Try turning your insight out

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To the average Gourmet reader, it was a behind-the-scenes article about a beloved restaurant. To someone trawling for brand morality tales, it was pay dirt! The subject was Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur. In 1994, to extend the success of his Union Square Cafe, Meyer opened Gramercy Tavern. When it failed to live up to expectations, he hired a "business therapist" to dissect Union Square's magic to replicate its winning formula. What emerged was an insight that was injected into the veins of his current and future restaurants.

Danny Meyer's quest for an insight, and how he used it as a guide, is a lesson for brand stewards everywhere. His story illustrates the power of this one-two punch: inspired consumer/brand insight and rigorous, 360-degree follow-through. Many brands suffer the consequences of hefty media spending in the absence of a guiding, deep consumer understanding. But simply having an insight isn't the answer, either; it's just conference-room banter if not driven tirelessly into the heart of the brand and the organization behind it.

Meyer's revelation emerged when he realized that, though Union Square was ranked 10th in Zagat's for food, 11th for service and was not in the top 50 for decor, it was rated the city's third-most-popular restaurant. Working with his "therapist," he determined what drove this popularity was "hospitality."

Defining it in all its forms, Meyer developed a list of core values to support the hospitality vision. This then informed staff behavior (every guest greeted within one minute), hiring criteria (emotional skills), house rules (free umbrellas if it's raining), new customer-relationship-management technology (software encoding customer information such as birthdays, favorite dishes, allergies etc.), menu design and physical space.

Not all insights count

You've surely left focus groups full of exciting ideas about your brand and consumers. But how many are brand-changing? The only insights that count are those that get to the heart of the consumer/brand relationship and that you can act upon. They are harder to find. Focus groups are not their natural breeding ground.

You're more likely to uncover these gems with ethnographic research, such as in-home video and self-reportage diaries, than by sitting behind a one-way glass. For example, you can strategically cast experts from various fields and conduct "right-brain" exercises to unlock insights and crack brand problems. (For a skin-care client, why not include a touch therapist and a tattoo artist to get at what skin means to different target groups?)

Here's a good way to test if yours is a valuable, useful insight or just an interesting finding: Ask what your brand could actually do as a result of your revelation? What does it tell you to stop doing? Or start? How will your brand's voice, design or physical nature be altered as a result of this knowledge? If you can imagine tangible ways to act on your inspiration, you've probably got a winner.

If your marketing department's idea of putting an insight to work is a new ad campaign, you might want to get a new marketing department. Imbedding a valuable insight into the soul of a brand requires a hard look at its full brand expression: naming, product design, package design, package copy, Web-site architecture and physical space.

Consider the American Association of Retired Persons. Their recognition of the differences between baby boomers and the previous generation of "seniors" led to a new brand design, voice and name (AARP).

Ethnographic research delivered a powerful new perspective to Coleman Co. (camping and outdoors products), which made it change its grills. It showed consumers' attachment to the grill has more to do with nostalgia for family camping than with widgets or hardware. The new models are designed to evoke a nostalgic, communal camping experience.

insight-driven ideas

Work with lactose-intolerant consumers revealed a longing for the "normalcy" of their carefree, milk- and ice cream-eating youth. Lactaid packaging now reflects this with more dairy cues than lactose-free ones. Apple Computer used its consumer insights to inform everything from ads to user manuals. You feel it in the details of the friendly typeface, the logo, the new store design and even in the T-shirt-and-khaki-clad store employees.

Name a brand you admire. Chances are, behind it you'll find both an inspired insight and the institutional will to make it salient through broad, tangible brand expression.

The next time the hairs on the back of your neck say you're on to something, think of Meyer and his restaurants. Make sure your brand expresses your insight in every way possible. If you've got it, flaunt it! Remember: An insight is a terrible thing to waste.

Julie Cucchi and Nin Glaister are co-founders of 98pt6, New York, a brand expression agency (julie@98pt6.com).

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