It may seem like a basic question, but when I ask “what is an insight?” I get a plethora of answers.  So I set out to answer the question myself.

When I started my career it was very much in the realm of data processing and information retrieval.  Data as the raw material and information as the analysed and summarised outcome.   I then moved to the qualitative side of market research back in the days when we called it research.

Somewhere along the way data processing was seen as too old fashioned, and everybody wanted “data mining” and “big data expertise”.  Qualitative market research findings were no longer sexy.  They had to be “Insights”.

Over the years I have seen a lot of simple data, summarised information, behavioural observation, behavioural understanding and product improvement which were presented as “GROUND BREAKING INSIGHTS”.

So here is my simple view of the world:  “If it doesn’t change consumer behaviour it’s not an insight.”

The short version of this article is that Insights need to be behavioural, emotional, true (credible), relevant, original, ownable and measurable.

The World of Compromise

We live in a world of limits and compromises.  There are many things we would like to do better.  When somebody shows us a better way we adopt it quickly.  Many of the greatest inventions in history are so obvious once seen that a common reaction to them is “Why didn’t I think of that?”

The insight comes from seeing how people behave and understanding that their behaviour is a compromise from the ideal.  The inventor then leverages the insight to produce the product that changes behaviour.

Recently I worked on a project with a major packaging manufacturer.  They spent a day in a busy bakery observing workers in action.  They noticed two things in particular.

  • Existing product (a frozen part-baked bread range) was stored in large cartons that were very heavy to lift. They needed to be removed from the freezer to open them.
  • Once lifted out of the freezer the staff were reluctant to put them back in. Product left in the hot kitchen began to thaw and spoilage rates were high.

The engineers set about addressing these two insights.  They designed a new freezer carton which could be opened in-situ in the freezer.  The staff could remove only the product they needed for immediate baking.  This innovation changed how the staff in the kitchen behaved.  It made life much easier for them, so it qualifies as insight.

The change also reduced the levels of product spoilage.  This is process improvement (but not necessarily insight).  It improves profit levels for the client.

There is a nice roundedness to this outcome.  The Client makes more profit, and is consequently more likely to work with the packaging company again.  The staff have an easier time in work, so they are happy with the change.  The customers of the bakery are less likely to receive a sub-optimal product, so they will enjoy their bread and come back for more.

The world of needs and wants

Anyone who studies marketing 101 learns about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  As you rise on the pyramid you move from needs to wants.  If you are purely needs driven then you are unfortunate in modern society.  Most humans have moved beyond a daily struggle for Water, Food, Shelter and Security.

We live in a world of choice, which is good in one way and bad in another.  Everyone, even the richest billionaire, faces resource constraints.  In simple terms there is more “stuff” out there than we can afford.  If you want it all, and want it now you will be disappointed.  You have to make trade-offs.

The early trade-offs are easy.  Do you eat food this week or do you take a spa day?  Starving people don’t take spa days.  If you are needs driven then the need wins out.

In a wants driven society there are many people who forgo food and trade it off for a day at a spa.  They call it a diet, or a detox.  They don’t “need” food, so it becomes something they can trade off.

In the world of needs and wants “Insights” are clues to how trade-offs will work.  This is the realm of Economic Behaviourism.  It is a weird and wonderful place where people frequently make sub-optimal decisions which make no sense on paper.

In this world your best clue that you are dealing with actual “insights” is emotion.  Insights are born in the Freudian Id, what popular psychologists refer to as the Inner Child, the Primitive Brain or the Lizard Brain.

If your research uncovers useful data you will see people nod sagaciously as they consider how to use the findings in the business.  They will see the relevance of your findings to others, but not usually to themselves.

If your research is insightful your audience will be excited, emotional and immersed.  You will hear phrases such as “that is sooooo true!”  “That is so me!”  “I do that all the time” etc.  It is real, truthful and personal in a way that data and information never are.

Paying the piper

Insights are fantastic as long as the client can use them to make money.  As a result there are a few boxes you have to tick when you present your insights:

Relevance:  they have to change consumer behaviour in relation to your client’s product.

Originality:  there is no advantage to being the second company to leverage an insight.

Ownership:  if your client can own the insight territory this has potential for huge market share gains.  Most innovations are easily copied by the competiton.  Branding is less easy to copy.  Insights and Branding are two peas in the same pod.

Measurability:  I have seen brilliant insights that have come to nothing because they could not be applied to the customer record data.  It is pointless having something that changes the lives of 25 year old female insurance buyers if the client does not collect customer age and gender in the sales process.

Downside risk

Irish politicians, and Irish business leaders, appear to have coasted through recession almost unscathed by the downturn. In contrast the “little people” have borne the downside of risks that they never took. The people who take the risks should suffer the losses. In a society where this is not happening something is fundamentally wrong.

Industrial and Military success have this in common. They both rely upon motivating large masses of front line troops to achieve goals which are mostly relevant only to a small clique at the top.

I am not talking here about Greek style citizen armies, where individuals volunteered to fight for the glory or defence of their Polis. I am talking about peasants fighting for Kings, poorly educated inner-city cannon fodder fighting to keep a politician in office for four more years. I recall when Somalia fell apart and a news crew interviewed a US soldier to ask if he was fighting to defend democracy. The news crew managed to find one of the few thinking grunts in the field. He snarled at the news crew that this war had nothing to do with democracy or freedom. “We are here to protect US commercial interests”. You could sense his frustration. His life was thrown on the line to protect the lifestyle of a few fat-cat tycoons safely curled up on loungers in their summer houses in the Hamptons.

But what has this to do with Industrial success? Richard Cantillon, the Franco-Irish economist coined the term Entrepreneur. He described it as someone who invests their working time and resources against an uncertain outcome. This is in contrast to a worker or employee who sells their labour for a fixed and certain outcome – a pay cheque.

An entrepreneur is risking a lot, and wants to see a healthy return. If all they can expect is to earn the same as a worker, why would they become an entrepreneur, and carry a downside risk? The upside for an entrepreneur MUST be greater than the upside for a worker. That is the basis of capitalism. It is also the reason why communism failed. Not enough risk takers could be bothered to take the risks in the communist system.

But here is where it all falls apart. If the King, or the General, wastefully throws troops into battle with no concern for their safety, they eventually turn their weapons in the other direction. If you want your soldiers to put their lives on the line for you, then you have to demonstrate that you are sharing their losses and their successes. You have to show that you have some skin in the game. Roman Senatorial candidates used to do this by showing off their battle scars on election day, demonstrating that they were prepared to put their own bodies on the line for the defense of the state. The Shakespeare play Coriolanus tells the story well!

In our modern industrial/commercial society, when do we see the battle scars of the CEOs? Do we see them suffer when things go wrong? Any good capitalist would say yes, of course, they are voted out of their jobs by shareholders, they go bankrupt! But do they really? How many times have you seen a CEO or Bank Chairman go to court on fraud charges, serve a token week in jail, and return five years later to a plumb job? How many former CEOs have you seen begging for change in the street?

OK, the skills that got them to the top are still there. They risk big, sometimes lose big, and rise again from the ashes and win big. And all the time the grunts are labouring away, many on minimum wage, under pressure to work longer and longer hours, to give up their personal time, for the good of the “company”.

The greatest success of the capitalist world in the last 50 years has been the near destruction of the trade union movement. As jobs have migrated from heavy industrial to white collar services in developed countries, the union structures have dematerialised. In many work places it is now frowned upon to be a union member. The US employers have used a carrot and stick approach to bring this culture in. The carrot is to offer most of the add on benefits that unions want as standard. Health insurance, reasonable basic pay, holidays etc etc. The stick is to demonise unions, identify them with the Mafia, label them as corrupt structures, refuse to recognise them, refuse to employ unionised staff.  50 years ago it was mandatory for entry level employees to join the union in many Irish companies.  Can you imagine going to a job interview today and asking the HR manager “which unions do you recognise”?

In the good times the carrot outweighs the stick. In recession the reverse is true. The fat cats at the top protect their positions, and the cannon fodder are slashed and burned out of the organisation, to populate welfare queues.

I am a capitalist. But there are levels of capitalism. I am not a fan of the US model. Ireland is slavishly following the US model, and we need to stop and think hard about this. The government spout out a lot about the need for the 12% corporate tax rate to attract multinationals, and having a job creation environment. But if that becomes a job exploitation environment, then we are fools. When the top 2% of earners take more and more of the earnings out of the economy, it is time to re-assess the direction of economic policy.

Equal societies are happy societies.  Capitalist models based on simple human respect are better than those founded on raw greed.  Maybe it is time to root out the Rerum Novarum papal encyclical which is a fundamental pillar that underpins economic structures in Germanic countries.  Maybe the Catholic church was good for something after all 🙂



To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.