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Stop Digging for Insights

Great post by Emma a thought also articulated by Steve Jobs; the notion that insights aren’t discovered, but rather they are intuited by understanding an audience and making a connection that has previously gone unnoticed.

I am fed up with digging for consumer insights. More precisely, I am fed up with the assumption that one can dig for consumer insights. I found myself today being asked yet again how I personally go about ‘uncovering’ consumer insights for deployment in advertising development and I tried to explain, again, that – actually – I don’t ever ‘uncover’, ‘find’ or ‘dig for’ them at all. And that I think it’d be helpful if everyone else stopped trying to do so as well.
To explain. I am not denying that great consumer insights (by which I mean fresh, thought-provoking and true observations on the nature of human thought, feeling or behavior) are sometimes the springboard for excellent marketing and advertising. It seems to me for example – to cite just one great recent case – that W+K’s great ‘Proud Sponsor of Moms’ campaign for P&G’s Olympic sponsorship program was triggered by the simple but powerful consumer insight that there’s only one person in this world prouder than an Olympic gold medalist – and that’s the gold medalist’s mom. Closer to home at BBH, it was a great and universal consumer insight that drove the long-running success of our global Johnnie Walker campaign: in that instance, the insight that men nowadays define personal success as a constant journey of progress, not a complacent ‘made it’ achievement of arrival and completion.

So yes, consumer insights – if truly insightful – are hugely valuable. But it’s the verbs that typically accompany description of their pursuit that are so problematic. Verbs of discovery. Usually discovery via excavation. We talk about ‘digging for insights’, ‘finding consumer insights’, ‘uncovering consumer insights’. With the implied assumption that insights are sitting around, lurking hidden from sight as if under a rock, just waiting for some persistent young marketer or researcher to come along and ‘find’ them. For years, the exhortation has been that we should all be better at ‘digging’ for insights. And nowadays I notice that the call is for insight mining. (Perhaps the futile digging is recognized not to have worked, so a determination to delve deeper – to mine down into lower strata – has now been committed to. But what’s really required is a totally different attitude.)

Here’s the thing. Great consumer insights are not – in my experience – discovered. They are thought of. Conceived in the mind of some smart, informed person. They are not found, they are intuited. They are not mined, they are identified and hypothesized.

Someone with a deep understanding of the relevant group of people (the ‘target’ – dread word) uses their intuitive knowledge of that target, along with their creative thinking skill, to articulate a fresh, fascinating and provocative new brand perspective on the target. ‘It’s funny isn’t it”, they say, ‘that our brand promises to clean clothes effectively, yet actually most moms know that it’s healthy for kids to get dirty as they play and explore’ (the Unilever laundry ‘Dirt is good’ consumer insight ). Or, ‘isn’t it interesting”, they say, “that the people who wear our sneakers are mostly very unathletic, their activity is in the bar not on the field” (Puma – ‘For the after hours athlete”). Or “have you noticed how when you get really hungry, your whole personality changes” (Snickers ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry”).

If coming up with great insights was a matter of discovery, then everyone could do it. And would. Whereas in reality, we all work with brand /comms strategists (client- and agency- side) who go through their entire career never identifying a true insight.

In reality, identifying an insight is less about finding some new piece of information (who doesn’t already know that moms are proud of their sons’ and daughters’ achievements? Who needs a piece of research to point this out? ) and much more about realizing how information or knowledge can be freshly used and applied. We all already know that some people aren’t athletic, we all know we get grumpy and distracted when we’re hungry, we all know kids learn by experimental play – but we don’t all spot what to do with that knowledge. We don’t all have the INSIGHT to see how to apply it.

And then, sure, consumer and research can play a valuable role. We can use research to confirm whether an insight is indeed valid, and to hone or qualify it, and to finesse how to express it in the most motivating way. But we need to all stop thinking we can skip off into a new research project, stopping to pick up insights happily along the way.

Emma Cookson

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