“Insights” as revealations of hidden optionalities

Terrace. say the word 50 times.
Slowly.
As if you are pondering over the word. Letting your tongue linger over the r’s and letting it bid adieu to the dimming sss sound at the end with a gentle flourish. Do this over and over again.

What happens?

You begin to doubt the meaning of word. Or imagine different meanings for it. The evolving sounds of the word nudging you towards different notions and worlds.

Something similar happens in pursuit of ‘insights’. either alone or in group, after a few hours of meditating and mining for the insight, we begin to lose the shape of the very concept of insight. we might have a list of contenders by then. But when you look back, the contenders stare back at you with a question. is this really an ‘insight’?

***

Insights sit at the edge of epistemic boundaries.


Epistemy is the kind of word whose meaning deserts our mind as soon as our focus shifts away from it. If intellectual pursuits are scaffolds, the concept of epistemy sits perhaps high enough where clouds obscure the vision of ground reality below. Which is to say, it is one of those concepts you brush away in an encounter out of confusion or being intimidated. But try and hold onto it for a minute here. I think it would be worth your while.

Epistemology is knowledge about knowledge. how we know what we know? what are the limits of what we know? how we know what we know is true? how we believe in something and what constitutes reality?

Epistemy deals with perception, memory, cognition, reasoning… things that advertising professional deal in. In that sense, we are itinerant traders of epistemic goods; chiseling out notions, transporting it from minds to minds, fertilizing beliefs, harvesting behaviours and preferences.

When we talk about insights, we are really talking with purpose of effective inception – an ‘a ha’ moment. So within the epistemic set, insight is purposive subset. An insight that cannot trigger a 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 the day after. what is insightful for me when commuting might not be when I am drowsy with sleep.
In other words, insight needs to be TG, occassion and behaviour specific. I saw an ad recently by a footwear brand talking about woman empowerment. Nothing wrong with the politics. The insight is right for the politics, but not relevant to the brand at all.

thirdly, insight is epistemic. this is to say that it is relative to the knowledge, expectations, beliefs of the person we are trying to communicate with. The reader of this blog might enjoy this epistemic discourse. But this insight about insight is not of interest, concern or vocabulary of, say a parle G biscuit consumer. It is precisely of interest to a very narrow group of people interested in advertising, media AND who are intellectually curious. The latter group might have the vocabulary, the context and the interest in what I am saying, most others won’t.

Now is a good time to ask the question – so what?
Tthe thing is, 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 are the limits of those ideas in their mind and heart. We need a humanist perspective to expand their boundaries of tolerance, beliefs, knowledge (Which is relevant to the brand in question).

***

Insights and optionality

Life is essentially a journey through optionality. We move ahead in life, only by making choices (knowingly or unknowingly). We are under the illusion that time is what pushes us ahead. But that’s a fallacy. Time just moves our mortality. We stagnate and solidify into inert calcified husks if we postpone choices and doggedly ignore them. We move in life if we take chances, if we make choices.

and the journey is outwards, expanding the boudaries of what and how we know, feel, belong etc.

so every insight can essentially be framed as a choice, as an option, as an invitation to expand the boundaries of our lives. These insights sit at the boundary of our cognition. Often unsaid or invisible to the consumer, until it is made apparent by an outside agency (hopefully us).

I think this conception of insight is beautiful and MECE enough to settle all ‘what do you mean by an insight’ debate. what do you think?

summary: insight = identify epistemic boundary + an option to explore the beyond

The gulf between rating systems and reality

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.

A matter of dialing ‘it’ up or down

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.

Choose one direction, choose wisely, push hard.

What is “Positioning”? Separating faff from fact.

<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

  1. It is not our literary aspirations
  2. It is not a category level benefit
  3. It is not a consumer definition
  4. It is not an ‘insight’
  5. It is not descriptor of the business model
  6. 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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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‘.
  3. 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.