5 September 2016

Great engine, but the fuel seems poor. Discussing insight development in corporate marketing

Be the first to share

The September issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) contains a lengthy essay, entitled Building an Insights Engine, on how Unilever has created the organizational capabilities to “transform data into insights about consumers’ motivations and to turn those insights into strategy.”

The article was written by Frank van den Driest and Keith Weed of a brand and marketing strategy agency that conducted an extensive “customer centricity” industry survey for Unilever and Stan Sthanunathan, an Executive VP at Unilever.

Although the transversal and integrated organizational and operational capabilities are clearly advanced and makes the article more than worthwhile (we don’t think it’s an infomercial like one of the commentors), and its ethical anchoring is clearly sincere (much appreciated!), the underlying motivational model of human behavior, put forth in the HBR essay and the cited insights2020 white paper, seems instead quite outdated.

The goal is still “to distill insights about consumers’ motivations and needs on the basis of their behavior”, Insight gathering is largely conducted through market analysis and data mining, some quantitative testing (e.g. facial expression testing), and very rudimentary qualitative approaches (e.g. the Discuss.io tool to arrange virtual meetings with consumers anywhere, real time consumer monitoring through Google Glass-like wearables, or managers wearing old-age simulation equipment “to bring the experience of older consumers to life”). It is in the end overlaid with a creative agency “whole brain” approach: “the capability to combine the science and analytics of what the data says (left-brain orientation) with the art of deriving creative recommendations (right-brain orientation) that resonate both internally and externally”.

Actual observation of people’s behaviors, where Unilever staff “will go to people’s homes to wash clothes or cook a meal, seeing first-hand how users engage with Unilever products”, is described as a creative workshop exercise, rather than a real insight gathering method.

A more contemporary and methodologically diverse approach to obtaining human behavioral insights – inspired by behavioral economics and cultural change approaches and grounded in qualitative research – applies another conceptual framework altogether. It is centered around people’s concrete lives anchored in specific contexts with all their messiness, and focuses on their “goals” (instead of “needs”) and “behavioral patterns” (instead of “motivations”) *. The cultural and cognitive constraints of people’s behaviors are then further articulated through representations of cognitive biases, cultural frames and architectures of choices (to name but a few).

The means of applying such insights inside a corporation are then also very different. It is now no longer just about problem solving and analysis but instead about the types of mapping and modeling that can be derived from these goals, patterns, frames and architectures of choices.

In advanced UX agencies (such as Experientia) and some corporations this is done by conducting opportunity mapping and modelling to explore also unexpected and more innovative directions than those that a mere problem solving approach (where the problem is already defined) could lead to.

They conduct behavioral analysis and persona modelling that go far beyond the typical socio-demographic and motivational analyses, or technology-intensive data mining of consumption patterns. Such behavioral modeling approaches incorporate narratives that people actually use in their real lives to frame – implicitly – their decisions and to justify – more explicitly – their behaviors when given a selection of choices. They also help to explain the “why” of observed behavior, allow research and business teams to define the distinguishing factors that drive people’s behaviors, and suggest insights that enables this diversity to be transformed in choice architectures or product/service solutions.

While quantitative data can provide important signs and clues, often expressed through statistical correlations, they do not provide insights. The HBR article repeatedly confounds correlations with insights, and quotes some highly successful examples (e.g. the cases of “It Takes a Village” and “Love at First Taste”), but there are many industry cases of correlations that have not been productive for business and were simply dead ends (e.g. because the two phenomena where both driven by a further – and not understood – third factor). Other “insights” are so sweepingly general (and brand-friendly) that they can hardly be derived from data mining: “Customers expect much more than good products or services: they expect a seamless, consistent, tailored-to-their-needs brand experience that goes beyond functional benefits and is built on a clear purpose for why the brand exists.” (from the Insights 2020 white paper that the article refers to). Real actionable insights require a deeper understanding of people’s narratives. These qualitative data can then be validated by quantitative analysis and data modeling and this integrated qualitative/quantitative validation will provide new strategies to nudge behavioral change.

In Experientia’s case, this all driven by a fundamental humanistic ethical stance aimed at helping people to make better decisions and responsible choices whenever possible.

Marketing agencies and departments – in particular those dealing with FMCG’s – will have to find ways to apply these contemporary approaches in their business practices to become truly customer-centric and much more effective, rather than remaining at the level of the exploration of needs and motivations, and developing “problem solving” approaches only based on advanced data mining. In fact many corporate marketing and innovation departments are moving this way already.


* The HBR article also uses the term “behavioral patterns” but they are really correlational clusters derived from automatic video mining and other technologies.

Be the first to share
3 February 2018
Anthropology in Industry w/ Natalie Hanson
Design and anthropology have been seen together with increasing frequency over the last few years, but how do design and anthropology fit together in relation to industry? And, how does this pairing create insight? The …
27 January 2018
Google Design on “human-centered machine learning”
As was the case with the mobile revolution, and the web before that, machine learning will cause us to rethink, restructure, and reconsider what’s possible in virtually every experience we build, writes Josh Lovejoy, UX …
27 January 2018
[Book] The Age of Surge
The Age of Surge: A Human Centered Framework for Scaling Company Wide Agility and Navigating the Tsunami of Digital By Brad Murphy and Carol Mase Reinvent Press January 2018, 272 pages > Q&A on the book The global forces of …
27 January 2018
[Book] The Human Workplace: People-Centred Organizational Development
The Human Workplace: People-Centred Organizational Development By Andy Swann Kogan Page Publishing October 2017, 232 pages Companies spend time and effort developing their employees - their most important asset - but they often forget to consider the company structure, …
22 December 2017
Happy new year 2018!
15 December 2017
The body is the missing link for truly intelligent machines
It’s tempting to think of the mind as a layer that sits on top of more primitive cognitive structures. But Ben Medlock, co-founder of SwiftKey, argues that the layered model of cognition is wrong. The point …
15 December 2017
Learning from today’s car-centric cities for a human-centered future of mobility
The introduction of autonomy into urban environments creates a unique opportunity to do things differently. This, writes Maya Pindeus (CEO and co-Founder of Humanising Autonomy) requires us to encourage a human-centered perspective towards urban mobility …
15 December 2017
[Book] Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age
Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age by Matthew J. Salganik Princeton University Press 2017, 448 pages [Read online] An innovative and accessible guide to doing social research in the digital age In just the past several years, we …

We are an international experience design consultancy helping companies and organisations to innovate their products, services and processes by putting people and their experiences first.

22 December 2017
Happy new year 2018!
30 November 2017
New European study on e-Government initiatives

The latest eGovernment benchmark report of the European Commission shows significant improvement on cross-border availability of digital public services and accessibility of public websites from mobile devices in EU Member states. The study also indicates a need for improvement in transparency of public services delivery and use of supporting technology like eIDs or eDocuments. Performance […]

20 November 2017
Experientia and Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo announce innovative partnership

Wide ranging partnership also covers collaboration with design schools and public events on service design “Finding the way forward for independent design means building new business models for service design consultancies in the age of the company buy-out.” Michele Visciola, President, Experientia PRESS RELEASE It seems the business world is finally realising that service and […]

26 October 2017
Epic storytelling with video

Another EPIC conference come and gone, and no, we’re not using “epic” in the way under-10s use it about cool things on the internet. EPIC is the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, one of the most important annual events for practitioners of anthropology, ethnography and related disciplines. Ethnography is one of Experientia’s key methodologies, underpinning […]

23 October 2017
Experientia is hiring! Service design intern

Service Design Intern: Lausanne, Switzerland and Turin, Italy Experientia, an international experience design consultancy, is looking for service design interns for our Turin, Italy office, to support research, concept development and design. The ideal candidate will be a holistic thinker and designer, with a systems approach to enable complex service offerings, driven by an understanding […]

23 October 2017
Experientia is hiring! Senior Service Designer

Senior Service Designer: Lausanne, Switzerland and Turin, Italy (*) We are looking for service designers with outstanding design skills, methodical thinking, and experience in designing complex service ecosystems using a human-centered design methodology.   Required 2-5 years’ experience in service design and/or user experience design University and/or advanced degree(s) in Service Design, Interaction Design, User […]

See all articles