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Brand insight
Tom Doctoroff

Insight and Conflict Resolution: The Universal Lynchpin of Brand Relevance

Technological innovation is not the only starting point for branding, customer experience, and product development. A brand’s relentless relevance must also spring from deep insight into consumer behavior. In an era characterized by exaggerated faith in algorithms, programmatic efficacy and hyper-personalization, marketers should answer a higher calling to embrace psychology and cultural anthropology to penetrate the souls – and lives — of consumers.

Insights, Not Observations

Insights are not observations. They latter record what people say or do. The former reveal inner desire.

The first character of the word insight in Chinese is dong, which means “hole.” It is a fitting parallel; insights into consumer behavior are deep. They need to be unearthed. Insights explain fundamental motivations for behavior and preference, answering the question “Why?” More specifically, this article advocates the most powerful insights are tensions – between and within cultural and/or human truths – and brands must use them maximize relevance.

It’s worth noting global brands often struggle to maintain relevance across far-flung markets because they ignore the importance of underlying urges in determine buying behavior.

Some of the greatest failures in China, for example, have been caused by cultural tone deafness. Ebay didn’t appreciate the need for reassurance when making virtual transactions. Kellogg cereal misjudged the importance of a “mom’s warm hug” in the morning when launching cold, crunchy breakfast cereal. Best Buy underestimated price sensitivity when promoting the expertise of in-store sales personnel.

Across the developing world, Unilever’s Dove “Real Beauty” positioning – advocacy of women defining their own standards of attractiveness irrespective of social context — fell flat because the brand failed to appreciate the role of external admiration in non-individualistic markets such as the US and Europe.

Tensions in the Heart

The most powerful, ownable insights spring from tensions in the heart because they allow a brand – through either a product truth or brand truth (the latter an “equity” associated with a brand over time) – to solve a distinct problem. Unidimensional motivations, no matter how “deep,” often lead to suboptimal differentiation. Dozens of fashion brands lay claim to self-expression. Multiple financial service brands promise financial security.

But life is riddled with nuance.

Teenagers want to avoid alienation but also assert their individuality. “Silver” adults want to maintain autonomy but avoid isolation. Middle-age men want to project both youthful vigor and professional mastery. If a brand reconciles needs versus wants, pleasure versus guilt or peer acceptance versus identity assertion, differentiation blossoms. Consumers spend more time with them, increase their loyalty and pay higher price premiums.

When the diet soda category was first launched in the early 60s, Tab resolved a conflict between a desire for good taste and aversion to fat. “Guilt-free indulgence” was born.

In China, Alibaba’s Alipay has swept the company by storm. The ubiquitous virtual payment systems tops Prophet’s Brand Relevance Index (BRI) on 14 of 16 dimensions. The brand’s combined scale and technological sophistication resolves a tension between transactional security and lifestyle liberation.

The first mobile phone with state-of-the-art technology that both beautifies portraits and captures “meaningful moments” – “from selfie to self-expression” – will be a global hit.

Importantly, tensions don’t need to be deeply emotional. Despite Dove’s “Real Beauty” emerging market misfire, the brand maintains a leading position by enabling women to have skin that’s clean but not dry. A product truth — ¼ moisturizing cream — addresses a quotidian dilemma.

Definitions First: Human and Cultural Truths

Human truths unify us. As far back the 1940s, Abraham Maslow conceived a still-useful “hierarchy of needs,” with the lower levels focused on physical needs (survival, safety) and the middle levels focused on productive engagement with society (acceptance, admiration). At the pyramid’s apex sits “self-actualization” — that is, determination of moral standards independent of legislation or social convention.

Most global brands are rooted in human truths. (However, they are often tailored to meet local desires to maximize in-market appeal.) Coca-Cola provides physical refreshment and social connections. Everywhere. Apple fuses stylishness with productivity. Everywhere. Häagen Dazs offers sensual taste indulgence. Everywhere.

Cultural truths, on the other hand, differentiate groups of people – specifically the rules with which they are taught to engage with society – and are usually the foundation of successful local brands.

While there is no single dimension that explains humanity’s vast tapestry, a few stand out as having explanatory power regarding a wide variety of behaviors. For example, collectivist versus individual societies. Cultures in East Asia are contextual. Individuals do not exist independent of their responsibilities and obligations to others, and social structures are highly regimented. Individualist cultures such as America regard the individual as the basic productive unit of society. Social stability is reinforced by institutions rather than mutual obligation. (The dearth of robust institutions explains why the Chinese do not take food safety granted.)

Another meaningful way to think about cross-cultural variation concerns how equally or unequally resources (e.g., land, food, material goods, power, or prestige) are distributed. Stratified cultures have dominated the planet since the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution when “goods” began to accumulate. According to Robert M. Sapolsky, author of 2017’s “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” cultures with more income equality “have less social capital. Trust requires reciprocity and reciprocity requires equality, whereas hierarchy is about domination and asymmetry.”

China’s low-trust, highly-stratified society explains why Chinese youth trenchantly crave social currency through online engagement. Shielded by the anonymity of avatars, a diao si(or “small potato”) can become a Lord of Darkness. The unsated desire for peer acknowledgement also explains why so many gaming companies — Riot, Blizzard, NetEase Gaming and Tencent Games — are in Prophet’s BRI top fifty. They generate kudos for inner glory. Riot’s League of Legends boasts more than 110 million accounts and nationally-televised championship playoffs (“Chase Your Legend”) that are a cultural phenomenon.

Subcultures. It’s worth noting the importance of “subcultures” or “tribes,” manifestations of dominant cultural traits that express themselves differently over time. Levi Strauss, for example, has long positioned its blue jeans as the “genuine article” and has always appropriated quintessential individualistic American totems such as cowboys and the Wild West for its iconography. But during the mid-twentieth century, the brand became part of the mythology of James Dean and Jack Kerouac, heroes to those struggling to find themselves. Between the 1950s and 1980s Levis became popular among a wide range of individualistic youth subcultures, including greasers, mods, rockers, beatniks, hippies, and skinheads. High-fashion European jeans have adopted the rebellious ethos of Levis to gain street cred. Diesel, an Italian youth label, recently equated anti-intellectualism with unconventional creativity. Diesel’s print and digital campaigns encouraged young hipsters to “be stupid” with such copy as “Smart listens to the head. Stupid listens to the heart,” “Smart says no. Stupid says yes,” and “If we didn’t have stupid thoughts, we’d have no interesting thoughts at all.”

Tension One: Human Truth vs. Human Truth

Again, tensions arise between competing: a) human truths, b) cultural truths or c) human and cultural truths.

A number of brands have built up consumer loyalty and market share by resolving tensions that arise between human truths. The Belgium ultra-thin condom brand Zazoo used a hugely successful yet controversial ad that goes to the heart of an insight that holds true for virtually all adults. The 45-second filmic content showed an exasperated father trying to deal with a kid who is having a tantrum in a supermarket, ending with the beautifully simple tagline: “Use condoms.” The ad is effective—and remains memorable—because the product solves a worldwide problem: I want to have sex, but I don’t want to worry about the consequences.

These tensions exist in all categories. Unilever’s detergent brand OMO which is rooted in a basic insight: parents want their kids to enjoy childhood, but cleaning clothes is a hassle. A 30-second commercial for the China market shows a kid covering himself in dirt as he discovers how to tie his shoelace. The ad positions OMO as savior, allowing kids to play and explore but also reducing the parental burden of washing clothes. Through a product truth — stain removal power — dirt is transformed from bad to good. Once a brand uncovers such a strong insight, it is free to create other engagement experiences. One small example: OMO dimensionalized its “Dirt is good” brand purpose with the works of Singaporean sand artist Jooheng Tan. He created unique “dirt sculptures” that depicted children’s dreams for their future, generating millions of Instagram views.

HBO, the cable channel, has for years successfully tapped two opposing human truths: the pleasure of gossip versus the convention of minding one’s own business. The network has revolutionized American television with extremely soul-baring scripts, with shows like Big Little Lies, Sex and the City, and The Crown attracting avid fan bases. For many years, HBO’s tagline was “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Viewers were voyeurs, peeking into the lives of others. This insight not only underpins HBO programming strategy but also its multi-touchpoint customer experience.

As far back as 2007 the company ran its “Voyeur” multimedia campaign. It began with a team that distributed invitations on the street to a “week-long summer evening New York event” and directed people to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There they found a short film projected on the side of a building; the crowds of onlookers felt as though they were watching a drama unfold in eight different apartments. The spectators became Peeping Toms, witnessing scenes depicting life, birth, and redemption. The campaign then moved online, with updates, blogs, and mobile content that allowed people to follow the individual stories more closely.

Tension Two: Cultural Truth vs. Cultural Truth

In China, Mont Blanc has succeeded rather serendipitously by resolving the Confucian tension between two cultural imperatives – bold status projection and understated progression that signals avoidance of overt rebellion. Simply by clipping the pen in the front pocket of their suit, or using it during a board meeting, Chinese artfully convey both refinement and power. The six-pointed star – an enduring product truth — is both conspicuous and low-key.

For decades Singaporean Confucian ambition was summarized with the “five C’s:” cash, credit cards, cars, country club memberships, and condominiums. Explicit demonstrations of wealth have long ben benchmarks success. However, in recent years young Singaporeans have begun to question these standards. Attitudes are evolving. A more rounded definition of “multi-dimensional fulfillment” competes with conventional standards of success.

Brands are tapping into this tension. A recent survey by OCBC Bank found that fewer than 4 percent of Singaporeans actually wanted a country club membership, and fewer than 12 percent desired a luxury car. The resulting messaging coined a more rounded set of “five C’s:” control, confidence, community, can-do spirit, and fulfilling career aspirations. The bank’s “Strive for more” initiative included online videos of taxi drivers chatting about their personal views on wealth, a “Life is Rewarding” content hub as well as an outdoor campaign that dramatized the tension in Singaporean society. One billboard read: “To zig when others zag. To speak up for yourself when no one else does. To quit your job when you’ve stopped enjoying it. To stand tall where others fall. Strive for more.”

In Southeast Asia, 21st century technology trigger tensions, especially among younger age cohorts. In Indonesia, for example, society has been built on iron-fisted conformity and collectivism. Faced with the challenge of unifying the diverse archipelago, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, declared Pancasila (the “five pillars”) the philosophical foundation of the nation, a fusion of social justice, nationalism, and monotheism. But as social networks open the country to the world, more and more Indonesians believe “unity comes from within” – that is, the individual as part of an organic whole. A new generation wants to both stand out and fit in. Sunsilk, a brand of Unilever shampoo and salons, celebrates straight, stylish black hair to resolve the conflict between self-expression and “top down” definitions of conventional beauty.

In Thailand, a country that has never been colonized, locals are proudly nationalistic. But a rich cultural identity is built on the Buddhist ideal of maintaining harmony. A common phrase — “mai pen rai”— means “never mind,” “you’re welcome,” or “don’t worry.” But Thais – the world’s most active per capita consumers of social media – now want reach out to the world to display cultural sophistication. When Vogue launched a Thai edition, engagement platforms underscored this tension. They showed Thais as international fashionistas while (literally) bowing to the importance of tradition. Ultra-stylish models assumed “nang pap piap”—the seated position for a traditional Thai woman, which involves bending the legs to one side—to greet elders, bending head and body as (slightly tongue-in-cheek) gestures of respect.

Tension Three: Human Truth vs. Cultural Truth

The third tension is between human and cultural truths. This is when universal desire clashes with pressures from historical or geographic identity.

Nike first became an iconic brand in the United States because it resolved a tension between human and cultural truths in American society. The ultimate bottom-up society, America idolizes the mold-breakers, the dreamers, the rebels. (There is no Asian Steve Jobs or Elon Musk in Asia. Alibaba’s Jack Ma has digitally reinterpreted a traditional Chinese business model based on scale and low-price.) Americans idealize success on their own terms. We take pride in disregarding convention. However, like every society, America is a rules-based society. Adherence to convention runs deep. Community pressure – not to mention social media bubbles – further squelch independent thinking. Therefore, the tension between progressive individualism and restrictive conformism runs deep, and not only in red states. Nike’s resolution is “Just do it.” Goods and services—running shoes, apparel, the Nike+ app and communities —liberate individuals to break free of rule-bound convention. Basketball courts morph into altars of skill demonstration; soccer pitches become platforms of larger-than-life release. (Nike’s success in non-Western markets has benefited from a non-rebellious interpretation of individualism that suits collectivist cultures.)

“Women hold up half the sky” is one of Chairman Mao Zedong’s most famous sayings, almost 70 years later it still rings true—Chinese women are strong. Unlike many of its neighbors, China has an exceptionally female-driven workforce; about 85 percent of women who have children also have jobs. Like men and women everywhere, they want to be acknowledged for achievements. But this universal desire for recognition clashes with the Confucian ideals of women as loving and gentle – almost mute — archetypes, protecting the family with love.

And therein lies an iron-fist-velvet-glove tension which explains why Chinese women love diamonds so much. The sparkle is delicate — unlike the brash glare of gold. It grabs attention, albeit with élan. In Taiwan – still a profoundly Chinese culture — DeBeers’ “Blame it on the Diamond” filmic content reveals a woman admiring her jewelry in a mirrored window without seeing a couple sitting on the other side gazing at her. She shows off without showing off.

Back to Thailand. Women there also confront tension between worldwide longing for self-expression and rigid standards of feminine behavior and physical beauty. Thailand’s leading brand of cosmetics, Oriental Princess, known for its natural ingredients, has the scale to create social movements. It leverages social media platforms to advocate a contemporized – but still timeless — standard of self-expression. Campaigns encourage women to harness traditional “natural beauty from within” to define their own self-worth. Calls to action are confident, daring: “Why put on makeup? Why be beautiful? Why change? Why lose weight? Why is whiter skin better? Why do you need to be jealous? Why get so emotional? Why do you need to be like others? Why do you need to be slim? Why believe in others? Why not trust yourself? Why stay quiet? Why tolerate so much? Why be afraid? Women’s value, it’s for you to create.”

Summary and Implications for Marketers

Insights are not observations. Observations record what people say or do. Insights explain fundamental motivations for behavior and preference, answering the question “Why?” If a brand can resolve a tension – between cultural truths, human truths and cultural and human truths – brands become problem solvers, generating loyalty and price premiums. It therefore behooves marketers to:

  • Complement quantitative research which measures the appeal of insights with qualitative research which uncovers conflicts in the heart;
  • Define an insight-driven, enduring brand purpose to serves as a North Star during times of consumer liberation born of technology;
  • Develop consistent communications that explicitly define the role of a brand in reconciling tension;
  • Execute a holistic, multi-touchpoint customer experience program that deepens the relationship between consumers and brand over time;
  • Leverage technology to create communities of the like-minded and create experiences that inspire;
  • Deploy insight to trigger to data “opt in” in exchange for value that touches both mind and soul.

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