Audience Insights

Understanding the market is the first step to customer engagement

A deep understanding of the market is essential to designing strategies for reaching new audiences and developing deeper relationships with existing customers. An effective insights engine has five characteristics.


Inspire ideas and action, not just inform.


Based on data, not hearsay.


Generate fresh ideas about business growth opportunities, not just reduce risk.


Integrate multiple data streams, not just primary and secondary research.


Embraced and used by the organization, and its partners, not just marketers.


Available on demand, not locked away in presentations.

Insights are foundational to creating strategies for growth. Yet, it’s estimated that 80% of market research is focused on tactical, rear-view mirror research. Many so-called ‘insights’ are nothing more than compilations of facts and trends.

Insights take businesses in new directions by making come alive as people who make choices about how they spend their time and money. Spotting trends and discerning game changing insights requires in-depth understanding of the values that drive those choices.

At Brand Amplitude, we use the latest research tools to uncover deep insights about customer decision-making, and partner with our clients to apply these insights to drive business growth. We emphasize internal activation to ensure that findings get to the people who can make the most use of them.

maple leaf farmsActivation in Action: Maple Leaf Farms

While duck is not exactly an everyday meal for most consumers, it is no longer considered all that exotic. To generate insights about how to convert duck ‘inclined’ shoppers to consumers who are comfortable buying duck regularly, we partnered with the Maple Leaf Farms marketing team to conduct an immersive study. In the final phase, consumers shopped for and prepared duck, and shared their experiences in an online community with other duck inclined consumers.


Ten key insights were identified and summarized in a series of memes, like #PrepareforAdventure, #InspireMe and #ThinkBeyondtheWholeBird. The memes became platforms for co-creating strategies in joint sessions with consumers, sales teams and retail customers. In the end, the sessions identified nine distinctive strategies for engaging consumers at the point of sale. Presto, insights became actions that inform how the company relates to consumers and customers in the store. For example, now instead of recipes, package and store signage focus on higher level inspirational cooking ideas. – 5 things to do with duck tonight!

Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on market research studies to guide new offerings, understand consumer choices and evaluate marketing effectiveness. A skilled market researcher makes sure decision-makers get the most for their money.

Here some typical mistakes we see when it comes to market research. 

  1. Poor Framing: Even the best study is unhelpful if it answers the wrong question, is too focused or too general. Start with the business decision to be made before designing a study. In framing the question, make sure it’s neither too specific nor too superficial. Highly tactical research may be ignoring the opportunity to uncover larger business truths.
  2. Penny-wise: Companies are often penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to survey sample sizes. With panel costs dropping, large sample surveys are not much more costly to field and analyze than small ones, and larger samples provide greater statistical power and the opportunity to dive in and look at the data among subgroups like heavy buyers or Millennials.
  3. Too Long: Respondents tire after 10 minutes, yet the average survey is 20 minutes long. With more participants using mobile phones, surveys need to be shorter and snappier. New methods for chunking surveys, analyzing incomplete data and incorporating data from other sources makes it possible to ask fewer questions of each respondent.
  4. Stuck on Surveys: Surveys are great for finding out what people think, but they are less effective at discovering what people actually do or at getting at the ‘why’s’ of what they do. Diary panels, customer journey mapping and mobile surveys are more in the moment and better for revealing actual behavior. The technology for engaging respondents has advanced enormously, with options for on-going dialog via communities, bulletin boards, advisory panels and more. And it’s easy today to use video within the survey to ask why or even do a follow up focus group among selected survey participants.
  5. Point in Time: Some insights are only revealed over time. Collecting data regularly and using a consistent methodology is the only way to accurately identify trends or answer the question ‘why have things changed?’
  6. Inadequate Stimuli: Some companies are reluctant to put incomplete or preliminary ideas in front of respondents. However, the best way to find out what people really think is to give them things to react to. It’s easier for people to give an opinion on a specific ad, idea or for instance situation than respond to general questions about likes and dislikes.
  7. Death by PowerPoint: The era of the 150-page report that sits on a shelf and no one reads is over. A skilled researcher will bring forward the storyline, relegating the details to an appendix. Good research is typically designed to address one set of issues, yet it has multiple uses. Giving decision-makers direct access to the data is another way to ensure it gets used. At Brand Amplitude, we consider our contribution to translating the findings into actions to be as important as doing the research itself.

Here are some ways to help insure you get the most from your  market research investments.  

  • Set clear learning objectives. Prioritize “need to knows” over “nice to knows.” What actions or decisions need to be made?
  • Match the method to the questions. Do we need to understand behavior or attitudes? Do we need to understand a point in time or a trend?
  • Look beyond the survey. What other methodologies or add ons may allow deeper insights?
  • Provide stimuli for more accurate read. People sometimes don’t know what they like until they see it.
  • Don’t skimp on sample size. The cost of incenting respondents is a small fraction of the overall study cost.
  • Fully utilize the insights. What other audiences could make use of this information?

Effective brand management requires feedback. Positioning concepts, message and creative can be refined and enhanced by understanding customer response. We tailor-fit each project to the stimuli to be tested, using a variety of qualitative and quantitative approaches.

All of our engagements are led by our team of experienced research professionals, and never outsourced. We do all our research in-house, including recruiting and data analysis.

Author’s Note: This article has appeared in numerous books and blogs since it was first written in 2007 including MENGBlend, BrandingStrategyInsider and MillennialMarketing. It was also featured in the American Association of Advertising Agencies newsletter in 2011. Although the examples may be old, it still resonates and reflects our philosophy of what constitutes an ‘insight.’

Marketers are trained to believe insights are the foundations of brand strategy and powerful insights about the target customer yield strong brands. But what exactly constitutes an ‘insight’ and how do you recognize one when you see it? What makes one idea worthy of building a brand around and another simply ‘nice to know’?

That’s an Insight?

When I read case histories about brand building, I am often surprised at how modest are the insights at the heart of the strategy. My immediate reaction, ‘that’s an insight?’ is immediately followed by curiosity. How did the team pluck that idea out of mountains of consumer research and make it the basis of their brand strategy?

Consider these examples:

  • Did someone in a Dawn Direct Foam strategy meeting actually jump up to say, “I’ve got it! Women don’t like to do dishes and want to make it fast and easy!”
  • Did the Master Card team really need an extensive brand audit to conclude, “Buying things allows you to get to some other place in your life that makes you feel good”?
  • How many proprietary studies did the Dove team at Uniliver need to determine “Only 2% of all women consider themselves beautiful, and only 5% consider themselves pretty”?
  • Did it take a rocket scientist at Goodby Berlin to discover that “Things just don’t feel the same without milk”?

In retrospect, each of these ideas is enormously insightful and each provided a powerful platform for brand building. But how did they know? Even now, each so called insight seems a bit obvious.

Insights Don’t Announce Themselves

In the case of Dove, we have evidence that even the brand team wasn’t completely sure they had unlocked the key to women’s psyches. Initially, the marketing budget was relatively small because there was some skepticism about spending on a campaign that didn’t sell a specific product. The subsequent soft launch gave Unilever an indication they were onto something big. O&M, the agency for the effort, estimated the PR campaign generated $21 million in free publicity. People magazine featured six real women in their underwear on their cover. These women went on to make a much talked about appearance on Oprah. In the next three years, the brand went on to gain $1.2 billion in value.


The MasterCard example is especially instructive because, like Dove, the insight is so seemingly obvious, it would have been easy to miss. You can almost put yourself in the conference room and hear the objections:

  • Isn’t that good feeling generic to all credit cards?
  • Will it actually motivate someone to change their behavior in a mature category like credit cards?
  • Shouldn’t we emphasize something more differentiating like safety or convenience?

Yet, through the brilliance of the insight, along with a strong strategic connection (Mastercard simplifies your life so you have time to focus on what matters), the “Priceless’ campaign provided a cross cultural platform that resonates with consumers worldwide. This cleverly-executed campaign not only differentiates the brand, it enhances connections with consumers and delivers bottom line results, the equivalent of a brand-building grand slam.

A more recent example from the financial world is a new campaign breaking from Mullen for Mass Mutual’s retirement planning services. The campaign, which targets individuals, financial planners and brokers, is based on extensive research by Landor that shows "most consumers actually resent scare tactics, and they simply don't believe the fantasies. This campaign is based on the simple fact that people generally know they need to financially prepare for their future, and MassMutual can help them realize the difference between thinking about it and doing something about it."

‘Insert brand name here’, is my immediate response. Why should this campaign move MassMutual ‘to the forefront of my consumer mindset’ more than a dozen other brands? And yet, who knows, this may be the insight that moves millions to action.

Insights about Insights

As a brand strategists and market researchers, we have a strong interest in discerning potential insights from the merely interesting. Consequently, here are some guidelines to use when considering whether a finding is ‘an insight’ worthy of building a brand effort around.

1. Insights say more about the target than about the product or service.
Few anti-drug campaigns have been more effective than Foote Cone and Belding’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, “Above the Influence’. This campaign is based on the insight that to be effective, a campaign needs to zero in on teen lifestyles and be based on a teen point of view. The main insight was that teens are very sensitive to influences, positive and negative, from peers and the media. The message was positioned so that teens would see influence as the enemy, and marijuana as one of the influences that gets in their way. This insight has very little to do with drugs and everything to do with the target.

2. Insights are more about the category than the brand.
Jenny Craig is not that different from a half dozen other complete weight loss plans. But unlike the others, this company leveraged an insight about the category driver into a $462 million business. Dieters truly want to believe that there is a diet that will succeed this time. They are hopeful and willing to believe if a plan has worked for others, it will work for them. The category driver is ‘optimism’. There are few brands quite as optimistic as Jenny Craig.Many strong brands are based on category insights. Indeed, owning the category benefit is often considered an indication of brand leadership. United Airlines for many years grew based on the idea that it alone offered friendly skies. 9-Lives thrived on the insight that it alone could satisfy the finickiest of finicky cats. More recently, Google is known as easiest, most powerful search engine.

3. Insights reveal more about how people want to feel than what they think.
Brands are adopted because they help customers feel better, not just because they do a better job of offering benefits they think they want. We want the brands that fit the life we want to lead. Brand strategist, David Lemly, puts it this way: “Said plainly, "I love you because of who I get to be when I am with you." Brands built on insights about desired lifestyle are among the best loved and most successful in the world. They include Nike, Starbucks, Apple, BMW, Martha Stewart, Oprah and more. Discovering how people want to feel is sometimes more difficult than discovering what they think. Feelings go right to our deepest needs and values. People are less likely to come right out and say they want to feel loved, secure, indulged, healthy, smart, adventurous and productive than they are to say they want products that are
affordable, taste good or have a longer warranty. Find an insight based one of a dozen basic emotions and it is possible to build a brand people will love, not just buy.

4. Insights focus more on what is enduring than what is new.
Enduring brands are often built on lasting values. If your insight is likely to be gone tomorrow, chances are it is not an insight worth investing in. Carhartt is a brand that prides itself on being the antithesis of trendy. For over 100 years, it has made quality workwear for people in the farm and construction industries. Workers have come to know Carhartt as the authentic brand. During the early 90’s, its work wear was adopted by the skater and BMX subcultures. Top rap and hip-hop groups were wearing Carhartt work clothing on televised videos as well as on CD covers and in performances onstage. Carhartt clothes were even featured in the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Yet, Carhartt’s marketing team resisted capitalizing on this windfall, maintaining that it was in existence to serve the needs of people who work hard for living. Staying true to its core values is what has, and will, make this brand strong. Some brands that appear to be built on fads, are actually the antithesis. For example, Abercrombie is based on the insight that pre-teen adolescents want to wear fashions that are lasting and make them fit in, not stand out. Their clothing is a clever blend of classic styles of jeans, t-shirts and sweatshirts, with trend-following, not trendsetting, details.

5. Insights stimulate new ideas and thinking, not the same old stuff.
Real insights are not just ‘good to know’; they should challenge companies to act in new ways. Payless ShoeSource ‘discovered’ the insight that men are not simply women with big feet. Men and women mean something completely different when they say ‘casual shoe’. While both expect a casual shoe to be comfortable, something they can wear ‘everyday’, they mean something completely different in terms of styling. Men mean something brown or black that will go with everything. Women are more likely to mean something that suits a variety of occasions without being boring or ‘too sensible’. This idea lead to new ways to address the merchandise needs of men (e.g., mix fashionable with classic shoe styles) and treat them differently when they are in the store.


Don’t reject an insight just because it seems obvious. First ask yourself:

  • Does it reveal something about the target?
  • Does it relate to the category driver?
  • Does it capture how consumers want to feel?
  • Does it speak to an enduring value?
  • Does it challenge the brand to act in new ways?

If you can answer yes to some of most of these questions, chances are you have an insight for building a powerful brand.

Our expertise includes tried-and-true methodologies for tracking, laddering interviews and online focus groups. We also like to create new methodologies using innovative data gathering technologies that make talking to consumers in real time, where they live and shop, easier and more natural.

"Insights are no longer just for market researchers, it’s the job of everyone in the organization. Employees are also consumers, they should be understanding people as part of their jobs."

Getting Started

Changing the mindset around market research takes a concerted effort that can yield tangible benefits.

  • Conduct a market research audit – What insights are critical to moving the business forward. Which research contributes most to insights? Where are the gaps?
  • Foster a passion for insights – Encourage every every part of the organization to recognize the importance of insights and contribute to generating them.
  • Transform market research to an “insights engine”– Require each research program has a plan to ensure findings have impact.
  • Build an insights repository – Insights have a shelf life - what can you do to ensure that the most promising insights are accessible and understood?