Let’s be more insightful about insights, says JWT’s head of insights

JWT’s head of insights Andrew McCowan, argues that marketing’s overuse of the word ‘insights’ is clouding the real insights into the concept of ‘insights’.

 

Marketing is full of buzzwords. Terms and definitions are over used in marketing pitches, client meetings and in publications every day. But none are used quite as often – and incorrectly – as the term ‘insight’. It is a catch-all for a wide number of concepts, from the creative starting point for an ad, to the applied knowledge that directs a social media plan, to consumer media consumption behaviour understanding, to the strategic foundation for a brand’s positioning.

Where the role of ‘insight’ started in advertising was the expectation that ‘insight will be brought to life in the TV ad’. It was a way to make the communications relevant to people. Sometimes this led to ‘holding a mirror up’ to people’s lives, which was taking the insight at its most literal, and showing clichéd images and scenarios, from a frazzled mum wanting to enjoy a moment of time out for herself, or kids arguing for the tasty cereal at breakfast.

However, at its best, ‘insight’ would show a fresh dramatisation of life relating to the category that people could recognise, while still being fresh and interesting. This is when ‘insight’ is a launch pad for creativity – it’s the starting point that helps ensure the thinking is ground in something relatable and true.

In the world of participative communications – in which people need to do something with the communications rather than just consume it, the basis of what will make the communications relevant has changed. The mini drama or comedy of the TV ad (if you have one) isn’t the key way to provide relevance or interest for people.

Because of this, ‘insight’ has come to mean any applied understanding that impacts the communications. The use of communications diagnostics to make responsive communications that evolve with market and consumer conditions is the new opportunity to drive tactics to make every stage of communications more effective. I don’t call this ‘insights’, though – I’d describe it instead as ‘applied knowledge’.

We are at risk of losing sight of the fact that insights are about more than communications. The best insights are at the core of how brands are defined, complementing the rational and emotional benefits to give the brand a rounded sense of being unique. Even if other brands could do the same things, no one else could have that same combination. It was never something just to be brought to life in an ad, it was about why the brand is relevant to people.

For example: think about a book store brand. There is a consumer understanding that book lovers like to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee while perusing new books. That’s why so many bookstores now have a café next door or incorporated into their offer. Does that mean that the advertising needs to show people enjoying a coffee in the café ? In this case it’s understanding that can help evolve the offer of the book retailer brand – turning the experience of book shopping into a social environment where customers are invited to linger and connect with others. Dramatising that experience isn’t necessarily the most compelling or relevant context for communication of the benefit of this brand.

Arguably, the insight for the book retailer brand is this: buying a new book is like buying into a fresh conversation to be considered, discussed and shared with like minded friends.

This isn’t differentiating for a book retailer brand – it’s true for all new book purchases. It’s an important understanding that can help direct the evolution of the brand offer and drive the communications strategy, but the most compelling brand benefit or purpose that can drive people to the bookstore is different from simply dramatising the insight.

In a world where the classic techniques of rational and emotional differentiation of brands is getting harder to utilise, as consumer brands, retailers and service providers all blur the lines between one another, depth and relevance of insight is what will really make a brand unique and potent. That’s not to say that you can ever have a ‘proprietary insight’ that is completely unique, but it can be the glue that holds together all the elements that combined, and make the brand unique in consumers eyes.

 

Andrew McCowan is head of insights at JWT Sydney.