What is the definition of an insight?

There are far too many flaky insight definitions. By the end of this piece I will give you my own definition.  But mine comes from two sources. The first is the wonderful Cluetrain Manifesto  – which announced nearly 20 years ago that markets are conversations.  I love that. Before you worry about exchanges whether or products or of money you have to have a shared understanding of what need you are trying to satisfy – and what is around that can meet that need.

Markets are conversations said the Clue Train Manifesto

Hence Cluetrain’s emphasis on business owners freeing up their staff to actually talk to customers so customers could find out more about how to use products – and when products didn’t work properly or weren’t very good to fix the issue.  I remember it caused quite a stir at the time because it became evident that a lot of business owners didn’t want their staff saying anything that wasn’t approved. In other words they would rather have people misuse products and badmouth them rather than connect them to people who could set them straight.  The internet and in particular twitter has made it much easier to get help when you want it so Cluetrain won that particular round

gerald zaltman insight definition

The interaction of consumers’ and managers conscious and unconscious minds

The second source is a quotation by Gerald Zaltman which you can see on the image.  Markets being an interaction between consumers and managers conscious and unconscious minds. No market exists without a business person making and trying to sell what they think customers want. Much of this is conscious and intentional. But Zaltman reminds us that much of it comes from unconscious assumptions that the business person has.

Morris-Minor insight definitionLord Morris who designed the Morris Minor put in a rather weedy heater. And when challenged on it asked why customers weren’t wearing their coats in the car.  He ALWAYS wore his driving coat in the car. Why did you need to heat the car so people could drive at all times of year without a jacket. That assumption went into the design.   Zaltman put this in his book How customers think . There’s even a pdf of the core ideas behind the book here.

On their part customers have conscious and unconscious perceptions about the products that are made for them and the brand values which surround them. Despite the pretensions of advertising people who assume that what ever in the customer’s head got there because of advertising they made – it is far more likely that lots of the assumptions conscious and unconscious about the product come from the culture, the category – ie other products made by other manufacturers. And from the customer’s own experience of the product or projections about it. Advertising is effective because it is a very cost effective way to influence those perceptions. But if we had to place all the ideas and associations about a product in the customer’s head we would never get the job done.

The definition of an insight

So  what about insights then? Well it should be clear to you that the conversation or ideas exchange between managers and consumers is fraught with misunderstanding and talk at cross purposes. They are always drifting in and out of sync.  And insights are those discoveries which albeit briefly reveal to the manager or to the customer the disconnect between the shared assumptions that you have to use to buy and use brands but which are very often irritating even nonsensical.

The insight behind Dirt is Good

dirtisgood insight definitionThe great example of this was the Dirt is Good campaign. I won’t go into too much detail but the cultural shift that gave Unilever and Persil the advantage was the discovery that people were washing their clothes without waiting for them to get dirty after a couple of even one time of wearing. And their lifestyles meant that the clothes didn’t have dirt on them.  So the language of the culture was about washing powders washing whiter. When almost nobody needed white clothes. So by focussing on the creativity of children and the irrelevance of dirt or even that it could be a sign that children were at last off their games consoles and engaging in creative play, Unilever were able to move the market conversation so far away from washes whiter that they wrong footed Proctor & Gamble who banged on about product efficacy. For several years.

Insight definition – a discovery that changes the conversation

You’re still waiting aren’t you? For my definition. Well I believe that insights are important. They give clients strategic advantage when they apply an insight and their competitors stick with the old reality. I spend my life in workshops and on research projects spotting them. I even run a 1 day course to teach researchers where insights can be found. Only today I was playing with Excel data to reveal insights that were sitting right under the client’s nose. What we needed to do was to use data to understand how the market had drifted out of sync.  So here’s my definition of an insight. Its a discovery which changes the conversation.


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