What Newton Never Knew: the Physics of Insight

The Three Laws That Can Help Your Brand Better Connect With Consumers

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Since marketers began to talk about consumer "insights," finding them has been a form of alchemy.

An insight is some truth about how your customers understand the world that makes your product meaningful to them. The better the insight, the more meaningful your product becomes, which drives your sales. But despite their importance, our thinking on insights has been more Yoda than Einstein.

That's all changing. Recent discoveries by cognitive scientists are poised to bring order to our pursuit of insights, and lay out the immutable laws of how the brain makes sense of the world. Much the way David Ogilvy and others broke down what works in creative, these laws will start to answer what works when it comes to finding the insights you need to build your business and your brands.

The First Law of Insight: Doing Is Knowing
The first major discovery concerns the relationship between your ideas and your physical experiences. Research has revealed that your brain is built to use interactions with the physical world -- like sensations of hot and cold, or the feeling of moving upwards or downwards -- to make sense of abstract ideas.

That's a heady concept, so here's an easy example. Your brain associates the physical experience of cleaning with ideas like morality and doing the right thing. Last year researchers proved this connection in dramatic fashion: they brought people into a room and told them that another participant in an adjacent room had sent them $4. And because that person sent them $4, the money had tripled, which means they now had $12. Their job was to decide how much money to send back to the stranger and how much to keep for themselves.

Seems pretty simple. But what they didn't tell the people in the experiment was that , for half of them, the researchers had sprayed one single spritz of citrus-scented Windex into the air in the room. When the research team went back to look at the results they found that folks who smelled the faint lemon-fresh scent sent twice as much money back to the person in the other room.

The first law of insight holds that beneath every idea is a physical experience. If you want real insight into the attitudes and opinions of your consumers, you must first discover the physical experiences on which they are built.

The Second Law of Insight: Seeing Is Doing, But Only if You've Done it Before
So, while the first law holds that you understand the world through your physical experiences with it, the second great discovery is that your brain can extend your physical experiences to everything you see and hear. In other words, you can have an experience without the specific experience.

Let's say you're sitting in traffic and you glance up at a beer ad on a billboard. It might have a simple headline and the image of a cold amber bottle of beer glistening with fat drops of condensation.

Scientists now know when you see that picture you don't just recognize it as "beer." The parts of your brain that remember your physical interaction with bottles of beer turn on. The cold, wet, glass against your fingers. The muscles you use in your arm to lift it to your lips. An echo of that real, physical experience ripples through your brain just by looking at the image. Simply reading this description has likely triggered a phantom experience in your unconscious.

Because you can extend your experiences to everything you see, hear and read, you can use those experiences to understand the world around you. The hitch to this ability is that it relies on your past experience. If you had never picked up a bottle of beer and taken a sip, then glancing at that billboard would not have activated the echo of experience in your brain.

The second law of insight holds that you can gain deep insight into your consumers' ideas by sharing the experiences you see them having -- but only if you've had those experiences yourself.

The Third Law of Insight: Without Authentic Experience, There Can Be No Insight
Taken together the first two laws of insight make it clear that , because of the way our brains work, the insights you're seeking are rooted in your consumers' experience with the physical world. Your customers may not know it (they probably don't, because these connections are largely unconscious), but these experiences are the heart of the ideas they try to tell you about in research. And because this is true, the research methods of the future will become increasingly focused on tapping into these powerful hidden experiences.

Traditional focus groups, surveys and one-on-one interviews must be largely abandoned or reshaped. They rely too much on people telling you what they think, while the experiences that drive those thoughts remain hidden. Even more dangerous, your brain -- also being experience-driven -- is interpreting their words through the lens of your own experiences. If those experiences happen to be different from your customers', then it's highly likely that you aren't going to really "get" what it is they are saying.

The third law of insight holds that if you haven't had the authentic experience, then you can't have insight into the true nature of what your customers' are trying to tell you. The best insight research will move more and more toward using the language of physical experiences -- metaphors, narratives, role-play and visualization -- to bridge the gap between you and your customers.

Your brain is one of the most complex structures in the known universe. It's no wonder it has taken us so long to understand even the basics about how it makes sense of the world. But now that we are beginning to unravel the mysteries, there is an enormous opportunity for business to get better at developing the kinds of insights that give your products a deep, meaningful place in the lives of your customers. These three laws of insight will give you a framework to get started.

Jacob Braude is VP-strategic planning at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness.
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