OPINION21 May 2014

Why the consumer isn’t always king

Insight is ‘in sight’, says Anna Eggleton of The Value Engineers. But you might have to look in more than one place.


In the world of insight nothing should be taken at face value. There are many other places to look that can yield better, stronger learning. In truth, blindly accepting consumers’ word can be dangerous.

You can’t always trust consumers

Consumers – or customers, if you are a B2B marketer – often:

  • Lie about habits and behaviours that they feel aren’t desirable – Participants in a focus group on dieting will say they don’t eat anything unhealthy, but look in their fridges or cupboards and you’ll see a very different state of affairs.
  • Are dreadful at predicting the future – They only know what they do; they can’t predict unmet needs. When we researched Sky + for a set-top box manufacturer, consumers couldn’t imagine a world when they didn’t keep recordings on VHS.
  • Just aren’t that interested – They often aren’t interested enough in our categories to have a meaningful discussion about it for two hours. Have you ever heard consumers trying to discuss the merits of different types of annuities?

Insight is in sight

In relation to any brand or marketing issue, there are normally multiple findings and pieces of data, often from different sources. Real insight should be about looking across all this information and identifying patterns or connections.

In hindsight, perhaps the clue has been in plain view all the time. It is in the name after all: insight. We need to consider everything that is ‘in sight’, rather than focusing only on drilling down into one strand of information.

Like advertising propositions, insights are often best if they are single-minded – but that doesn’t mean they must come from just one source, whether a data point or a piece of qualitative research.


At The Value Engineers, we talk about the concept of multiplicity: spotting patterns and similarities; the threads needed to connect different bits of information.

Consider the insight behind the Axe / Lynx brand, which is probably something like: “I’ve got to smell, look and feel good to be a success with women.” The single insight is based on a variety of findings around young men: from the mating game as a part of their social lives, to the importance of confidence in attracting girls, to the need to block the smell of sweat when nervous. Added to this is the fact that mothers mostly buy deodorant for their sons, that they buy brands their sons are more likely to use, and that they like their sons to be desirable!

The findings above don’t all come from market research, particularly with users. While some could come from traditional market research, others are more basic physiological and functional truths.

There are many other ways to do research that will bring you lots of useful information about your market, brand and people in general. These include: informal feedback from staff, in-field observation, competitive intelligence and more general cultural background. This can include elements of psychology, anthropology, physiology and sociology, or simply reading papers or blogs. Our suggestion is that in the search for insights, you include informal research in your data sources, and value and respect a broader concept of ‘insight’.

Once you’ve done that, you can strengthen the insights you find by using 360? analysis.

“We need to consider everything that is ‘in sight’, rather than focusing only on drilling down into one strand of information”

The 4 ‘I’s’ of leveraging insight

1. Immersion into your data – looking beyond what you think is the immediate question

Wild Bean Café was only looking at the percentage of customers who purchased from the Café, not those who visited BP petrol stations. By looking at who it was missing out on, WBC re-evaluated who it was targeting.

2. Interpretation – or even reinterpretation

Dulux’s ‘Magic White’ was a paint that went on pink and turned white once it had dried. It had failed in market, but the client wasn’t sure why. We changed the proposition to show WHY people needed paint that went on pink – to see where you’ve missed when painting white-on-white.

Sometimes we as marketers take it for granted that consumers will be able to recognise what they want – i.e. that the benefit meets a need.

3. Insight into Innovation

When asked by a global brand to elicit the sensory perceptions of ‘clean’ to inform its development of chewing gums, we didn’t just ask users what they thought ‘clean’ meant. We began by looking at what ‘dirty’ and ‘cleaning’ meant in sensory terms. Both were much richer territories than ‘clean’ and allowed us to understand the sensory process of transformation.

We then looked at ‘dirt’ and ‘clean’ via less traditional methods of research – for example, by speaking to a blind person to understand what dirty and clean smelled like, and to a sound engineer to understand what dirty and clean sounded like. This take on ‘expert consumers’ allowed us to inform the product development pipeline with clear sensory guidelines for communicating ‘clean’, with the focus shifting to ‘cleaning’. It led to inclusions and shapes that demonstrate the process by which the gum cleans.

4. Integration – bringing insights into the organisation

No matter how good the insight gathered, the greatest challenges are often to make potential beneficiaries aware of it and get them to apply it in their work. Whether you deliver new insights via a classic engagement programme, a cute infographic or a state-of-the-art online resource, the critical factor is to show why your audience should care in the first place.

Two thoughts to take away

By all means use consumers to get insights, but be wary of just using consumers or giving their views too much weight. As with music ‘a capella’, adding different sounds and taking risks can make for a truer experience.

Maximise the insights you have: make them easy to listen to, turn the volume up and get everyone in your organisation moving to the same rhythm.

Anna Eggleton is a director at The Value Engineers.