With so much information flowing into organizations these days, we are all feeling a little overwhelmed. What's worse, however, is that customer insights haven't increased at the same rate as data availability.

Customer insights are essential to growth and continued success, yet they remain the elusive holy grail of business.

Let me start by explaining what I understand by an insight.

An insight is a statement that summarizes an accurate and deep understanding of a market or consumer. Moreover, an actionable insight is about people's needs—and also about changing their behavior.

Why do so many companies struggle to develop actionable insights?

From my years of working in and with global marketing departments, I have identified the five most common mistake that result in a failure to develop actionable customer insights.

And that failure can be costly: As a Japanese proverb succinctly puts it: "Insight without action is a daydream. Action without insight is a nightmare."

Mistake No. 1. You try to develop customer insights from a single piece of market research

Some people still think that insight is just another word for market research. It's not! Insights are rarely, if ever, developed from a single project.

Insight development involves integrating, analyzing, and synthesizing all the data and information available about a category or segment user. It means turning data and information into knowledge and understanding, from which an actionable insight can then be developed.

Ideally, every brand should have (at least) one customer insight on which its image and communications are based. For example:

  • Dove: I want to be admired for my real beauty on the inside, not for what I look like on the outside.
  • Old Spice: I want my man to smell good by using the body wash I buy especially for him.
  • Dulux PaintPod: I want to give a room a fresh new look easily and quickly, in just a few hours.

The insight developed should provide the basis for determining actions intended to change the behavior of the brand's target audience.

Mistake No. 2. You don't base the customer insight on a desired behavioral change

When Sales, Marketing, or management look to change a category, segment, or brand customer's behavior, their objective is to improve their business results. For instance...

  • From buying a competitive brand to purchasing theirs
  • From using their services once a month, to once a week
  • Moving customers' perception of a brand (for example from a traditional to a more modern image)
  • Changing customers' opinions about the value offered, from "expensive" to "value for money"

Because insights are based on a desired behavioral change, they usually contain an emotional element that is communicated through advertising or otherwise via marketing efforts. The emotion that is highlighted in the advertisement is more likely to make the communication resonate with customers, who are then motivated to take the desired action.

Mistake No. 3. You involve only customer insight professionals in developing insights

Insight development really benefits from taking differing perspectives on the information gathered, to get to that "ah-ha" moment that many refer to.

A deep understanding of customers and their reasons for behaving in a certain way comes from looking at all aspects of their lifestyle. If you review only the actual moment when they choose or use a product or service, it is highly unlikely that you will develop that deeper understanding that is needed.

What happens before and after those "moments of truth," as they are often called, can lead to their final choice or next purchase.

That is why it is important to work as a diverse team when developing insights. Depending upon the issue or opportunity identified, the team can be made up of people from Marketing, Sales, Trade Marketing, Production, Packaging, Advertising, Innovation, Distribution, R&D, and Finance.

And those people don't necessarily need to even work on the category in question. Sometimes it is by taking ideas from different categories that real insights are developed. After all, a great insight can often be applied to several categories (see No. 5).

Mistake No. 4. Your customer insights are not based on a human truth

The insights that resonate best with people are those that are based on a human truth—a statement that refers to people, irrespective of race, color, or creed. It is a powerful and compelling fact of attitudes and behavior that is rooted in fundamental human values. It is a fact that is obvious when quoted, but is often ignored or forgotten in daily business.

Human truths are linked to needs; and, although questioned in some circles, Maslow's hierarchy is still one of the most relevant sources of classification of human needs.

Examples of human truths include the following:

  • Parents want to protect their children.
  • Men and women want to find love.
  • Children want to be better than others.

If you are struggling to find an insight, it can help to review the level of need of your target audience to see how the category or your brand helps to answer it.

Mistake No. 5. You view customer insights as category-specific

Although insights are developed for a category, once found they can be used for different categories because they are based on a human truth.

There are many examples of this truth, particularly among major consumer goods companies.

Example insight: Parents want to protect their children so that they grow up happy and healthy.

  • Unilever's Omo shows that a good mother lets her child experiment and learn—even if that means the child gets dirty.
  • Nestlé's Nido illustrates the need of a mother to provide nourishment for healthy growth, which allows her children to explore the outside world safely. Interestingly, Nestlé has used this same insight to develop advertising for its bottled water in Asia and pet food in the Americas, too.

Example insight: Young women want to be appreciated for who they are on the inside not (just) the outside.

  • Unilever's Dove was the first brand to recognize and benefit from this insight. Its famous Real Beauty campaign resonated so well with young women that many other brands copied or parodied it—especially Dove's Evolution film.
  • Migros Swiss Supermarkets has a store brand, "I am," which uses the same insight across all its health and beauty products. Somewhat unusually, the brand name itself is based on the same insight, and its advertising repeats it several times: "I am—what I am."

Developing insights can be helped by looking at what other brands with similar target audiences are doing. Although it is difficult to succeed by positioning a brand in the same category with exactly the same insight, insights can be successfully transferred to other categories.

* * *

So those are the five main reasons many companies struggle to develop actionable insights from all their information.

Hopefully, you already have your own process for creating insights, but it is certainly worth checking whether you are making any of these five common errors.

More Resources on Customer Insights

What Your Customers' Searches Can Tell You. Are You Paying Attention? 

10 Tips for Automating Marketing Reports 

How to Marry Offline and Online Attribution Data for a 360 View in Google Analytics

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image of Denyse Drummond-Dunn

Denyse Drummond-Dunn is president and chief catalyst of C³Centricity, a global consultancy that provides strategic counsel to the executive teams of billion-dollar brands. She is the author of Winning Customer Centricity.

LinkedIn: Denyse Drummond-Dunn

Twitter: @Denysech