Art & Commerce: The Killer Insight

It’s football season again and along with the ol’ pigskin come the (in)famous beer commercials full of scantily clad women and sophomoric bathroom humor. I saw one the other day and had to wonder exactly what the big consumer insight was that drove the ad. Don’t get me wrong, I think some of those commercials are pretty funny. But they don’t exactly differentiate one brand of beer from the other. I’m continually amazed at how often even the most-sophisticated marketers completely fail to find, or even seek out, those killer insights that drive brand differentiation and guide breakthrough innovation.

It seems to me that too many marketers rush through the “fuzzy” front-end part of the research process. It may be their discomfort with the lack of a clear path during this phase, or perhaps an underlying fear that a killer insight will require a total marketing overhaul. And of course, there’s also the pressure to deliver quarterly results that can accelerate the process. With so many marketplace failures and below-expectation performers, the question is how many of these could have performed better if more time had been taken to find that breakthrough insight that separates success from mediocrity and failure.

Marketers often focus too quickly on collecting and then aggregating consumer research in order to build their confidence in the data. In their rush to keep things moving ahead, and stay within their comfort zone, they often miss out on the iterative phase of learning, when one can uncover that all-important ingredient of a differentiating proposition—a distinctive and inimitable emotional benefit that only their brand can own. Hitting on the right differentiating proposition can be the difference between becoming a Starbucks and being just another coffeehouse brand.

Think about the last time you conducted research. Was your goal to obtain data that confirmed what you already believed to be true or that your existing strategy was on target? Or was it to let consumers take you to a new place in order to uncover the deep connection they have with your brand? Did the research method truly match your goal?

Marketers need to get more comfortable with using every single contact with the consumer as an opportunity for learning. Most importantly, we must use what we learn to evolve our understanding so that our next interaction will dig even deeper.

Whether it’s ethnography, one-on-one interviews, focus groups, or just chatting with shoppers in a store, every interaction with a consumer is a chance to learn—but not if you fall into the trap of sticking to one list of predetermined questions. Iterating means to use each new kernel of information to reframe your questions and initial hypotheses in order to challenge your beliefs as well as the consumer’s. And while each of these interactions may take you in a different direction, over time you will begin to spot the consistencies—and that’s where you will find the killer insights.

Believe me, I fully ascribe to making fact-based, data-supported decisions—just not too early in the process, when you have a great opportunity to explore areas that more quantitatively driven techniques will keep you from getting into. There will be plenty of time to quantitatively measure what you have heard. But rushing to get there might mean missing the hard-to-uncover, but often pivotal, emotional insights that come from deep, iterative immersion. Proceeding iteratively will get you some rich learning that can take you to some very new and unexpected places.

How do you know if you’re not spending enough time iterating early in your time line? Here are some signs:

1. You are using research to generate quantifiable data. If you quantify too early in the process of learning, you may end up measuring the wrong thing and missing what ultimately could be the breakthrough that can really drive a brand.

2. You are expressing your findings with a focus on product functionality. If you are discussing the brand in functional rather than emotional terms, you’re not likely to find the insights you seek. After all, if Apple focused on how consumers liked the large memory, compact size and speed of the product, the iPod would have been just another MP3 player instead of the cultural icon, and revenue generator, it is today.

3. You are repeating questions. If you find yourself asking consumers the same questions repeatedly instead of refining your questions based on earlier learnings, you likely are trying to measure and quantify the information and certainly not iterating.

So the next time you begin your research, keep this in mind: Game-changing business results often come from uncovering a truly differentiating, emotionally based insight or connection to a brand. And finding those deep emotional connections that can change the game probably will not come from quantitative research. So it’s OK to wander a bit in a world of uncertainty. If you take some risk, ask the right questions and get comfortable moving forward without a clear path ahead, chances are your brand will be able to rewrite the rules it wants to play by.