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Consumer Insight: Missing in Development?

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Tapping into people's psyche is more important than ever

It's long been contended, debated and then established that insights occupy a central position in the branding exercise. By the same token, it should be central to the planning of (social and) development communications. While in the first case (subsequently called 'brand insights'), the role of the insight is to get the consumers to part with money, time & brand-association - in the latter case (subsequently called 'people insights') it reaches for real lifestyle choices. It seeks to understand fundamental behaviors that have personal and social ramifications. If anything, development communication needs stronger, more relevant insights to drive behavior change in its audience.

But in reality, development communications often end up talking about the project, the donor / implementer, project activities or global statistics. Such campaigns and materials too frequently fail to address people's needs because they ignore or bypass real insights. This is the central theme of this summary.

What Are Insights?

Insights are just profound truths about people, society and their relationship - that can bind a brand or a piece of communication to its intended audience. So, a great insight is a 'deep discovery' about our consumer / audience that can be leveraged to change behavior. It should be remembered that insight mining is distinctly different from data-mining. I've found that a good insight always seems so-obvious-that-its-not-even-funny! And that has become its biggest criticism - despite the proven track-record. 

How Commercial Brands Use Insights

Unilever's Dove line uncovered that 2% of the world's women considered themselves beautiful (information). Ideation and dialog resulted in the truth that Dove consumers harbored a secret resentment for the 'supermodel' archetype - which helped propagate universal yet unrealistic beauty standards (insight). So the brand developed its landmark campaign on 'Real Beauty' featuring women of different shapes, sizes and colors ...appealing to the real women of our world: our wives, sisters, daughters, friends.

Recently, an airline brand started talking about 'destinations' instead of its previous focus on 'flying, cabin-crew or airplanes' because the 'trip to Hawaii' is what consumers are really paying for and looking forward to. The flight is a necessary evil (insight). So in simple words, realizing and recognizing that the buyer of the drill-machine is really looking for a hole-in-the-wall is the insight. 

Value of (Useable) Insights

As we have seen, insights usually have little or nothing to do with a good, service or desired behavior. The best kind is not related to a product or a project or an issue. They are intensely personal and shared across particular boundaries and/or nationalities, cultures. The greater the scope, the more generic the insight. Insights are also diluted i.e. made more generic, in the name of universality when more and more stakeholders have to agree on it.

But a good insight, eventually, creates a bond/affinity with the consumer - a bond to which, an (indirect) monetary value can be assigned (brand value). For example, Interbrands values the Coca-Cola brand at US$77.8 billion. Since a brand is largely reliant on its core insight, Coke's 'everyone wants to share happiness' insight can create affinity and thus has monetary value. This must mean that great insights lead to effective communications that, in turn, get tangible results. That's precisely why corporations invest so much in consumer-contact, surveys, polls, feedback programs and investigating their lifestyles etc.

Insights and Development Communications

It is my contention that certain matters inhibit the unearthing, acknowledgement and/or use of good insights in development communications. If development-related communication initiatives have not fully latched on to the tremendous potential of great insights - it's due to many of the following:

  • Brand campaigns retain a lot of flexibility over campaigns - whereas development communications, subject to a lengthy development process and complex approval mechanisms, are difficult to modify midway.
  • Commercial marketers have long-term, tangible motivation (e.g. earnings) - compared to shorter-term, professional obligation to distill out the best insights for development communicators.
  • Donors and/or governments (funders and facilitators) sometimes create pressure (indirectly or otherwise) to talk about them, the project or partners (e.g. is a road more valuable to an end-user if it's built through PPP [public private partnership]?).
  • In development, communications planners & implementers pay for communication and their desire for organization/self -promotion can override consumers' needs (commercial advertising is eventually paid for by consumers).
  • Actual audiences and beneficiaries are a small, often cosmetic, part of the planning process and as such, have little or no voice.
  • Due to somewhat rigid, preset global-approaches - audience (qualitative) studies often serve as mere inputs to reports and presentations that are fed into subsequent strategies as inputs.
  • Even when true insights are at hand, communicators feel apprehension / fear that the project or campaign can't resolve needs expressed in the insight and opt for more generic, less impactful insights.
  • Real insights are sometimes inconvenient and/or against the ethos of international donors and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] (e.g. some cultures feel that daughters of reputable families should be married off by 16 years).
  • Real insights are often based on instinct / gut and cannot be derived through a workshop or tool, creating problems in reporting and documentation.
  • And lastly, there's a lack of trained, unbiased human resources who can identify key insights.

Barriers to Insight-Mining

Brand insights are easier because the brand is defined, it's CEO [Chief Executive Officer] determined. Development, on the other hand, is not an exact science and nor are the stakeholders absolutely sure about the way forward. Brands have direct financial incentives and immediate gratification. Development has job-descriptions and terminal evaluation. These currently impede the digging out of the best possible insights and may be thought of as comprising structural barriers.

In the development sector, communication-planners often come from technical consulting companies, development agencies, NGOs, media and governments. They represent groups, organizations and bodies who fund or facilitate development (i.e. Givers) - distinctly separate from beneficiary-groups (i.e. Receivers). Similarities may be drawn to commercial advertising / marketing - where the seller always wants to talk about the good or service, what it can do, how many wings it has, how long it retains charge and all such functional features. After all, they work day and night to make it all happen. But the consumer (i.e. beneficiary) is oblivious to all of this. This particular product-choice represents, for him, one in thousands. He only wants to fulfill a need. The moment the brand / product recognizes that need - the creation of affinity can start. Likewise, the (development) beneficiary is also concerned with his own life and needs. He does not want to hear about our program goals, logframe or activities. But the fact that he isn't paying for development and dissemination of the communication severely limits his say in the matter. This represents the systemic barriers to unearthing consumer insights in development communications.

Thirdly, the nature of insights is yet to be established in the development sector. It must be recognized that there may be such understanding / learnings that, while fundamentally transformative, can't be logically or conceptually derived or demonstrated. Nor is the end-result always decent and feel-good. Though it's difficult for diverse stakeholder-groups and planning-teams to feel a consumer pulse the same way a CEO knows it in his guts - the development sector needs to embrace instinctive decision-making, even if with pretesting elements in hot pursuit. Despite its simplistic appearance, insights should come to be recognized as a potent force in Behavior Change Communications. 

And lastly, we have the 'capacity' question. Gone are the days when ivory-tower planning can give rise to insights such as 'they want to graduate from poverty' or 'they want to engage in income generating activities'. We must recognize that these are means to ends. Ends are dreams, aspirations, attitudes, values and beliefs that hide deep inside a person's psyche. Consider the following:

  • Putting food on the table makes me feel like a man.
  • (When a man pays for sex) it's much more shameful for the woman.
  • More children hints at my (financial) ability to support them.
  • I'm afraid that society will look down upon my parenting if my children get into drugs.

Each of these represent actual insights from the field in South-Asia. Such profound understandings about the individual can fundamentally change communication, and even intervention, designs that we see in developing nations today. Communications, while good at influencing behavior, can do little when it comes to deep-set values and beliefs. And we must work with what we have. So, these 'ends' - 'what people want' - are what should concern communication-planners. Because that's where real insights lie.   

By: Adnan R. Amin, Head of Strategic Planning at Unitrend McCann Worldgroup and part-time strategic communications consultant. Email for comments, suggestions and idea-sharing: adnanramin@gmail.com 

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