The Best Place to Look for Consumer Insights May Not Be Where You Think

three businesses holding a report stand next to a magnifying glass

When CPG (consumer packaged goods) communicators say they want insight-driven innovation or branding, the first thing they typically do is conduct qualitative research. There’s a perception—or misperception—that if you talk to consumers long enough you’ll get some nugget of insight, whether that be articulating an unmet need, spotting a new consumer behavior, or uncovering a hidden truth or tension.

How many times have marketers and innovators quoted Henry Ford’s famous words: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse?” Yet focus groups, ethnographies, shop-alongs and the like seem to be so deeply ingrained into every innovation project that few companies today put those words into practice.

This does not suggest that qualitative consumer research doesn’t work at all. But it does have limitations, chief among them that consumers don’t think or talk in insights. As a rule, humans aren’t able to express their needs, thoughts, and feelings—especially before they’ve had them.

Begin at the End

One approach that works surprisingly well is to think backward. Start with something you think might be a good idea—be it a new product, service or business, and then ask: “Why is this a good idea? What is the human experience that leads to this solution? What is the unmet need that this is meeting? What is the real consumer truth behind this?”

With ideas in hand, the advantage becomes that in talking to consumers, you can ask them about the particulars: How would you use this product? How might it fit into your world? Would you rather it do X or Y? Is there another way to solve the problem that this concept hasn’t addressed?

Armed with a great idea and the right kinds of consumer responses, the insights take shape and you can really see if you’re onto something—or not.

If It Worked for Uber, It Can Work for You

The folklore behind the Uber brand is that the two founders were in Paris at a conference and couldn’t get a cab. Not an unusual experience, especially in big cities; getting a taxi is a hassle, and calling a car service takes a fair amount of planning. But as an urban consumer, I don’t even know if I would have articulated this “unmet need” of an on-demand car service, because I simply accepted those as two bad options and never considered an alternative, because it was such a part of my everyday experience.

Like me, consumers don’t often have enough perspective to understand which part of their lives could be improved, but they do understand where they fit in once they’ve seen them.

Once consumers were presented with a new concept—a ride-hailing app on a smartphone—they could understand it easily and recognize that Uber could fill a real need. Honestly, this insight wasn’t all that breakthrough—you didn’t need to do rounds of focus groups to know that hailing a cab was a pain. And even that insight alone could have fueled some less-than-stellar business than the one Uber pioneered.

Looking at it backward, the idea was good and the insight came from knowing why.

Many global brands don’t have the luxury of thinking idea-first. On the other side, many tech companies thrive on the make-test-fix mentality and can iterate their way to something people love.

But for the rest of us, the best way to gain meaningful consumer insight isn’t asking people to imagine the ideas for you. Have the great ideas first, and let the insights follow.

Lynn Altman is the President of Brand Now.