The Switch: What’s inside an insight?

Date posted: February 6, 2013

Alistair Mokoena

by Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) One of the occupational hazards of growing up in a medical family is that you are exposed to many medical terms at the dinner table. An interesting item of medical trivia I picked up over one of our Christmas lunches is the distinction between a sign and a symptom.

A sign is an objective, observable indication of an illness. In other words it is self-evident and does not require much investigation. An example of a sign would be a patient who presents with yellow eyes, who would be either anaemic or suffering from jaundice.

A symptom, on the other hand, is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a proxy for an illness which a patient communicates to a doctor and the doctor alistair makoenaprobes further until he arrives at a diagnosis. For example, a patient who presents with a symptom such as a headache needs to be asked a few questions before the doctor can arrive at a diagnosis.

In marketing and advertising circles there appears to be a great deal of confusion around the distinction between an insight and an observation. Possibly the difference between a sign and a symptom can help shed some light on understanding how an observation differs from an insight. An insight is one of those marketing concepts that go by many definitions. I’ve seen an insight defined as ‘observable human behaviour’ or ‘an observable unmet consumer need’, for example.

But, I think these definitions confuse insights with observations. Examples that flow from these definitions include ‘people use deodorants to stay dry because they don’t like being wet or ‘we all want clean homes for our families’. These statements are too obvious and superficial to be insights. Anybody can make these observations without applying much thought. They are therefore signs and not symptoms.

In my opinion (and that of others, too), an insight is a universal human truth or a unique penetrating truth about consumers that explains the choices they make. An insight is often made up of a need and a rationale for that need.

For example ‘some women are scratch cooks because they view cooking as an extension of love for their families.’ That’s a good insight, it explains an observation in a meaningful way and I can see it sparking some really interesting creative ideas. Another good insight is ‘men like to bond over a beer to fill up on their masculinity needs.’ I can see copywriters having fun peeling masculinity like an onion. To arrive at an insight one takes an observation and interrogates it for deeper meaning.

One practice that I find useful is to take an observation and ask the question ‘why’ three times (a la how a child often responds to a parent’s explanation – ‘Don’t put the cat in the swimming pool.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because the cat doesn’t like it’.  ‘Why?’ ‘Because the cat gets wet.’ ‘Why?’) Once I have answered the question why three times, I will have ‘expanded’ the original observation to arrive at a unique interpretation of it. And it is the uniqueness of the insight gives the marketer a competitive advantage.

Some insights are need or fear driven; for example ‘young people are cliquey because they have insecurities about not belonging’. Another example: ‘the fear of being considered a failure makes us work hard so we can acquire material trappings of success’. Armed with such strong insights marketers are able to do a really good job of differentiating their brands by segmenting the market, selecting the right target market and positioning their brands for success.

So, the next time you draft or receive a brief, interrogate the insight by asking a few ‘whys’ to ensure that you end up with a differentiated interpretation of an observation. This insight is singularly important because it makes for relevant work that taps into a deeply felt need and gives brand distinctiveness.

And remember, if it feels too obvious, it’s a sign … but if it requires some deep reflection and unpacking it’s a symptom. Keep searching for those game changing symptoms!

Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) is a Unilever-trained Chartered Marketer with lots of blue-chip marketing experience. He’s currently MD of Draftfcb Joburg. Mokoena contributes the monthly “The Switch” column to

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