The world of brand strategy is deluged by ideas and words that are misused and misunderstood. Insight is one of them. Indeed is is perhaps the most abused and debased concepts in the entire marketing lexicon.
Strategists spend hours and hours in endless conversation trying to define what an insight is and how you find them. Only to ignore all of this and then build strategies and communications that are entirely devoid of insight. So much so, that a little while ago I had a rubber stamp made that declares whatever I imply its imprint to is “guaranteed free of insight”.
The fetishisation of insight
I’m unclear how and when the word was first introduced to marketing and brand strategy, it predates my career. But what I have witnessed in the last 30 years is its increased fetishisation. So much so, that client organisations now refer to their in-house research operations as insight departments, rejecting the noble application of research to the process of brand building in deference to a desire to chase or supply ‘insights’. Real insight is not something that most research delivers and that’s fine, since the primary job of research is to validate or disprove hypotheses, not to supply insight. Some good research is insightful, of course it is but to insist that all research might be insightful is fanciful, unhelpful and has led to lowering the bar iwhen it comes to the quality of insight.
Insight is now seen as a commodity that you can order up, almost by weight. There are boxes on briefs for ‘the insight’, processes that promise to generate ‘insights’, and tools dedicated to the manufacturing of so called ‘insights’, usually from data that yields nothing of the kind.
It’s not that the word is an issue – please protect us all from alternatives like foresight – it’s our use of it.
Technically, insight is a noun. The Cambridge Dictionary describes it as “a clear or deep, and sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem or situation”. Now that is something I can get behind – clear, deep and critically, sudden. This is all good. But the usage encouraged is about gaining insight or having insight not about there being things called insights. This is, I feel where we all went wrong.
Think about the word freed from marketing nonsense for a moment. It is about perspective. An insight into a subject offers a fresh perspective or certainly an insiders view. Insight gets to the heart of a mater, revealing what is really going on. Insight helps open up a new approach or direction. It is a quality not a thing. So much so that I wonder if it would be better to regard it as an adjective and not a noun.
As a result there would be no such thing as an insight that we would go chasing like butterfly hunters but observations and perspectives that were insightful, that were clear, deep and sudden. Insight would be returned to its rightful place as an action standard and not the description of usually flaccid and uninteresting information. And that would be a wholly good thing. Maybe those insight departments could even go back to doing honest to goodness research that proves and disproves things too.
Why insight matters
Now, I know that this all sound pedantic and semantic. But the truth is that it really matters that we get this right. Since insight, perspectives that are truly insightful, are the lifeblood of great brand strategy for two intensely powerful reasons – empathy and advantage.
Being really insightful about people’s lives, the world they live in and the way that they related to your category or even brand build true empathy and affinity with your audience. It shows that you not only ‘get’ them but allows you to do things that offer greater value because they meet deeper or more fundamental needs. In other words it depth charges a brand with purpose and intent built by serving real people’s lives and needs.
I have always loved the way some cinemas offer screenings for parents with babies. These film ‘screamings’ recognise that parents still want to be able to see first run movies but dare not with small children, for fear of the disruption they would cause. That simple act of empathy is of course highly commercially beneficial in the short term, often filling cinemas at off peak times. But its good for the log term too as parents return to the cinema alone, or with a slightly older child in tow. Real insight leading to real empathy.
Great insight is often deeply empathetic, placing the audience on a pedestal. We found that with the work we did for HSBC’s small business proposition. HSBC Fusion is the integrated personal and business banking service for small business owners. At its heart we placed the importance of independence for small business owners, we called them independent spirits and recognised their desire to protect that independence from the ‘big’ forces around them big clients, big suppliers, big competitors, big regulations etc.
Fantastic insight not only builds affinity it also creates advantage. The ability to constant fuel a brand with insightful perspectives on the world can become a source of sustained competitive advantage over others. An advantage because you alone have access to it, a monopoly over insight if you like.
Nike’s communications and experiences are second to none but so is the insight that they are repeatedly able to drive into the brand. A continual diet of fresh perspectives that keeps them ahead of their competitors. What, after all is the persepctive that pregnancy is the ultimate atheleticism, other than a powerful way to gain advantage in maternity wear, further expanding the brand into new growth categories?
In a world in which sustained advantage through innovation is hard to maintain, sustained advantage through access to insight is hugely powerful. It’s a little like finding a new source of gold while everyone else is scrabbling over the deposits in an existing and rapidly dwindling deposit elsewhere. While you alone have access to the new source of gold you have a huge advantage. Of course, if it proves productive you won’t be alone for long and in time others will join you. At that point you have to consider the insightfulness of your perspective is spent and contemplate moving on again. Once your perspective is shared it rapidly becomes an orthodoxy, lifeless and useless in its ubiquity. But for the period that you have access to insight that no one else has discovered, its like putting high octane fuel directly into your tank.
The brand idea for Fridge Raiders – snacks with substance – came out of a unique and insightful observation about the way people were increasingly snacking. Uncovered in an ethnographic study (a rare example of insightful research), Plan A Snacking recognised that for many people snacking was they way that they were eating through out the day. In other words their day didn’t consist of meal, snack, meal, snack, meal. But one of snack, snack, snack, snack. Snacking wasn’t plan B, something to fill in the gaps, it was plan A, how they actually get through the day. And if snacking is plan A they need to snack on food rather than traditional ‘snacks’ like crisps and confectionary. In that role, Fridge Raiders, made from proper food not carbs or sugar, are snacks of substance.
I remember that research debrief, one had a palpable feeling that you were able to see something others could not, that it had been revealed to you alone. And reveal is the operative word here. When something is insightful it feels like it has suddenly been revealed, visible for the first time from beneath the layers of accepted wisdom and orthodoxy.
Indeed revelation should be the action standard for all good insight. If that observation or idea feels like a revelation to you – an astonishing disclosure – then it is insightful. You can forget trying to define insight or attempting to qualify what it is. Regardless of your experience you already know whether something appears to you revelatory, whether it is about your brand, its customers or the wider world.
HSBC Jade was a premium banking and wealth management offering for people with between one and five million dollars of investable assets. These people are seriously successful, not quite in the private banking bracket but certainly with interesting and complicated financial needs. What we revealed was that as their their drive for success that had carried them through most of their life is increasingly matched by a desire for significance. To acquire what some call eulogy values, crudely the things that are said about you in your obituary, rather than simply your career and financial achievements. These have a good dose of philanthropy but also simply a desire to challenge themselves outside the professional sphere by taking up punishing or challenging activities. So while the other premium banking offerings focused merely on success and banking the rewards of that success the search for significance as well as success became the driving idea behind the HSBC Jade brand.
You may find that your brand is built around one insightful idea or has a number at its heart. I like the idea of driving insight that is the engine room of why your brand better connects with people, that is surrounded by supporting insight.
HSBC Jade had a number of supporting insights, one of my favourites because it is counter orthodoxy, is that very wealthy people are not cash rich but time poor. This assumption permeates much of the brand building for affluent people. The truth is that they are cash rich and time rich, or at least their time is theirs to manage and shape. Success has bought them freedom from someone else’s schedule and in truth from many of the chores that absorb other people’s time. They have time and want to invest it wisely.
This idea of driving inisght with a rich and rewarding supporting insight was critical in building HSBC Fusion too. HSBC Fusion is the integrated personal and business banking service for small business owners. At its heart was the importance of independence and the nature of the independent sprits that run small businesses. But this was surrounded by a constellation of supporting insight. Small business owners didn’t have a work life balance but a work life blend. They hate big because often, in creating their own business, they were running away from big and they are often at the mercy of big – big clients, big competitors, big regulations etc. But they don’t see themselves as small, small business is a term used by big business and government to put independent businesses in their place. And they suffer from a paradox of control, the desire for it control drives them to run their own business but their scale often means they actually lack any control whatsoever. A small galaxy of supporting insight.
Insight and being insightful, whether represented by a killer revelation or an ecosystem of tensions and disclosures will give your brand drive. They will provide understanding of people’s lives that goes beyond the descriptive into the deeper issues that they are wrestling with and maybe where they could do with some help. Whether that is getting through the day without feeling hungry or finding their place in the world after very successful careers.
But please make sure what you call insight is actually insightful. That its reveals something about people’s lives, the brand or the wider world that was previously hidden or unacknowledged. Information about people’s lives, however true, which is frankly what most research and data provides us with is not insight. Without the sense that you have stumbled on a new goldfield of understanding that is unknown to others, you don’t have an insight or revelation that you can build a brand around. You have yet more information.