6 June 2020


Insights about insights

As Jack Welch of GE once famously said, ‘There are only two sources of competitive advantage: the ability to learn more about our customers faster than the competition and the ability to turn that learning into action faster than the competition.

Which is probably why more and more clients are talking about “consumer insights” with the kind of reverence of new age evangelists and the thinly veiled desperation of an addict looking for their next hit, the one that will magically put their world right.

I’m not denying for one moment the capacity of a brilliantly conceived and executed insight to quite literally and almost magically reverse the fortunes of an ailing brand or propel a successful one to dizzy new heights. Quite the opposite.

What I am saying is that much that is held up as sacred “insight” isn’t actually that insightful at all. When was the last time you were presented with one that didn’t feel like it was primarily designed to fill in the mandatory blanks in a marketing plan or creative brief?

Nobody will lose their job but then again nobody will get promoted either. From a productivity point of view, there is plenty of ‘output’ to show for all those hours of management time spent in brainstorming sessions, creative seminars and consumer workshops but not a single actionable discovery that might unlock brand growth.

These dressed up nuggets of information may well be the inspiration for someone to eventually uncover an insight. However in their current format, usually in a deck or document that passes the ‘weight test’, they are nothing more than ‘nice-to-know’ facts or observations.

The bad news is that there are still innovation consultants peddling the positivist dream, that insights grow on yellow post-its, that all they need is a bit of creative watering from the right moderator with the right process in a room full of the right people. Insights require a “drum-roll-eureka-moment” and plenty of strategic rationale to pass muster.

In my experience a real insight creeps up on you when you least expect it (usually when you’re doing something else more enjoyable) and once shared, is so blindingly obvious, you can’t quite figure out how you didn’t think of it before. Like a brilliant creative idea, it doesn’t need much explaining, much less selling. It is totally self-illuminating.

I’m no expert on insight generation but I do wonder if we sometimes overlook more obvious places in pursuit of a “grand” all-singing-and-dancing moment of discovery. The way I see it, if you want to make a brand matter to someone, then where better to look for insight than in the “channel” that matters most to them?

I’m not talking about clever media placement here but about identifying the “medium” (in the broadest sense of the word) that looks most likely to motivate the kind of brand behaviour you want to effect and on a scale that makes it a worthwhile business investment.

Below are some cases in point I’ve lifted from this year’s APG awards.


Take the Axe campaign, which won a Silver for its success in getting Japanese men to use the brand more often. Achieving this meant making Axe a part of young guys’ morning routine and the usual approach would have been to develop a campaign that tells guys to spray Axe every day or every morning by reminding them that encounters with the opposite sex don’t only happen at weekends or in the evenings in bars.

However getting young guys to use Axe every day required more than simply telling them to spray everyday. They needed to change or break into a routine and this meant finding the right channel.

They could have opted for early morning television or radio but at this time of day these channels are simply background to the morning routine. They would not have helped achieve a behavioural change.

The insight sprang from their discovery that Japanese guys use their mobile phone as an alarm clock.  Creatively, this gave rise to the “Axe Wake Up Service”, a sexy mobile alarm application that gave guys a daily wake-up call reminding them to spray Axe each morning.

It worked. The post campaign purchase repeat rate was 27% points higher than before the campaign started.

British Heart Foundation

The British Heart Foundation when tasked with combating childhood obesity, recognised that children already know what’s good and bad for them. It’s just that they feel invincible. What made the difference was the insight that children learn not from being told what to do but through exploration and play.

The creative solution was to invite children aged 11-13 (those on the cusp of making independent choices) to create a Yoobot – a free digital, miniature version of themselves – at www.yoobot.co.uk which they could personalize by uploading a photo of themselves, as well as customising their room, clothes and hairstyles.

Children could either care for their Yoobot or feed it into an early grave. In order for them to gain rapid feedback on the effects of their choices, time was telescoped. Long-term dietary effects developed quickly; one human day equals three Yoobot years. The ‘timewarp’ allowed users to quickly see into the future as their Yoobot grew old or put on weight.

By choosing a medium in which children could play and discover, their interest in and understanding of the consequences of healthy eating improved dramatically. It led to a significant change in their eating patterns. Such a change in behaviour is unlikely to have resulted from a more conventional messaging approach, however tightly targeted.

Kent County Council

Kent County Council went even further. They created a new type of channel to solve their biggest communication and social problem, teenagers. The brief was to discourage ‘unhealthy’ behaviours like unprotected sex, drinking, drugs, smoking etc. Basically, all the things teenagers enjoy.

They quickly realised their modest budget could add nothing to the litany of ‘helpful’ messages bombarding teenagers. Likewise, Kent County Council offered no shortage of helpful support services. It would have been pointless adding more. But, there was a need to connect the two, to create a new channel in-between ‘message’ and ‘service’.

Studying interactions between teenagers, their friends and support services, Kent County Council realised they needed a real place, an environment, which tapped into teenagers’ most influential medium – conversation, and most meaningful conversations happened in ‘a mate’s house’.

The creative solution was to convert disused high-street shops into credible “mate’s houses” so teenagers were given free rein to design and co-create the space, naming it ‘House’. With six ‘Houses’ in Kent and six more being created, the results have been phenomenal.


Halifax, this year’s gold winner was quick to recognize that if they wanted to increase the effectiveness of their student recruitment, they would have to be single-minded about their choice of channel.

Statistics from Hitwise indicated that one of the first places students go when they receive their A Level results is a social networking site. This is probably to share results, organise celebrations and see who else is going to their university. So in 2008 their advertising placements deviated from the usual financial sites. They targeted social networking and local listings sites where university communities gathered.

Halifax employed specialist seeding company, Unruly Media, to ensure their content was also placed most appropriately at a micro targeted level. They gained preferential placements on student listings guides like London Student, Don’t Stay In and Camden Guide, and youth video and game sites such as Daily Motion and VVC Funny as well as on mainstream social networking and video sites like Metacafe, MySpace TV and VEOH.

In total 80% of the Halifax Student Marketing Budget and nearly 100% of the media budget was spent on the digital channel. Despite being outspent by all their major competitors, Halifax grew their consideration level substantially. Increased efficiencies led to their best ever Return On Marketing Investment.


Finally, the insight and creative solution to Eurostar’s gold winning campaign to document the cultural impact of its arrival at a re-developed St Pancras (and the regeneration of the surrounding Somers Town area), fell totally outside the usual advertising channels.

The need to cover the breadth of the subject matter and do justice to its emotional depth, left their creative agency Mother stumped until they realised that telling the Somers Town story was best suited to a full length movie, the kind that does “heightened emotion” very well. So that’s what they did. They filmed a story about the feelings they believed the new Eurostar could in some way help evoke.

Last year Somers Town (http://www.somers-town.com/) won Best British Feature at the Edinburgh Film Festival. At Tribeca, Thomas Turgoose and Piotr Jagiello, jointly took best actor. It ended up as the second highest grossing British independent at the box office. It’s now selling in all the major DVD retailers, has already run as VOD on Sky Box Office and British Airways have recently paid Eurostar for the right to play in-flight.

The positive PR generated for Eurostar has alone been valued at £1.3 million. A Hall and Partners survey showed that pre-disposition to travel on Eurostar was 40% higher amongst people who had viewed Somers Town than people who hadn’t.

As Xan Brooks, The Guardians film critic put it:

“It’s a film that made me want to travel… maybe to Paris, and maybe by train, a fast train under the Channel. Curse those nice feelings, that intangible stuff. Sometimes it’s the most powerful stuff there is.”

So a little insight goes a long way. The marketing hype seems justified but we could all do with becoming a bit more discerning about what really constitutes an insight. And if this year’s APG award winning case studies are anything to go by, our customers’ preferred channel is as good a place as any to start looking for that elusive voodoo doll.

Rachel Haslam

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