When starting to prepare a new learning program, we look at the brief, review our notes, consider a framework, map out our learning objectives—and get to work.

One step, however, is sometimes missing from this routine: creativity.

Amid the pressure to deliver and to utilize accepted best practices, we don’t always stop and step out of the routine to take a fresh look at what we’re doing.

Within the world of marketing and advertising, the pressure to deliver and the stakes of offering knowledge transfer (product or brand awareness), skills development (trial of a product or service), and behavior change (purchase, loyalty to, and promotion of that product or service) is no less than in learning and development (L&D). I would suggest, however, that the expectation to do “new” and “different” is greater in the world of marketing. This commitment to new and different could help L&D be more effective in its own efforts of people development.

As a learning leader, you can apply creativity to encourage your team to take inspiration from what has worked successfully in marketing to enhance learning experience and content development and improve learning recall.


Marketing is a mindset. It focuses on answering three questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • How do they frame their questions or challenges?
  • How do they go about making a decision?

We’ve seen the evolution of technologies and transformations over the years focus on reducing friction: ride-hailing services, tools like Zapier and IFTTT to help with automating tasks, auto-bill pay, and so many more. This drive to make a purchasing decision as easy as the technology itself is to use; to create a great user experience that starts to establish the benefit of the purchase itself—these are now fully woven into the daily experiences of our learners, during the countless hours they are living their lives and are not in our training programs.

When we consider a software purchase, it is easy to follow how this can be implemented. But what about purchasing a soft drink or movie ticket? What about promoting mental health services or recruiting to work at your company?

Experiential marketing

The worlds of advertising, marketing, and public relations have all been blending and overlapping over the last 15+ years. One area that really reflects this is experiential marketing. Think of a concert that is presented by BRAND. The brand name is on the advertising for the show, mentioned in the radio/ podcast spots, in the social media posts, and on the signage, swag, and shirts sold at the show.

These various exposures to the brand name fall under advertising; the association with the performer falls under public relations via the implied endorsement, both the performer for the brand and the brand for the performer; and the experience, the emotions, and the ongoing relationship the consumer has with the brand before, during, and after the performance fall under marketing.

The most important of these is “emotions.” Research supports this: Substantial evidence has established that emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time than are neutral events.

The anticipation before the event—the dreaming about what the event will be like and who else will be there—being able to share with others the exclusivity or experience of having been there, the photos taken, the sounds that capture the mood of the event, scents that linger in the air, any meals shared with friends: All of these are part of the experience and trigger different emotions. Collectively, they come together into a carefully crafted story with each participant as a main character.

Using emotion and the senses

You’ll note that there is a subtle transition from emotion to senses. This is not accidental. Marketers use the senses (scents, sounds, textures, tastes, images) to spark certain emotions, which then get associated with the experience—and the brand. If these were disjointed instances, there would be too many stimuli to recall. But by tying them together around one event, by joining them into a story (seeing a specific band in concert), it is easier to recall and to reactivate the emotions and, thus, the desire to relive the experience, all through use of the sponsoring brand.

While in L&D we focus, rightfully, on storytelling, it seems that often we don’t act on what makes for effective storytelling or leverage some of the benefits of storytelling.

Leveraging the benefits of storytelling

Ultimately, storytelling is effective for training because stories are easier for us to remember and they are immersive. Paul Zak wrote in HBR, “Many of us know from Joseph Campbell’s work that enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity.”

But how do we, the reader, become truly connected to the character and what triggers the recall, not just of the story but also of the emotions the story generated?

In marketing, we focus on the senses to trigger that future recall. That’s why the branding is consistent (colors, fonts, sounds, image styles), and attention is paid to so many details—the textures, the aromas, etc. that accompany the event—before, during, and after the experience.

When we utilize storytelling in learning, we need to focus not only on the intellectual story arc, we also need to trigger empathy through truly addressing the senses, to help learners enter the scene.

Marketers do this in various ways. For instance, associating certain colors with specific brands or product lines within a brand: HP Papers uses different colors to associate with different types of paper (multipurpose, inkjet, etc.). It is easier for people to remember which color they need when they return to a store to make a repeat purchase than, say, the number for the replacement cartridge for their printer.

We know that food (which can incorporate sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) is important when planning any training initiative, at least, when instructor-led, in-person training was possible. How well, though, was food being incorporated into the training as part of an immersive experience and as an intended mnemonic tool?

Granted, this is harder when conducting training online and for global audiences, but there are still opportunities to subtly work in food references in text and images, reinforce them on meal menus at in-person events, and introduce scents into the room for peak learning moments. In remote training, how about sharing recipes or providing gift cards to a learner cohort to further support a shared and immersive experience? I need not add that spaced repetition would reinforce these references.

Creativity and storytelling

When we look at artists throughout history, generally we attribute the greatest “creativity” to those who help transport us to a place and time, feel an emotion, see the world from a different point of view, or get us thinking differently. These artists, no matter their genre, effectively immerse us in their experience, allowing us to learn and grow. By engaging multiple senses and inspiring particular emotions, these experiences, and thus the learning, stay with us.

Thus, the branded concerts and other immersive, experiential marketing efforts. Whether using VR to promote a perfume, playing slower music in stores to prolong the shopper experience, or driving a branded food truck to promote a TV show, marketers prefer to not rest on telling people information but rather seek to foster experiences that create emotions, with the aim of generating stored memories that can be tapped into in the future.

Use creative approaches to add staying power

Perhaps if we step away from our tried-and-true ways of preparing learning and incorporate a few more senses and emotions into our programs, we might also find our learning initiatives having the staying power of a branded concert performance.

By thinking creatively, learning leadership and their teams can branch out of the usual way we do things and develop more experiential learning opportunities. Being in an unusual space, wearing unexpected clothing, teaching people a dance as a mnemonic, giving people capes to put on and stand in power poses when key concepts are being delivered—these are all added experiences which can help create emotions which help with memory.

Applying this creative approach isn’t only for instructor-led training. When preparing eLearning, take a final review and see where you can add additional dimensions to storytelling. In HBR, Zak suggests, “Transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories—for example, by describing the pitiable situations of actual, named customers and how their problems were solved by your efforts. Make your people empathize with the pain the customer experienced and they will also feel the pleasure of its resolution—all the more if some heroics went in to reducing suffering or struggle or producing joy.”

I would add: Be sure to reference anything that touches the senses. For instance:

  • Background noises—keyboard strokes, dogs, a grandfather clock ticking
  • Scents—popcorn just out of the microwave, cookies just out of the oven, grass just cut
  • Tastes and images—An Insta-worthy dinner on a plate at an exclusive restaurant, a favorite recipe by one’s grandmother
  • Textures and temperatures—cold wind upon opening the car door, how slippery the ice on the ground was, the smooth surface of the mirror

These immerse the senses with references that help someone be in the story along with the protagonist. Help guide learners to knowing whether the sense image is a positive or negative one. Reinforce a particular sense with a particular emotion, which can be leveraged to support later recall of what you want learners to apply later.

Let your creativity soar—and the engagement and effectiveness of your training might, as well.

Explore leadership issues with your peers

Explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers. Join the Learning Leaders Alliance, a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders wanting to build their skillsets.

The Learning Guild’s Alliance Membership package includes access to exclusive digital events and content curated for today’s modern learning leader, as well as opportunities to attend in-person learning leadership events held around the globe. An upcoming Learning Leaders Alliance LeaderChat, on October 12, features Lynne McNamee in a conversation about the intersection of marketing with L&D.