Opinion

Helen Edwards: The true meaning of 'customer insight' - and why marketers should treat it with care

Consumer insights are, by definition, rare. There - see what I've just done? I've slammed together two words not commonly found in the same sentence: "insight" and "definition".

The reluctance of our industry to clearly define the terms it so casually bandies about is at its most delinquent when the subject of insights is on the table.

Hence, ad-agency briefs come with a box marked "consumer insight" even when the task is the promotion of a minor product upgrade. Research agencies describe their core skill as "insighting", as though they can guarantee glimpses into the souls of consumers of such depth that they will count for more than mere "findings" or "observations". It takes only the act of will to first define terms to show this verbal promiscuity for what it is: loose, lazy and impossibly optimistic.

Since neither your communications agency nor research partner – nor your CMO, for that matter – is likely to have made that act of will, I offer up the definition that I try to live by: "Consumer insight: a revelatory breakthrough in your understanding of people’s lives that directs you to new ways in which to serve your customers better."

It’s the "revelatory breakthrough" bit that really bites. Everything beneath that threshold would be no more than a finding. It is only very occasionally, for any given category, that anything at all will rise above it. Do not expect "revelations" on a daily basis.

How do you know when you’ve got one? A sign is that it will feel both surprising and obvious at the same time. Insights make you exclaim "Of course!" The revelation makes sense because it fits with what you already understand about human nature; yet there is something about it that is utterly fresh, to which you had been blinded by your, category-based, "curse of knowledge".

Pampers is a good example of that. What everyone "knew" was that the quality parents most sought from nappies was leak-free performance during activity – so that’s what all the innovation and communications rounded on.

Focus groups merely confirmed that prior "knowledge". When Pampers turned to ethnography, though, an "Of course!" moment was revealed. What counted for most in a home with a baby was sleep. Everyone craved it – and wetness was often the reason they didn’t get it.

So Pampers innovated nappies with extra "dry layers" for bedtime, and the entire brand strategy was shifted to the attainment of "Golden sleep".

This takes us to the second half of my definition: an insight should direct you to serving customers better. That clause wouldn’t be necessary if we were just pursuing academic understanding, but we’re not: we’re seeking to build the brand.

The crucial point is that the revelation won’t stay yours forever. Competitors will arrive at the same nugget sooner or later.

The crucial point is that the revelation won’t stay yours forever. Competitors will arrive at the same nugget sooner or later. Innovation, though, can lock in the advantage for you, and reward consumers for all your probing and prying.

Here’s a final thought that will mark me out as heretic in agency circles. On no account should you merely play back the insight in your ads. "Hey, look what we just learned about you guys" is a shortcut that almost always grates.

If only it were a great deal rarer.

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