The pandemic has forced brands to shift from insight to intelligence

Covid has forced an overhaul of research tools and approaches, making them quicker, more accessible and more focused on both long- and short-term KPIs.

insightA year ago, just before the pandemic hit, I wrote about how insight teams needed to embrace change to become business leaders, agitating for consumer-centric growth.

Insight teams must see themselves as business leaders

Little did I know what lay ahead of us, and how it would provide the biggest challenge and opportunity for businesses seeking exactly that. Planes stood idle on the tarmac; people filled their trolleys with frozen food, made cocktails at home and bought digital subscription services; and we all strove to assess and access the changing market faster than our competitors.

Across industries, the consumer was suddenly the focus of every marketer and commercial person, not just the insight team – looking inwards was no longer an option. Market share had become the most critical business performance metric, and instinct and past knowledge would be insufficient to work out how to win.

So, what changed in the quest for insight and what will be the legacy of this intense external focus?

A two-speed mindset

Successful businesses adopted a new mindset to consumer opportunities focusing on the short term, adapting to and experimenting with emerging opportunities while anticipating the long term. This enabled the rapid scale-up of digital services like Disney+ and more traditional brands expanding their route to consumer into ecommerce, including last-mile retail, as well as the introduction of direct-to-consumer (DTC) experiments from the likes of Unilever and Heinz, and Diageo’s

This two-speed approach meant getting better at scenario planning – working out what to do given different conditions, and therefore being better prepared to act and make calculated experiments. Working in two speeds is about balance – being ‘agile’ requires both a clear strategy and readiness to act. Being agile is not about being purely reactive.

We need insight at pace but with quality and consistency, and more time for interpretation and implications.

To enable better scenario planning, at Diageo we added a new lens to our marketing effectiveness toolkit, Marketing Catalyst. Catalyst Radar is a demand-sensing tool, which uses empirical modelling to make sense of shifting consumer demand. The tool enables us to predict a range of different scenarios for sub-categories, channels and price tiers over a three- to 12-month horizon, based on the observable effects of things such as the government response to Covid, consumer sentiment, macroeconomics and dynamic consumer spend data. The different scenarios enable our marketers to create plans that can be flexed as the situation unfolds.

Simple, focused KPIs

The marketers who were able to move quickly from crisis mode were those who got clearer on the KPIs they needed to run their businesses on these two speeds, and to assess the impact and effectiveness of their work now and for the future. Combining these consumer and market KPIs with key financials and a range of analytics drives better conversations and actions, filtering out the noise.

At Diageo we’ve been talking about this as ‘precision marketing’, beyond the short-termism of ‘performance’ marketing. To enable this, we introduced a tool called Global Performance Suite (GPS) in all our markets, putting these common performance metrics at arm’s reach, enabling marketing to lead one conversation about business and market performance confidently and transparently, cutting through noise and uncertainty.

Information curation

Another key to achieving these shifts has been to think about how to curate information. The sheer volume of information on the pandemic and its impact has been overwhelming.  Every agency and organisation wants to provide a point of view and an opinion.

Taking time to curate, synthesise and provide access to the most powerful and reliable perspectives saves time and focuses your team on a common agenda. We have redeveloped our Diageo Insight Hub to be a central repository for rich but clear information to help people navigate ambiguity.

New research processes

In service of greater pace, traditional research processes have been further dismantled. The time in design, set-up and running debriefs has been compacted by automating and carefully customising research tools made available for self-service, while in parallel innovating how we answer more complex business questions. We need insight at pace but with quality and consistency, and more time for interpretation and implications.

From insight to intelligence

Organising these changes around the needs of marketers gives new perspective on how to create the right insight engine. Insight will be increasingly served up as accessible, digestible content on interactive dashboards wired into day-to-day decision-making at different levels. Deep understanding of the user needs and desired experience will enable information to be presented as a rich narrative and its implications – not bare facts.

This will be truly about fusion of hard and soft data, using smart AI to arrange and organise information and help faster analysis. The rather academic paradigm of ‘insight’ will have served its purpose and give way to something more about ‘intelligence’.

Future-focused insight teams

Perhaps for specialist insight teams, this elevates them even more into being the bold architects of this next-generation intelligence engine, and frees their expertise into focusing the business on the disruptive consumer opportunities ahead so they can really shape the future.