The difference between and insight and an idea

Rory Sutherland makes the point that an insight is not an idea.
This is very useful.
Especially for the planning dept.
Rory’s point is that planning should be looking for insights.
Not ideas.
An insight is something that you didn’t know before.
Something that may change the way you think about the problem.
An insight can be the first step on the way to an idea.
But it isn’t an idea.
And idea is what you do with the insight.
How you turn analysis into synthesis.
How that discovery becomes action.
Of course, there can be an insight without a subsequent idea.
But there can’t really be an idea, not a great one, without first having an insight.
That’s why it’s an important distinction.
Of course, the insight doesn’t always come from the planning dept.
Just as the idea doesn’t always come from the creative dept.
Years back I was speaking to someone at Benton & Bowles.
They were explaining a problem they’d had on Jacobs Mallows.
These were little biscuits bases, covered in chocolate, topped with jam, then covered in marshmallow and coconut.
They weren’t selling well at the time.
No one could work out why.
They tasted great, people loved them.
So the planner did something that clever people never do: the obvious.
He went to the supermarket.
He looked at the product on the shelves, and watched how people behaved.
People would come along to the biscuit section.
They’d look at the price of Jacobs Mallows.
Then look at the price of comparative biscuits.
They’d realise they could get a packet of 16 custard creams for the same price as a packet of 6 Jacobs Mallows.
So they’d buy the custard creams.
That was the insight.
The problem wasn’t the product.
The problem wasn’t the brand.
The problem was the competitive set.
What came next was the idea.
Benton & Bowles suggested to the client that they move the Jacobs Mallows along to the cake section.
Then the planner went back and watched the shoppers.
They looked at the price of the Jacobs Mallows.
They looked at the price of comparative cakes.
They realised they could get a box of 6 Jacobs Mallows for the same price as 2 cakes.
So they bought the Jacobs Mallows.
That was an insight that lead to an idea.
Which is how it should be.
That’s the way Droga 5 believe it should work.
When they wanted to help Obama win the Presidency, they looked for an insight.
They knew that Florida had proved pivotal for the Republicans in two elections.
If they could change that it could make the difference.
The insight was that the part of Florida that voted Republican, almost without thinking, was the elderly retired Jewish population.
That insight needed to be translated into an idea.
So they studied the elderly Jews.
And they had another insight.
Who is the one group of people they listen to?
Who will they do anything for?
Their grandchildren.
From that insight came the idea.
Get their grandchildren, which was a group that was already pro-Obama, to travel to Florida.
To visit their grandparents and educate them about why they should vote for Obama.
So they made a commercial, with the Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, talking to these grandchildren.
Asking them to go see their grandparents in Florida.
It was downloaded 1.25 million times from the Internet.
25,000 young people signed up online to visit their grandparents in Florida.
But the real numbers are as follows.
320,000 elderly Jews voted for Obama.
Obama won Florida by 170,000 votes.

And that’s how an insight is translated into an idea.

  • Dave,
    This is uncanny. Please believe me when I tell you that, yesterday, not only did I draft a post in response to Rory’s article, but my example is also a Jacobs product (but not Mallows).
    I don’t make quite the same point as you although it does include an insight and an idea.
    Oh dear. I was going to check it through later on and then post it later. I think I still will, but I hope you don’t feel I’m stalking you!

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    Hi Hugh,
    I’d love to read what you’ve written.
    I think it’s a really interesting area.
    Can you post the link here?

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    One stops you sittin on drawing pins. One helps you produce a better idea.

    Hindsight + Insight, take a bow.

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    Just to share one of my experiences…

    Years ago, a client had a washer they couldn’t sell well since it didn’t tout any “technological” feature when everyone else seemed to. I visited the stores and realized that these supposed features the others had were really pretty much “arguable” at best… what with “millions of bubbles”(as if anyone ever counted them or could prove their efficacies?) technology, “waterfall”(as in the gushing of water into the wash) technology, etc. All supposedly “promising” a better wash.

    We asked the client what they could say… and turns out they DID have a “technology” they were rather embarrassed to claim. “Boomerang”, they said. And when we pressed what that was, they replied,”Well, you see, like a boomerang, your wash spins one way, and then back the other way… that, in essence, is our technology”.

    Now, anyone who’s ever curious as a kid to look into their own washers can tell you… ALL washers spin both ways! (which explains why the client was embarrassed to have us claim this “technology” in our ad).

    So, back to square one.

    I figured, what do people look for when they buy washers? They look for washers that wash their clothes well (what else?). Hence, the insight… “Everyone’s looking for a cleaner wash.”

    And for the idea, I thought… well, if our wash spins, & spins both ways… can we then say… that for a cleaner wash, our washers wash harder than everyone else’s by washing your clothes “TWICE”??

    We went to the client with this… and they said, “Well, technically… they CAN say this without being legally challenged!!”

    Hence, the idea was born. “Double Washed (with boomerang technology). Double Joy.” (And as a bonus, it even worked in both Chinese and English languages! As for the creative approach, wash sounds phonetically similar to “happiness” in Chinese. Hence, you get the word “Double Joy/ happiness”… by doubling the word “wash”. In English, I made “washed” resemble the Chinese “Joy” word… which essentially was the same idea).

    We sold.

  • Hi Dave,

    Here you go:

    I have left ‘insights’ as the word for the 3 points I made to the client because this is the word I had drafted before I read your post.

    You may say Point 3 is an ‘idea’ rather than an ‘insight’. Possibly even Point 2. But I shall bow to your greater knowledge!

    The previous sentence containing both words is also as drafted.

    All the best,


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    Thanks for that Hugh.
    I enjoyed it, and I learned something.

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    Hi Dave,

    Why don’t they sell marshmallows beside barbecue charcoal at garages?
    Personally I hate barbecued marshmallows, but there’s no accounting for taste.
    They could even give you a discount on the petrol you buy to offset carbon emissions, or sell oven ready beefburgers with a carbon offset bonus for not cooking on a barbecue. There’s all sorts of combinations possible. The Shell bonus collector cards seem a waste of time. Years ago you used to get a set of glasses or something tangible. Now you get Brucey bonus points that are never used or claimed because nobody knows what they are collecting for any more.
    Perhaps the idea was just to get people into the habit of returning to Shell.