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The Art of Insight

From the production of a yoghurt to the development of a new financial product, all commercial endeavours are ultimately concerned with one thing; making money – it’s the bottom line after all. No money, no commercial endeavour. And how do you make money? By providing a product or service that the market wants to buy. Simple!

But there-in lies the trick. For the market, whoever that may consist of, be it post millennial teens or international space organisations, the product you provide must have value, and as people have limited resources available to them to acquire things of value then your product or service must have a competitive advantage over other similar or alternative options targeting that market.

To establish where the opportunities lie within their markets companies often spend incalculable hours and large coffers of cash under the illusion that they are collecting insight. But often, rather than providing clear direction these efforts lead to people being swamped with facts and figures which in themselves do little other than to describe the way things are.

As Henry Ford famously said:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The quote is often used to belittle the market research industry which profits from the collection and provision of information about markets in response to the demands of companies seeking competitive advantage. But claims that research studies provide no insight are a simplistic retort to the problem. Of course, badly designed and executed market research provides poor and unreliable results but beyond this I do not think it is the problem of the market research industry that it so often fails to deliver the insight that companies crave.

Instead the problem lies in what a commissioning company expects of market research in the first place.

The market research industry is grounded in the business of information gathering, and Insight is not something that can be collected.

The words Research and Insight are often used interchangeably. The commissioning company believes it is buying insight, when in fact it is buying research.

Achieving a competitive advantage requires an understanding of people’s unmet needs, in my view this is the true definition of market insight, and as Henry Ford rightly said, people rarely know what their unmet needs are.

What people can do, is report on their actions and experiences and this is what is delivered through a market research exercise.

It is not the market research industry but the assumption that insight can be gained directly from its reportage that is at fault.

Insight unlike information gathering requires an assessment of the situation based on the known facts. It is an exercise in reading between the lines in order to illuminate a hidden truth. Much in the way that a detective gathers clues to find a criminal, the art of insight takes data points of known fact in order to find an unmet market need.

To give an example; several years ago, I happened across the website of an ethnographic research agency called Everyday Lives run by a prominent commercial ethnographer, Siamak Salari. On the site were a number of “fly on the wall” video clips of people going about their business. One particular video centred on breakfast time in a family household. The mother, clearly an organised individual, was going about preparing breakfast for her children. In her kitchen she had decanted cereals into clear plastic tubs, and obviously concerned with portion control she scooped measured quantities of cereal into bowls and added milk.

Then came a drink and she hollered to the dining room, where the children were seated, “Kids what do you want to drink Orange or Apple [juice]?” to which one of the children shouts “apple”. The mother knowing that the other will want orange pours this in the second beaker, but in doing so notes “there’s not much left!”

From this observation of daily life we might glean the following facts:

  • Some mothers are very organised and engaged in what they give their children for breakfast
  • Some households buy both orange and apple juice
  • Some mothers offer a choice of juice drinks for their children at breakfast time
  • Some mothers aren’t aware of how much juice has been consumed by the household

Being wrapped up in a scenario it is perhaps easier to consider the ramifications of these snippets of information. However often information is not gathered in a contextual way but comes from multiple sources.

For example

  • From a lifestyle survey we may establish the percentage of mothers concerned with what their children eat at breakfast
  • In loyalty card data we may find the number of households which purchase both apple and orange juice
  • In focus groups we may learn that mothers like to offer their children a choice of drink
  • Through a category usage and attitudes survey way may find that a proportion of main shoppers for a household don’t know how much orange juice they collectively consume

These are all facts in their own right but when put together they paint a picture that helps us to identify a potential problem, rather like the clues that a detective follows to catch his man.

This is the first step to developing an insight.

A next useful step is an attempt to condense this understanding into a simple statement.

In our example this may read:

“I am in the habit of giving my children a choice of fruit juice in the morning but I am not in the habit of making sure I have a variety in stock”

With the use of the word “but” the statement reveals a tension which pin points the heart of an unmet consumer need.

The final test we must put in place is to question the relevance and value that may be created in addressing the unmet need revealed by the insight. So, we might ask ourselves

  1. What would have happened if the first child had chosen orange as well?
  2. A mini drama about orange juice?

This allows us to truly understand if we are solving a problem that needs to be solved and furthermore gives us a “reason to believe” that can be used in marketing communications in order to promote the USP that we are developing.

In response to our insight we may choose to change the packaging of the juice so there is a transparent window or gauge to tell mum how much juice there is left in the carton and prompt replenishment.

Additionally, we may adopt in-store marketing activity to encourage mum to pick up another carton by prompting the question “Got enough juice for breakfast?”

For the brand taking these actions the commercial implications may well lead to increased purchase frequency and greater sales.

For a research agency commissioned to conduct a study the task of delivering insight can be difficult as it is seldom exposed to previously collected information with which to contextualise the information it is charged with gathering. Furthermore, without a knowledge of how an insight is to be used it is difficult to evaluate how valuable and relevant the information being gathered will be.

As a shopper marketing agency we often find ourselves in the position of being presented with multiple research studies by our clients with a view to finding the insights which will help to shape a campaign. This puts us in an enviable position, with access to all the gathered information, a purpose to which an insight is to be applied and the means to realise a solution based on these new-found understandings, we are able to put the information that has been gathered to work and generate a return on all that research endeavour.