Good ideas start with great insights. During the 80s and 90s, valuable insights were the holy grail for marketers. It was a time that stands in stark contrast to the reality today, with good insights having become scarce, largely thanks to an upsurge in data. Daniel Quinn from Accenture’s ?What If! sheds light on how modern marketers can turn things around. “Marketers should no longer be slaves to data and should regain real curiosity about what drives consumers.” 

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During the 70s, people generally gained insights intuitively. “A great insight is an expression of how a certain product or service could fulfill a need that, until that point, had not been met,” explains Quinn. “In the 80s and 90s, the penny dropped that good insights were critical for the success of products. During this ‘golden age of insights’, the world was overwhelmed with a mass of so-called ‘great’ insights, many of which weren’t actually that great at all.” 

A death sentence for good insights

Things took a turn for the worse when data entered the arena. As Quinn explains, “From an insights perspective, the rise of data was both the best and the worst thing that could happen. While marketers were previously guided by intuition, empathy, and a deep understanding of their customers, all of a sudden, the only tools they were making use of were dashboards full of data.”

“It was one of the biggest shifts in the world of marketing in recent decades, and at the same time, it was a death sentence for good insights. Data can reveal lots of truth and generate extremely valuable observations, but it can’t tell us much about how people feel. Bear in mind that consumer emotions are a fundamental aspect of good insights. As long as data can’t uncover emotions, it will never be able to yield a valuable insight.” 

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"From an insights perspective, the rise of data was both the best and the worst thing that could happen."

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The real death blow to insights came with what Quinn refers to as a “fixation on megatrends”. “Talking about megatrends—like ‘health and wellness’—is easy but pinpointing exactly which human motivations are associated with that trend is much more difficult.”

“More often than not, marketers simply pick one of the million trends that appear on their trend desk, and anchor themselves to it, putting their entire budget behind it. And that’s that. What they don’t do, is look at the underpinning insights that could be the foundation for a new product idea that might truly delight consumers. The human angle tends to be completely overlooked—a crucial error,” says Quinn.   

An insight that shook up the (travel) world

Marketing professionals tend to assume that a good insight should be relevant to the masses, but that belief is misplaced. An insight is only valuable within a certain context—for a specific group of people in a particular situation.

The first step is to acknowledge that a good insight doesn’t necessarily need to be relevant to everyone initially. “A good insight generally revolves around a frustration or need experienced by a distinct group of people.”

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Quinn praises Airbnb for the way in which it managed to unlock a whole new market and industry based on a unique insight that applied to a few. “A particular group of travelers was starting to get fed up with the anonymity of hotels and to miss feeling a genuine connection to a holiday destination and the community that lives there. Airbnb built on the understanding that travelers on holiday crave a more authentic experience and want to engage with a destination through the eyes of locals. This turned out to be an insight that transformed the way we think about traveling and holiday accommodation forever.”

Low-cost airlines also deserve a mention in the list of brands who pulled out a great insight, and in doing so, unlocked something revolutionary. “It was widely assumed that passengers expected to receive free gin and tonic, nuts and other treats on board as part of the flight package—that these sorts of offerings were key parts of the experience. In time, Southwest Airlines and EasyJet began to realize that people didn’t actually really value all the extras that traditionally came with air travel, and in reality, just wanted to get from A to B as affordably as possible.”

“Today, this doesn’t sound like a cutting-edge insight, but back then, it was a groundbreaking observation. No airline had ever before considered unbundling the traditional flight package to lower costs. When Southwest Airlines and EasyJet came upon this idea, they presented the market with an extremely powerful new proposition that permanently altered the industry.”  

Written in the stars

There’s no point in asking Quinn for some sort of magic formula to follow in order to come up with a great insight. According to him, there isn’t one. “It’s not like there’s a specific process or roadmap you can consult, and that if you just follow certain steps, you’ll be guided toward a great insight.”

He compares searching for insights to looking at stars in a night sky. “If you look at the sky in the evening, you’ll see lots of stars. At first, you won’t see any patterns, connections, or shapes. However, after some time, you’ll begin to notice that some stars shine a bit brighter than others, and some actually look alike. Slowly but surely, figures and shapes start to emerge, and soon you realize you see something. You have essentially connected all the dots.”

“The weird thing is that once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it. I would draw an analogy between making that sort of unexpected connection, which brings an idea to the surface and builds a new insight. Unfortunately, the ability to connect dots in different ways is a skill that’s hugely undervalued by many modern marketers.”

As poetic as it may sound, literally just looking up at the stars obviously isn’t enough to generate a revolutionary insight that will shake up the world. When Quinn’s team was asked by beverage company Diageo to spice up the somewhat older, rusty, and masculine image of its whisky, they traveled the world to—metaphorically speaking—explore various night skies.

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"An insight is only valuable within a certain context—for a specific group of people in a particular situation. [...] A good insight generally revolves around a frustration or need experienced by a distinct group of people.”

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“To find out how we could challenge certain perceptions, we needed to experience them first hand. We flew to Thailand, Mexico, and Greece to spend time with a younger crowd and find out what a night on the town is really about for them.” 

“That’s how we discovered that, for most youngsters, a night out isn’t defined by the particular club or bar they find themselves visiting, but rather, it’s about the all-night chase for fun. The anticipation around the pursuit—the chase for a party—is what gets people excited, far more so than the actual plan for the night. This was the insight behind the ‘Pocket Scotch’ concept we developed for Diageo: stylish pocket-sized bottles of whisky that you can easily take anywhere with you on a night out as you pursue adventure and embrace spontaneity.” 

“Miniature bottles of booze have been around for some time. However, by tapping into a frustration many young people experience—the hassle of carrying large bottles of drinks while chasing the party—we were able to create a new occasion for drinking whisky: while on the go, outside of the home environment. It helped to put an end to the stereotype that whisky is, by default, only enjoyed by dull older men in dusty libraries.”

And it did so very successfully: the playful, brightly colored Pocket Scotch miniatures won various awards and managed to radically alter the category’s perception. Not only did the campaign boost sales, but it also encouraged greater gender balance in the brand’s consumer base, with many more young women choosing to drink whisky too.

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Key ingredients for generating a great insight: curiosity, discomfort, and patience

What should marketers do to gain new insights that are genuinely valuable? “Well, being truly curious is a good start,” says Quinn. “Many marketers of today aren’t interested enough in what customers really want or need, and why they want or need it. They need to once again fall in love with the power of curiosity, which has become very undervalued.”

“My advice to marketing professionals would be to get out of your comfort zone, leave your desk and click away from all the dashboards. Instead, really connect with your target audience—spend time with them, observe what they do, and find out what triggers them. Novel insights generally surface in uncomfortable places, born from the moments and experiences that make you feel the least comfortable.”

“Often though, in order to generate new ideas and access new understandings, marketers should actually do very little other than sit and think. Above all, marketing professionals need to accept that a good insight doesn’t appear just like that; the process requires real empathy and deep commitment.” 

Curious about getting to true customer insights? Feel free to reach out to Daniel for a conversation on the topic. 

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Daniel Quinn is Principal Director at ?What If! | Part of Accenture

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Check out the other articles in our customer experience series:

Daniel Quinn

Principal Director – ?What If! | Part of Accenture

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