childishness does not belong in the workplace – it’s stifled our creative freedom for too long.

unnamed-3Laura Jones is strategy director at Exposure Digital.

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