Two brands that understood the difference between insight and observation

Like many industries, those of us working within the marketing sector have a certain knack for singling out words that quickly spike in popularity resulting in a proliferation of usage. Occasionally, this can then lead to the incorrect application of a term. ‘Strategy’, ‘platform’, ‘transformation’ and ‘future-proofing’ all readily spring to mind as marketing buzz words for 2019, although, another one that seems to be growing in popularity for all the wrong reasons is ‘insight’.

Insights are critical to the creative process, they form the basis of useful ideas. Without a clear insight, it is difficult to create distinctive, desirable and engaging ideas that resonate with a brand’s target audience(s). Yet, too often insights are confused with observations. Left unchecked, this has the tendency to dilute ideas and compromise the future commercial success of a brand.

When managed correctly, good insights help differentiate a brand from its competitors and have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the business that owns the brand. When the necessary due diligence is not undertaken, the lack of insight can compromise a campaign and undermine the overall effectiveness of any brand initiative.

Sadly, within the marketing industry, many ‘insights’ often turn out to be nothing more than ‘observations’. Put simply, insights are not inventions. A great insight is an acute discovery that hardwires a human need with a commercial opportunity. Finding examples of such fusion can be harder than it seems. Indeed, more often than not, examples of poorly executed insights are easy to come by, while cases of insights being adeptly deployed seem to be the exception.

Who does it right?

The Mars Corporation has done a stellar job of bringing an insight to life with its Snickers campaign. The insight behind the long-running Snickers campaign is that a person’s behavior changes, markedly, when they are hungry. The brand has brought this to life by showing a person change into someone else based on that person’s hunger.

Snickers 'You're Not You When You're Hungry' TVC - AdNews

Not content with its insight-driven advertising success, Snickers recently extended its ‘hunger’ insight through to its packaging. Snickers bars are now displaying packs where the brand name has been replaced by a word associated with the insight.  Think ‘Loopy’, ‘Cray Cray’, ‘Feisty’ or ‘Foolish’.

It’s a savvy build on a successful campaign and makes for a clever shift by using the brand’s own assets to differentiate Snickers from its competitors. The articulation of the insight around hunger dovetails nicely into Snicker’s long-held promise of ‘satisfaction’ which has underpinned Snickers for many years.

By contrast, Nestlé recently used its own assets to attract the attention of Australian consumers. Milo’s distinctively colored green cans that adorn supermarket shelves changed in appearance to reveal one of two words in the brand lock up – ‘G’day’ or ‘Mate’ suddenly replaced the Milo name on packs. The substitution of these words for the brand name may have provided the impetus to look twice at the pack. However, outside of this the power of the initiative seemed to dissipate. Unlike the Snickers approach, there was no demonstrable link for the change in name – and it’s difficult to find the insight behind such an approach.

Was any damage done to the Milo brand? Absolutely not. The ‘G’day’ and ‘Mate’ packaging made consumers do a double-take on the brand and, in doing so, gave it a friendly aesthetic for the duration of the pack change. Perhaps the ‘observation’ from the marketing team that worked on this was that consumers like to see unexpected changes to the brand within the parameters of overall familiarity. Regardless, though, whatever the observation was, it didn’t cut it as an insight.

Identifying an insight takes time and is typically the result of getting under the skin of a brand and its target audience. Recognizing a point of tension more often than not informs an insight. The inventor, and subsequent entrepreneur, James Dyson leveraged such tension well when he launched a vacuum range bearing his own name. Dyson’s research on carpet cleaning revealed the two most despised aspects of vacuuming were swapping over dirty bags and changing dust-infested filters. Through the application of rotary technology, Dyson created a vacuum that eliminated the tension of changing bags and filters and, in doing so, completely revolutionized a category that had been lying dormant for the preceding 30 years.

Bringing an insight to life is not without its challenges. Marketers should be mindful that the insight itself is not necessarily sufficient to provide the desired response among a brand’s target audience. Unilever’s Dove brand is often held up as an example of a brand that exemplifies an insight-driven idea thanks to the way it cleverly brought the notion of ‘real beauty’ to life. Fast forward a decade or so and the execution of the same insight has lost its gravitas.

As part of its campaign for ‘Real Beauty’ the Dove marketing camp used the ‘real beauty’ insight to create six different ‘body-shaped’ bottles to celebrate body diversity. Pack shapes included tall and skinny, pear, voluptuous and curvy. Examples were sent to influencers and fans, but critics labeled them offensive and patronizing, and the packaging never made it to supermarket shelves. The ‘watch out’ here for all marketers is this: poor execution will kill even the best of insights.

An insight should be founded on a thorough understanding of the consumer, market or competitive situation. A well-thought-through insight should be capable of triggering the desired response from the target audience. Marketers should resist the temptation to substitute observations for insights. We need to look more comprehensively at the problem. A true insight can have a demonstrably positive impact on the trajectory of a brand.

While an observation may be true, it is nothing more than passive in its application. The most useful insights are inherently active, based on a truth that creates a solution to a broadly held tension. Ultimately, insights trigger a reaction in people which leads to them doing something different.

Nick Foley is president of Landor SEAPJ

This article was first published on