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Insights That Work

The Lost Craft of Insight Generation

The act of uncovering consumer insights is a craft that includes a set of tool and techniques, which can be learned and used to develop your insight generation skills, but this craft is slowly getting lost, or worse delegated to machines.

Editor’s Note: In many corporations, what used to be described as “market research departments”, are now called “Insights departments”, often with a qualifier like “consumer” or “market” attached. Insights, as described by Ulli Appelbaum, however, are often elusive. The ability to find insights is not necessarily an intrinsic ability of gifted individuals, nor will they magically appear after a computer has churned through terabytes of data. Ulli describes insight generation as a process that has to be learned, a craft that unfortunately seems to be fading away. A really valuable read.


The biggest myth surrounding “consumer insights” is that they are either just “laying around” waiting to be found, that they miraculously fall into your lap if you only look for them, or that you need to be a genius to be able to generate them.

Picture Of Insight Definition

I, on the other hand, believe that the act of uncovering consumer insights is a “craft” that includes a set of tools and techniques, which can be learned and used to develop your insight generation skills, and thus make you a better strategist and marketer.

But I also believe this craft is slowly getting lost and that its biggest threat is the belief that the marketing community will be able to delegate the insight generation process to big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence. It will not. Compared to only a few years ago we now have access to so much more data. And yet we haven’t become more insightful or much smarter about converting this data into business and brand building insights.

The point here is that the ability to generate business-building insights is not a “gift” you are born with or not (just like the ability to be creative), instead, it is something that can be learned and trained. Just like any craft. And the good news is that it really isn’t that difficult to learn those skills and apply these tools. All it really requires is the knowledge of those tools and a bit of practice in applying them.

So, what are those tools and techniques? In my experience, there are three main “steps” to help generate and identify insights. These steps can be used sequentially or on their own depending on the business problem that needs to be solved and the environment in which it is solved.

Defining the problem

“A problem well formulated is half solved”. We all know this quote and yet I rarely see it actually being applied in the business world and in real life problem-solving situations. It usually isn’t included in client briefings, nor is it included in creative briefs or other agency briefs.

But the way you frame the problem is usually the first step to unlocking fresh perspectives on how to solve a business problem. The reason is that each assignment and objective statement has a set of inherent and implicit assumptions built in. These assumptions are based on the beliefs and culture in which they are formulated and the experience of those formulating the problem or the opportunity.

Identifying and challenging those assumptions and in the process reframing the problem is the first step to uncover powerful insights. There are several “techniques” to do so. One, for example, could be to list all the assumptions underlying a problem statement (it’s easier to do in a small group) and then challenge them. Another would be to replace some of the key-words of the problem statement with synonyms. You’d be surprised how this little “trick” can help you change your perspective. In fact, the words we use influence the way we think. Change the words and you’ll change the way you think. A third option would be to look at your problem from the perspective of different personalities or entities you and your group admire. Sure, the typical example would be to imagine “What would Steve Jobs do?” but equally valuable would be to ask “what would the finance director do?“ or “what would our main distributor do”? Or “what would our most loyal customer do”?

As an example, your problem could be stated as “How can we make the check-out lines shorter?” This assumes, amongst others, that people don’t want to wait in line at check-outs, which is usually, but not always, true. Another way to frame this problem could be: “How do we make the waiting lines more entertaining so that people actually look forward to standing in line when checking out?”. Same problem, framed completely differently, leading to a completely different set of solutions.

Mining for insights

The second step in the process of identifying insights is to actually “mine” for insights. The challenge here is not to uncover new information but to recognize an insight when you see it. Insights have inherently news value, but that doesn’t mean that any new information is necessarily an insight. It usually is not.

During this phase, you’re really trying to turn over every rock (spelled data point and information) you can find. About the consumer, the brand, the product, the competition, culture at large, etc., etc. You take on the role of an investigative journalist trying to find an interesting angle for her story that will resonate with the intended audience. As such you are ideally looking for information that stands out, for extremes, for contradictions, and for random correlations.

We’ve identified 37 of those “rocks” worth turning over. They include the unspoken reasons why people do something, the potential risks of not using the brand, the life circumstances that can explain a behavior (“adulting for example”), the psychological tensions or cognitive dissonance a behavior creates, a subconscious ritual consumer go through in the context of your category (taking a smaller spoon for example to extend a particularly pleasurable eating experience), a sensorial experience that triggers an emotion or a memory, the contribution a brand or category makes to someone’s self-image, etc. 

One thing is for sure. You won’t stumble upon an insight in the responses consumers will give you in focus group. You may stumble upon an insight by focusing on what is not said, by observing the body language or energy level in the group or by paying close attention to the dynamic within a group around a specific issue. Or you might uncover an insight during the conversation that happens behind the mirror, after the group, when the team reflects and discusses what has been said during the group.

Identifying an insight requires listening to the feeling you’ll get (yes, it is going to be a feeling and visceral reaction first) when you stumble upon one. As such, insights are a bit like creative ideas, the most difficult part not being to come up with one but to recognize the potential of one. And that initial reaction is generally visceral rather than rational (even though it can then be rationalized). 

Harvesting Insights

The third step in the process consists in applying specific tools that will enable you to look at interesting data (which is probably new to you but still not an insight) and extract actionable insights from it.

The fact that family dinner night is chaotic and often a source of stress for moms (or dads) is nothing new. It’s true but it is not an insight. Capturing the “why” this is so for the mom (or dad) and phrasing this in a compelling way will lead to an insight.

An interesting piece of new information becomes an insight when it helps trigger behavior and/or when it helps relieve tension in consumers lives (and thus trigger a behavior). And here again, there are tools to help you do that.

The most common and popular being probably the “Why” laddering exercise. Another would be to look at potential tensions that exist between culture, the brand and the people you are trying to appeal to and to identify a meaningful way for your brand to help resolve those tensions. A third exercise consists of looking at the motivations for people’s behavior in a given category, identify the emotions behind those motivations, identify alternative behaviors that would help satisfy these emotions, step back and re-define the category the brand is in based on all the ideas that have been generated. Doing this exercise for a state lottery agency recently, we’ve for example re-framed the scratch game category as being in the “moments management business” whereas the draw game category was re-defined as being in the “mood management business” based on consumers motivations to play. This new perspective on an established category (which was then quantified) in turn led to 63 new product ideas.  

Generating insights is the outcome of a process that most marketers are not familiar with any longer. Younger generations of strategists, researchers and marketers have not had the opportunity to learn those tools and techniques. As a result, these knowledge and skills are slowly getting lost. Those techniques are really not rocket science but require a bit of rigor, that if applied properly, can provide a source of competitive advantage to any organization using them.

In fact, I would argue that the competitive advantage provided by powerful insights doesn’t usually come from the actual data organizations are able to collect, but from the proper interpretation of this data. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where business and brands are being built.

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One response to “The Lost Craft of Insight Generation

  1. Great points, Ulli! I especially like the re-framing or re-wording ideas – those seem to work very well for me.

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Ulli Appelbaum

Ulli Appelbaum

Founder & Chief Strategy Officer, First The Trousers Then The Shoes