Insights: Forget everything you know

The truth is that consumer insights don't have to be deep truths, nor come from consumers. Here are some tips for generating disruptive insights, with powerful examples from Japan.

L-R: Andy Davidson, Chris Francis
L-R: Andy Davidson, Chris Francis

Why is an insight like a refrigerator?
Because as soon as you look in it, a light goes on.

Defining an insight is almost as hard as defining a joke. Most of us agree that insights should illuminate, inspire and cause us to slap our heads and say “Yes! Of course!”

The job of an insight is to create a ‘disturbance in discourse’. The 'discourse' being the received ways of thinking or talking about a subject, and the ‘disturbance’ being a new way to say what we didn’t know how to say before.

More on that later. First let’s take a look at some of the conventions that we believe can hold us back from delivering more powerful insights.

Here are three major culprits:

  • "Truth"
  • "Consumer"
  • "Deep"

1. Truth is less important than you think

Are you hunting for truths to uncover good insights?

Of course, on some level an insight must be true. But prioritising it above and beyond interestingness might be a mistake. Truth should be the test—not the start point.

There are three main issues with obsessing about the truth:

  • The truth can be boring, banal, uninspiring. Real life is often dull.
  • The truth is too late: For something to be true, it needs to already be happening, and then it might be too late. What about emergent truth? 
  • The truth confuses us: If we obsess over consumer ‘truths’, this leads us to ‘facts’ and observations. But insights are not facts, they are a synthesis. We create them from things we discover.

How about this as an alternative: Think about the opposite of conventional wisdom and established facts in your category, and then think about what the world would need to be like in order for this thing to be true. Are there circumstances when it is true?

Stop looking for truths. A better start is interestingness every time. Figure out how to make it true.

2. Insights don't always, or only, come via consumers

Insight doesn't need to come via the consumer. In fact, often it's unlikely to come from consumers at all, particularly in established categories and mature markets.

Of course there needs to be some consumer relevance, but it is not necessarily the place to start. Certain categories are so over-researched, so unchanging, or so low in emotional investment, and consumers have such established ways of thinking about them, that it's extremely difficult to find that spark of disturbance you are looking for.

A host of other sources of insight out there can complement a really great piece of consumer understanding. You can explore and interrogate them all. Cultural shifts, brand legacy and iconography, category codes, product design or experience. Talk to the partners of the consumers you're interested in. Or talk to stakeholders—here and in other markets. Businesses often sit on a goldmine of interesting ideas that never see the light due to politics or a lack of time.

3. Insights don't need to be 'deep'

Penetrating...deep: Words we see a lot in exploratory 'insight' briefs.

Do we really need to dig so deep? How about wide?

This idea of depth only makes sense if you believe that a useful insight has to lie within an individual's deeper or subconscious motivations. But things from the depths tend to be dark and obscure and mysterious, not bright and shiny.

We would argue that some—if not most—of the best insights are surprisingly obvious, it's just they’ve never been said before. The important point is their originality.

Rather than going deeper to find new ones, we’d suggest looking from another angle: Go more sideways. Aim for breadth rather than depth.

In practice, this means having more inputs, more angles on the same topic. Think beyond your core target market, go to the fringes, go to other categories, to other areas of culture—anywhere but down!

True disturbances

We see many good examples in the world of marketing of these disruptive success stories: Unilever's 'Dirt is good' campaign, which rejected the discourse of whiteness and 'good mums' in favour of a celebration of experience, learning and play; The Tsubaki Nihon-no josei wa utsukushii line, from Shiseido, which confidently celebrated Japanese beauty in a category that often seemed to look to the West.

Coca-Cola Japan's I Lohas water brand is a great example of a disruptive success. The brand re-framed the all powerful import waters as indulgences that were harmful to the planet since they were being shipped halfway around the world. I Lohas's super-light,100 per cent recyclable bottle, the 'eco-crush' of twisting the bottle up on completion, and the name all positioned this domestic water as fun and progressive. The pack design walked away from all the category codes—blueness, source, provenance.

The 'insight' here didn't come from consumers saying they wanted to drink Japanese water rather than French: it came from an interrogation of supply chains, emerging social beliefs around the environment, an R&D breakthrough in pack design, and a great ritual, name and logo. All wrapped into a coherent emotional proposition. I Lohas became the leading water brand in six months and outsold the nearest competitor by roughly three to one.

Let's look at another example of a brand that successfully disturbed the discourse in Japan.

The Suntory Highball: Everything communicates.

Until 2009, domestic whisky consumption in Japan was declining. The typical drinker was in his 50s or older, and almost certainly a guy, and no new blood was being recruited into the category. It was getting stagnant. Younger drinkers found old-style whisky bars intimidating and stuffy, and felt the product itself was hard to drink.

The Suntory Highball, made with the Kakubin blend, changed all that. It re-branded whisky and soda with an evocative bar call, the Highball. It reframed the drink by serving it in a pint glass, with lots of ice, often lemon, and later on even on draught. It achieved successful commercialisation with great distribution. And the main face of its ad campaign was a young woman.

The Highball has succeeded in getting whisky into new occasions (after work, early evening, with food—occasions previously dominated by beer) and in getting younger drinkers and women into the category. Some of them are now trading up to Suntory's smoky 12-year-old malt Hakushu for a 'Haku High'.

Finding Insight in Japan

Japan is a 'high context' society, with a wealth of shared experiences, belief systems, life goals, and cultural carriers of meaning. A market in which you're likely to see relatively homogenous life patterns, as well as being arguably the most mature, structured and sophisticated of all consumer markets.

In that context, breakthrough insight can be harder to unearth by primary consumer research alone. But the flipside of that is the huge wealth of shared 'cultural material' that we can also interrogate for inspiration and insight. Using semiotics to look at the brand landscape or wider cultural texts—magazines, movies, design trends; talking to interesting experts from journalism or academia; understanding emerging behaviour or attitudinal shifts; or just including 'outlier' or super-consumers in our sample design.

So to re-iterate: When looking for insight that will make a difference to your business, get beyond the clichés. Forget 'truth'. Go beyond the consumer. And look wide, not deep. Disturb the discourse!

Andy Davidson is head of UK practice in London and Chris Francis is managing director in Tokyo for Flamingo.


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