Where Big Brands Go Wrong With Consumer Insights

A multi-billion dollar client of mine was struggling with the performance of a new product extension and commissioned their in-house HI (Human Intelligence) team to evaluate why consumers weren’t all that into it. 

Here’s the insight the marketing team got back from HI a few weeks later:

Insight 1:   Consumer confusion between Existing Product X and New Product Y. Need to differentiate more

Insight 2:   Emphasize ease of use

Ok, raise your hand if you already know that a new product needs to be differentiated, and that being easy-to-use is a good idea? Really? All of you know that? Wow. /s

I’m just gonna say it — those are not useful consumer insights. They’re table-stakes. The real question is, why weren’t they understood as table-stakes during product development? Sigh. In my experience, this is a cycle that too many companies get into — thinking that Captain Obvious ideas like these are insights. They’re not.

Ok, if you think you’re so smart, Chris, how about you tell us what an insight is. 

Thank you, I will. But first…


What does the Internet say?

Let’s look at how the Internet defines it:

Wikipedia: A customer insight, or consumer insight, is an interpretation of trends in human behaviors which aims to increase the effectiveness of a product or service for the consumer, as well as increase sales for the financial benefit of those provisioning the product or service. 

Trustpilot: A consumer insight is an interpretation used by businesses to gain a deeper understanding of how their audience thinks and feels. Analysing human behaviours allows companies to really understand what their consumers want and need, and most importantly, why they feel this way. 

DemandJump:The word “insight” is defined in the dictionary as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep, intuitive understanding of a person or thing.” Consumer insights highlight more individualized shopping behaviors, and may restrict data to a specific market, industry, or company. This is how consumer market insights provide actionable revelations companies can implement to improve business performance. 

My take? There’s lots more where these came from and omg make it stop.

Two Thoughts

Most of these definitions revolve around the “the opinions and behaviors of consumers,” with a few tacking on something about what “consumers want and need, and… why they feel this way.”

Two thoughts here: first of all, “opinions and behaviors” is good to know when developing insights, so I buy that. And knowing why someone feels the way they do is super-helpful.

What I don’t buy is that people always know what they want or why they feel what they feel! 

Or as Steve Jobs famously put it:

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” 

Exactly. And here’s the kicker:

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Now to be fair, Apple does rely on market research and always has. They just don’t use it to ask customers what they want. Instead, Apple looks to their internal experts for that insight.

So no it’s my turn… almost. First we have to talk about Informed Intuition.

Informed Intuition?

The term Informed Intuition was coined by Organizational Theorist Geoffrey Moore in his seminal book Crossing the Chasm, where he writes about how innovative companies can ‘cross the chasm’ between early adopters and mass audiences with their products.

Moore explains that at some point in its growth trajectory, every new product faces a crucial moment where a low-data, high-risk decision has to be made and the decision-makers have no solid case with which to make it. So what do they do?

Moore says they should rely on Informed Intuition, an analysis technique that merges the useful data fragments they do have with a few high-quality mental images of the audience they’re targeting. 

When the book was published in 1991, Moore called these mental images “data characterizations” because they encapsulated “characteristic market behaviors.” Today most strategists would call them Personas (or Composites as I like to call them — more on that later).

My Definition of Insight

Ok, NOW it’s my turn.

Stealing from Jobs, here’s how I define an insight:

An insight is informed intuition about what an audience wants and why they want it, often before they even know they want it themselves.

That’s it.

Everything else is just run-of-the-mill research data that every competitor has access to. But insights about what your audience wants before they know they want it? That’s unique to you and your client.

And being unique is of course the whole point of strategy.

WTH, you may be thinking. “Informed intuition” sounds like new-agey bullshit, not strategy. And knowing what an audience wants before they do? That sounds like voodoo. Nope. Let me explain.


From Informed Intuition to Insight

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re helping a client position a new product, so don’t have a lot of historical data to guide you. Or you’re trying to reposition an underperforming product and most of the data are bad, except for a few useful fragments. Or maybe you’re just trying to figure out a seasonal campaign message that will break through.

If any of that does sound familiar, then guess what? According to Moore, you’re facing the exact kind of low-data, high-risk decision that informed intuition can help with. 

The good news is that you already have one a very useful tools to help you cross that chasm: Personas / Composites. That’s because building them right can help you do one very specific thing — inform your intuition about who your target audience is.

Which in turn sets you up to develop deeper insights about what that audience wants and why, often before they even know it themselves.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere



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