As the world moves faster and drags the advertising industry along with it, the concept of ‘insight’, which resolutely stood at the centre of the advertising industry for long, is appearing blurred.
Often, we find ourselves in meeting rooms sharing a scratch of the head, “what’s an insight, anyways?”. Here’s my take.
What is an insight?
Firstly, when we talk about insights, we are talking with the purpose of effective inception – an ‘a ha’ moment to convince someone of something. (Unlike insight in literature or art where the only subjectivity that matters is that of the creators. And therefore, advertising is not art.) It is purposive. It seeks a response/ influence. It requires an ‘other’ to incept in. An insight that cannot trigger response is not useful.
Secondly, insight is relative. What is insightful to me might not be insightful for you. What is insightful for me now might not be insightful for me when I am older.
Thirdly, insight illuminates the beyond. People don’t find what they know, insightful. So, the playground of insight starts beyond their knowledge, their feelings, their experiences.
Simply put, I find something insightful if it was something that I didn’t know before. I find something exhilarating if I had not experienced it before. I feel I have grown, only after experiencing something, often a failure, that makes me reassess my previously held beliefs.
Insights push the boundaries of knowledge, feeling, being.
To create an ‘a ha’ moment, we need to drive the person right beyond the edge of his knowledge, his beliefs, his perspectives.
So, it is not enough to know what your consumer knows, feels, believes in. We need to know what the limits of those ideas in their mind and heart are. We need a humanist perspective to expand their boundaries of tolerance, beliefs, knowledge (which is relevant to the brand in question).
Insights as the revelation of a hidden option
A precise purpose of the ‘insight’ then is to convince the consumer to push their boundary; to step beyond their normal; to step beyond their range of feelings. An insight makes an option accessible, that they didn’t know of, or couldn’t access, or didn’t think they deserve it.
An insight is an invitation and encouragement to expand the boundaries of our lives. It propels us to seize an opportunity hidden to us for so long.
Note: This article adapts NN Taleb’s idea about ‘optionality’ from his excellent book ‘ Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder‘; and uses research from Richard Bulliet’s book The Camel and the Wheel.
Camel or a car?
Can you imagine a day when everyone around you stops using automobiles and instead starts riding camel? It turns out there’s a precedence for such a shift.
If you were in the Middle East sometime between the 6th to 4th century BC you would have seen chariots in the army, seen long paved roads in major cities, seen traders using pack-animal carriages to haul goods. The wheel moved the world around. Even then. Until it stopped.
If you were to time travel a few centuries ahead, anytime between the 3rd century AD to 18th century, you would have been surprised by the near-total disappearance of wheeled carriages from the region, in favour of camels.
Baffling isn’t it.
The fact that wheels, the epitome of ‘disruptive innovations’, fell out of favour in certain contexts, makes you wonder about the awesome forces that precipitated that shift.
Why did the wheel fall out of favour?
In comparison to camels, wheels were fragile (then) – prone to breaking down, couldn’t ford through shallow rivers, couldn’t traverse deserts, were slower (when attached to other pack animals.), were far less efficient (needed the deadweight of the wagon), needed special infrastructure of roads, and needed one person per carriage whereas a single person could shepherd up to six camels!
But camels existed in the 6th century BC too. Why then people preferred wheels before but not after? Clearly, efficiency was necessary but not a sufficient condition to instigate change.
The transformative agent was surprising – the invention of the North Arabian saddle.
This saddle turned the cargo-carrying ship of the desert, the camel, into a battleship. The more secure saddle allowed the camel rider to use swords and pikes and positioned the rider much higher up, which gave a great advantage in battle.
This ‘optionality’ of camel, its ability to turn into a dependable technology for the battleground, changed the balance of power.* Let me take a moment here to elaborate on the concept of optionality. Optionality is the freedom to readily take advantage of an emerging situation, afforded by the fact that you have multiple options. As against having no choice and being left to get squeezed by fate’s pincers. Functionally, a saddle is just a seat. But by being more secure, created the possibility for the rider to do something else besides sitting on it. That option was not available to them earlier.
A useful metaphor is that of platform and APIs. Here the camel is a platform, and the saddle is an application that fulfils the certain requirement. In this context, the ability of the platform to host APIs is critical. If a platform can’t host APIs, the platform is useless. Camel won because it could host the saddle.
Camel nomads gained control of caravan routes. This, in turn, allowed for more social and economic integration of camel nomads with the settled societies and so, camels proliferated.
What can we learn from this story?
Robust wins against fragile. Camel was more robust compared to the wheel.
Optionality that improves the ability to compete matters more. Consider wheel as a ‘platform’ – the base technology over which, you can build added functionality. Compared to the camel, the wheel is more versatile. One could create carriages with varying specifications, attach a varying number of animals and so on. In comparison, camel as a platform is potentially less versatile. A wheel then had more ‘optionality’. Yet, the camel’s ‘API’ of saddle won out because it enhanced the rider’s ability to swiftly attack or defend, more capably. Thus, optionality that improves performance matters more than optionality that improves versatility alone.
Inversely, lack of optionality that improves ability to compete, is fatal. Optionality is the freedom of having choices when confronted with novel situations. Inversely, lack of it is servitude to fate, being caught completely unaware and unprepared to emergent situations.
Advantage is relative and temporary. Camel is not better than a Humvee or a drone. No advantage is absolute. As technology changes, so does the nature of competition and source of advantage.
A change that gives an asymmetric advantage, dominates. Camel with the saddle was markedly better than the wheel in battle. But it ended up replacing the wheel everywhere else too (except for pottery wheels). This is because of the phenomenon of a ‘positive feedback loop’. As more people realised the advantage of a camel over a wheel, more adopted it. As such the adoption is not linear but accelerates with the expanding reach of the idea.
The new default. Asymmetric scaling leads to new ‘default’ as other options recede to obsolescence.
Change comes from the edges. Change comes from those who have less to lose, more to gain. In the fight for supremacy between Camel nomads and city traders, camel nomads had more to gain, less to lose. Vice versa for the traders trying to protect their goods in caravan.
Power matters. The quest to gain power animates all changes.
Distinctive awareness about what changes, what doesn’t is helpful. To win, one must be able to distinguish an advantageous choice from a disadvantageous one. That discernibility requires the understanding of the dynamics of economic and social power and a keen sense of its shift. In this case, the need for transportation did not change. However, trade dynamics were changing with the Arab conquest in the region. The rise in overland trade between southern and northern Arabia during the time was a major factor that increased the importance of camels. Wheel’s technological transformation was a millennium away, into the future. The saddle technology was transforming the present-day dynamics of then.
Efficiency is necessary but not sufficient to precipitate shift.
Why is this story relevant now?
Humans think linearly. Reality is anything but. This story illustrates this. Did we ever imagine a millennia-long gap between wheel use in human history? It warns us to not take visions of progress/ growth for granted. Secondly, this story is about change. It illustrates the principles of systemic change, ably. This is relevant now because we are now living in an age where change is only accelerating. Civilisational changes that happened over millennia, happen now in years.
Implicit in our strategic thinking is an assumption of stability, of linear change. That is why strategy often feels ‘theoretical’, a euphemism for being not useful or not true.
For a world in constant flux, we need a strategy that appreciates the dynamics of change.
Brand strategy framework made for a world in flux.
The surest way to fail in a rapidly changing world is to depend on strategies that assume stability & linear change. Brands that focus on efficiency and not on optionality, are bound to get blindsided with change and suffer ruin.
To survive, one must ensure of never getting cornered. To thrive, one must be able to identify and then seize an advantageous opportunity to its full potential. This simple principle is at the core of the optionality framework.
This perspective helps us separate noise from the signal. It enables us to see the big picture while being firmly grounded in the realities of here and now. It forces us to focus on activities that really matter – the ones that help gain asymmetric advantage and avoid ruin. The brand strategy framework informed with this perspective is firmly rooted in business realities and yet supercharges the brand with imagination and empathy.
Here are six questions that can guide brands towards growth, relevance, and resilience.
Let’s explore each of these questions briefly to understand how to use this framework.
Define our platform and APIs. a. Platform: For the purpose of this framework, I define platform as the core of the business – the organisational capabilities, properties, assets, offerings, its relationships – that define the scope of its present and potential future activities. For a firm’s existence to make sense, the whole must be bigger than its parts. It’s ability to host APIs is a measure of this ability. If it can enable new capabilities with emerging situations, it’s a platform worth building. For instance, for Maruti Suzuki, its factories, its dealerships, its online presence, its workforce, its history, its brand – all add up to a whole which enables mobility for millions, employs thousands and plays a pivotal role in nation-building. b. APIs: In this context, APIs are the synergistic added functionalities that the firm can deliver, given its core platform. An excellent example of this is Maruti Suzuki’s adaptation of their factories into ventilator production units during the Covid emergency. APIs are products of the optionality that the platform enables. Maruti Suzuki’s peculiar platform, which included its infrastructure and its culture, drove it to turn its factories into ventilator production units.
Be aware of the changing and the unchanging. The unchanging: The need for mobility, the prestige associated with ownership. The changing: Rising concerns about pollution and overcrowding, increasing dependence and shortage of semiconductors, IoT & app-based gig economy, rise of subscription-based economies, Open-sourced Tesla’s patents, and so on. Climate change is systemic, hence the need for zero-emission mobility. App-based taxi services as threat to ownership of cars, might not be as big a risk, with profitability remaining elusive to aggregator apps even after a decade.
Prepare against optionality that threatens our existence. Perhaps Tesla and other e-vehicle brands’ entry in India and the government’s regulatory push for electric vehicles poses an existential threat to Maruti Suzuki. Another source of danger is improving public transport infrastructure. To counter this threat, it should explore options to produce e-vehicles which are as good if not better than the best available today in the world. Secondly, it may also explore the choice of producing mass transit vehicles.
Define and leverage options that give us an asymmetric advantage. This is the key question. Having a solid thesis here can unlock a strategic shift in a brand’s fortunes. Here’s my attempt at it. Maruti Suzuki enjoys a strong brand perception as being an Indian family’s trusted car. For the brand, Indianness and familial bonds are quite important. So, here’s an idea. We know that most families are now nucleated – separated by distance but united by traditions and bonds. Families share things & experiences. What if we create a family-centric car subscription service that all family members can use through a single subscription. Wherever the family members might be, Maruti Suzuki can personalise their mobility, ensure safety and connectedness and economize travel. A proposition like this can be immensely valuable and unlock new revenue streams for the company.
Align with power dynamics. In the realm of brands, real power is in building coalition with customers, partners, and employees. Maruti Suzuki needs allies among the eco-conscious & value-conscious consumer base. It needs to strategically build passionate communities that would champion the brand’s cause.
Become the default. In a world flooded with attention-leaching distractions, being the default choice for a sizeable chunk of the consumer set is essential for a brand to survive. In this case, as Maruti Suzuki enters the e-vehicle space, it has the advantage of being a market leader with the widest network in the country. It can use this to supply superior services/ provide proprietary charging tech etc., to lock in consumers. (Though, it would be better for the world for it to adopt open standards.) What brand APIs, experiences, propositions can help build a strong relationship and ensure that the consumer consistently chooses the brand? What possibility are we uniquely unlocking for our consumers? For Maruti Suzuki, it could mean campaigns and features about family safety, or it could mean subscription services or integrated online journeys.
This framework allows us to imagine and ideate for a wide enough range of activities while focusing on the big picture. Used intelligently, it helps align corporate, brand, and communications strategy seamlessly. It is simple and concise enough to be understood by a wide-ranging set of stakeholders. Yet, it is robust and aware of the actual complexities of business, so the exercise doesn’t devolve into an esoteric ritual that doesn’t inform actual actions.
I hope it helps you unlock disruptive growth for your brand. Feel free to critique and suggest improvements to it. I will keep improving on the idea.
Concepts to know:
1. Optionality – Optionality is the freedom to readily take advantage of an emerging situation, afforded by the fact that you have multiple options. As against having no choice and being left to get squeezed by fate’s pincers.
2. Feedback loop – In most natural systems, the output of the system affects the functioning of the system itself. There are two kinds of feedback loops – reinforcing and balancing. Reinforcing loops amplify and fuel change. (e.g., viral content online) Balancing loops, in contrast, keep equilibrium. (e.g., temperature of tea reverts to room temperature.)
3. Platform – Core organisational capabilities, priorities, properties that define their purpose and activities.
4. APIs – APIs are the synergistic added functionalities that the firm’s platform enables.
Principles for a world in flux:
Robust wins against fragile.
Optionality that improves the ability to compete matters more.
Inversely, lack of optionality to improve the ability to compete, is fatal.
A change that gives an asymmetric advantage, dominates.
Ergo, the existence of defaults. Be the default.
Advantage is relative and temporary.
Change comes from the edges.
Distinctive awareness about what changes, what doesn’t is necessary.
Efficiency is necessary but not sufficient.
Define our platform & APIs.
Be aware of the changing and the unchanging. Is the change transitory or systemic?
Prepare against optionality that threatens our existence.
Define and leverage options that give us an asymmetric advantage.
Align with power dynamics.
Become the default.
 Bulliet, R. W. (1990). The Camel and the Wheel. Columbia University Press.
* I owe this article to NN Taleb. His excellent book, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’, changed the way I see the world. It was only a matter of time before I applied his concepts to brand strategy. While I will explain the concept of optionality soon enough, I highly recommend reading his book to understand it better.
Here’s the rating system used by Car servicing centers –
1-4 -unacceptable 5-7 – average 8-9 – Good 10 – Excellent
Once, after getting my car serviced from Hyundai, I gave an 8 rating… I got a call later from the service center asking to please improve the rating otherwise they would face trouble. they needed a 9 or 10. I was astonished. Scoring 60% in school was ‘good’. scoring anything above 70% was a cause for celebrations. And here I had a panicking executive worried about getting a low score of 80%!
Then I remembered the JD Power awards! Companies have rigged their rating systems to pull themselves higher in the awards schema. But since everyone does that now, the advantage is gone and we are left with a nonsensical scale.
Here’s the rating system on swiggy
1 star – aargh! 2 star – Bad 3 star – Meh 4 star – Good 5 star – Loved it
If ola driver or swiggy delivery person does what he/she is supposed to do, I give a 5. i started doing that because i heard getting anything below 4 gets them in trouble. A friend of mine, as a customer, can’t use uber anymore. apparently, because her ratings have gone below 4! again 80%! I would have killed to consistently get 80% marks in my school/ college.
Here’s the rating system for appraisal in some companies.
1 – Did not meet expectations (Performed considerably below the required expectations. Definite improvement is needed) 2 – Partially met expectations (Performed slightly below expectations and achieved goals partially. Needs to focus on some areas and improve through consistent effort) 3 – Successfully met expectations (Performed on-target and met all expectations and goals. Achieved 100% of target) 4 – Exceeded expectations (Surpassed all expectations and goals. Achieved >100% and <110% of target) 5 – Far exceeded expectations (Surpassed all expectations and goals and is a role model of excellence to others. Achieved >110% of target)
After working hard, successfully meeting expectation, you get a 3! does that feel justified? does the scale seem a bit wonky?
I remember another company where the 100% expectation meeting was at 4, somewhat reasonable i would think. But even then, should it actually be at 5? we should be evaluated against what was expected. full marks for what was expected. for extra efforts, give extra! if you expect everyone to be a superstar, you are setting up everyone for a failure.
It seems as if the rating system has been rigged to bring down the worker’s ratings to justify low raises?
Obviously these rating systems matter. But should they?
some scales are linear, some are weighted at an end, some are exponential… reading any of these ratings would require an understanding of the context, and consequently fighting against that context.
ratings are just another battle ground where different interest groups rig the system for their benefit.
as such, ratings do not communicate the quality of experience/ work etc at all. they simply communicate the power dynamic.
As a strategic planner, I try to make choices clear for a marketer: for example, whether a campaign needs to talk about ‘new ingredients’, ‘benefit of new ingredients’, ‘advantage of the product’, emotional pitch for the brand and so on. Now, for a reasonable person, making that choice, though not easy, is possible. All it needs is to do is to consider the data at hand, understand the objective well and review lessons learnt in past.
The point is, for a communication to be strong, marketers must choose ‘one’ direction. Mostly, I propose a choice to them with a rationale why. Most of the times those suggestions are accepted. But then comes a certain breed of clients that can’t make up its minds.
It treats communications as an act of piloting an airplane. a lever dialed down here, a button pushed there. They recognise the various variables at play. But instead of choosing the one variable to push for this one campaign, they try to pilot their brand through the inundated sea of medias with a single commercial that talks of five different things – ofcouse – some ‘dialled up’ and some ‘dialled down’.
These commercials always ‘pass like a ship in the night.’ Then it becomes a challenge in avoiding the inevitable when the client has made up its mind about the whole business of dialing up and down.
The trick is to understand that, while the marketing plan and budgeting might be similar to piloting an airplane with various dials to turn up and down. When it comes to a campaign, it is more like rowing a boat. Build on previous strength and pedal forward in a defined direction. No room of pedaling other boats or pedaling in multiple directions at the same time.
<Cryptic high brow summation>
Knowing simply what something is,
is not enough.
One must know what is it for,
to know it well. </Cryptic high brow summation>
1. Positioning as a consumer’s idea of your brand
Recently, I was left scratching my head after an hour of brainstorming session with my colleagues for re-positioning a brand that we work for. The reason for my confusion was the confidence with which people suggested ideas that were not useful – they were imaginative and quite amazing at times, but not useful for the purpose of brand positioning. I can’t share the ideas that we actually discussed, but here’s an exaggerated lists of ideas that I made up now for the sake of illustration – ‘purposeful hunger’, ‘pragmatic daredevil’, ‘Cocooning warmth’, ‘ethical driving’, ‘nature inspired’, ‘bath-living room’, ‘Live the dream’… and so on.
So here I am, clearing out the confusion and trying to make sense of what a ‘positioning’ is and what it is not.
What positioning is not
It is not our literary aspirations
It is not a category level benefit
It is not a consumer definition
It is not an ‘insight’
It is not descriptor of the business model
It isn’t just a descriptor of the brand
What positioning is.
Imagine a consumer who wants a brand of deo but has forgotten the brand name. Then,
Positioning is specifically what the consumer asks for at the shop (or the keywords he/she uses to search online) when she means to buy your brand, to the exclusion of any other brand, when she doesn’t recall the brand name to ask for.
So it is the adjective, verb or the idea that she uses to describe your brand uniquely.
That is my understanding of it anyways. So any articulation of positioning that is not likely to be uttered by a consumer is not a positioning, it is just an impression of their needs at best. (which is useful, but not the solution yet.)
So when we craft a positioning statement, or articulate it sharply, it must be articulated in the spirit of role playing, in a sense. It must be written from the consumer perspective. It is sort of an articulation of desire of the brand owners – what the brand should mean to a consumer in consumer’s voice.
So if a consumer who is standing at the counter of a retail shop asks, “Bhaiya, ek accha deodrant dena” (Brother, give me a good Deodrant), he is simply asking for ‘any’ deodrant. This guy doesn’t give a shit about brands. ‘good’ is not a positioning. But if he says, “Boss, woh bina gas waala deo do.” (Boss, Give me the deo that has no gas), he knows what he wants even if he doesn’t remember the brand name. In his head and under his armpits, now there is a space occupied by a brand for its unique proposition. That is a positioning. But that is not adequate, too. Competitors might soon come up with gas less deos. In this case if the consumers say “Bhai, woh original bina gas ka deo do’ (Give me the original gas-less deo.) then the brand is positioned as the original, the pioneer of the category. But even that is risky. How long will hipsters keep bankrolling authenticity if competitors bring new brands with better propositions? The penultimate desire is for the brand to own the category proposition, to rename the category proposition by the brand name. So the brand would be happy if the consumer says”Give me Fogg.” end of story.
But like it happened with Maggi (“Bhaiyya, woh Ramdev walla maggi do”), even this positioning is not fool proof. Even worse, if you are disingenuous dipshit of a brand, you could end up as doubtful and harmful brand. (“Bhaiyya, woh Maggi waala maggi nahi dena. usme zeher hai.”) (Don’t give me that Maggi maggi. It has poison.)
The ultimate desire of a brand is to become the arbiter of identity through class and lifestyles. So when a desperate human in need of identity says that he is an ‘iphone guy’ or a ‘Bullet guy‘, the brands have done fucking swimmingly well for themselves. But there can only be so many brands that could become identity markers. Don’t try to do it if you are not prepared for it. Especially if you are ‘impressed identity’ brand. More about that later.
2. Taglines and positioning
From my perspective, taglines are best leveraged when they articulate the positioning well. They sort of serve the function of encouraging a nod from the consumer, “yes this is what I want/feel”. They reinforce the brand’s role in the user’s life. So I get confused with brands that, in an effort to become lifestyle identity markers, use flowery meaningless english words as taglines.
Sample these actual tag lines at random –
‘We touch lives’
‘Innovation that excites’
‘Way of life!’ (with a fucking exclamation mark no less)
What positioning can you divine from these words? What possible purpose do they serve? The first possibly is a gambit at retaining employees (“We really do matter, don’t leave”). The second is trying too hard to look exciting and innovative. The third is complete faff. The brand is a leader. It can live very well without those three words hanging below the giant brand name.
None of them ‘position’ the brand in any useful manner – the need being met is not communicated, the unique quality of the brand is not articulated.
Instead a more honest reflection could have resulted in better taglines. I will make an attempt for it now. I am not working on any of these three brands now, so I might not get the strategic thought right, but anyways…
HCL is a conglomerate with varied interests – Computing hardware, BPOs, healthcare, etc. Their only differentiator is their origin – Indian. (But nationalism will matter little to their global clients) Their services and products are at parity if at slightly better value.(assumption) The leaders in their category typically are more innovative, are bigger or are well established. The company has global aspirations.
So essentially, An Indian David versus global Goliaths fighting with gumption. Why not have a positioning similar to what Avis did. Who doesn’t like underdogs? Perhaps the suits in the corner offices don’t, who often are their primary consumers. But the company has made a choice to target employees and prospective employees for brand communications.So proposition has to talk to both suits and employees about hardware, service and healthcare too! Too tall an order. Perhaps the brand architecture needs a bit of pruning. But for the sake of this exercise… Suits do like aggressive go-getters who get the job done and employees like to work at a place that is driven and patients like commited staff to take care of them. So how about, “Committed.” Which will need specific acts and rituals to be instituted by the brand for it to reflect reality.
Hmm… not as good, but I guess I will leave it at that for now.
Nissan has sexy cars! India can do with some sexy cars. Why can’t it’s tag line simply be, ‘We make sexy cars’. Well, I checked and they haven’t brought their sexy cars to India. shame. Well, I don’t really know what they bring to the table apart from another ‘option’ for Indian consumers. There can’t be a positioning in a vacuum. So it will automatically be positioned as simply another option. Certainly not innovative or exciting. Where’s the ‘reason to believe’. Assuming they are at parity, i will take up one of the product qualities that no other brand owns and that appeals to their TG – maybe the ride experience. And suggest the brand to build their value proposition around this promise. perhaps, ‘Have a good ride‘.
Maruti Suzuki is a juggernaut. It put Indians in four wheels. It continues to grow beyond the wildest dreams of its competitors. Why not simply ‘India’s pride’. Well its workers might not agree to that – more like India’s shame. However it does have a strong legacy and a role for making Indians mobile. But must say so without making it look like a mass brand, at the cost of losing out in premium categories. So perhaps, “Dream cars for all Indians”
Essentially, what I have tried to do is prune the faff out of positioning and arrive at positioning that articulate what the brand might want the consumers to think of them, in words that consumers might understand and use themselves.
3. Positioning is relative
The ‘Position’ of a brand is relative – to competitors, to the society, to other categories. And as these variables change with time, so should the positioning.
There’s no strategic advantage in being the 37th health insurer who ‘really cares for you’. #CynicismForTheWin
There might be a strategic advantage in being the 1st health insurer to insure against all eventuality (fat chance) or redressal/ disbursement in ’30 minutes or less’ (fat chance)
There’s no strategic advantage in being the best messaging app on Blackberry in the age of Android and iPhones. There might be a strategic advantage in being the most secure messaging app in the world.
In the age of crooked car companies who fool regulators (Volkswagen), there is a strategic advantage in being the honest car maker who recalls cars for the slightest glitches.