Will it make the boat go faster?

The contribution of insights and how it can increase profitable brand growth

By John Kearon, Chief Juicer at BrainJuicer PLC

This article summarises the key findings of the Future-of-Insights study by the World Federation of Advertisers [WFA] and their insights partner BrainJuicer, who assess the current contribution of insights and identify what new roles, methodologies and thinking could improve that contribution.

In 2008, the British Olympic rowing eight went from regularly coming seventh to winning Gold at the Sydney Olympics by constantly asking themselves and their support team one question, “Will it make the boat go faster?” This simple, clarifying question became the driving force of their preparations; encouraging innovation, simplification, teamwork and a collective, laser-like focus on performance.

“Will it increase profitable brand growth?” is insights’ equivalent of “will it make the boat go faster?” Just as the Olympic rowing question focused on the one outcome that mattered, so the business question would focus insights, as well as R&D, marketing and all the support departments, on the one outcome that matters.

Measuring insights’ contribution to profitable brand building is a hard thing to do, but reports like the IPA’s “Long and the Short of It” and awards like IPA Effectiveness, Cannes Effectiveness and ESOMAR Effectiveness show it’s possible and encourages us all to do anything we can, ‘to make the boat go faster’.

How are we doing after 100 years?

100 years ago, in 1916, the Literary Digest ran the first national opinion poll among its readers, correctly predicting Woodrow Wilson’s US election win. The Digest correctly called the next four elections. Then, in 1936, they predicted victory for Alf Landon, when in fact Franklin D Roosevelt won by a landslide.

The Literary Digest’s 1936 poll was based on two million returned questionnaires. But a young researcher, George Gallup, won national recognition by predicting Roosevelt’s victory – using a mere 50,000 respondents. It was the birth of scientific sampling and, during the 40s and 50s, this new method spread from polling to marketing and advertising. Even so, Gallup was not infallible: in 1948 his organisation predicted a 5-15% win for Thomas Dewey over Harry S Truman. The headline writers ran with the story for the morning papers: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. They were wrong.

Meanwhile insights kept growing. Qualitative groups were invented during the World War II as a tool for propaganda testing. Ernest Dichter, the father of motivational research, coined the “focus group” term in the 1950s and called them his “living laboratory”. His techniques shaped the 50s consumer landscape – one of his groups helped invent the Barbie doll. Not everyone was happy with Dichter and the backlash came in the form of Vance Packard’s famous The Hidden Persuaders, which brought motivational research to an abrupt halt.

Packard’s intervention ushered in a more rational, functional era of differentiation, USPs and message-based marketing. Along with persuasion-marketing, metrics and constructs like purchase intention, segmentation, brand awareness, brand linkage and loyalty have been the Insights industry default from the 60s and 70s to the present.

Insights departments now occupy a crucial role understanding consumers and predicting success of new products and advertising.

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