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Elevating Insights - The Power to Shape our Future

Stan Sthanunathan, the Executive Vice President of Consumer and Market Insights for Unilever, joined a recent meeting of the Yale-Ipsos Think Tank to share his expertise leading the insights function for Fortune 200 companies.

The pace of change will never be this slow again.

When Stan Sthanunathan, industry veteran of thirty-eight years, presented to the Yale-Ipsos Think Tank group at a recent webinar, he opened with this statement. Despite the rapid acceleration in many facets of consumer behavior brought about by COVID-19, Stan has been saying this exact quote throughout his lengthy career. A core tenet of his tenure has been around embracing change and being proactive in adapting the insights function to be more meaningful and relevant for the business. 

So what can insights leaders do to shape the trajectory of their organization during changing times? The future of the insights function, Stan believes, is going to be about inspiring and provoking others to drive transformational actions.

With the proliferation of big data, there is no lack of statistics to share, but this data can also be a distraction, resulting in what Stan describes as a pyramid where data abounds but impact to the organization is small (see figure 1).  Stan believes that the imperative, “mission-critical” role of the insights function is to flip the script on the pyramid – to drive action and impact at every interval and to create moments for leadership that provoke transformational change. “The insights function should strive to invert the pyramid, ensuring a seat at the table,” Stan notes. In short, Stan wants insights to keep you up at night thinking about possibilities for growth.  

Figure 1.

Figure 2. The Inverted Pyramid


To guide insights leaders on how to create this sort of transformational change, Stan shared both a practical framework for humanizing insights as well as a provocation to leaders of the function to exhibit more bravery to reshape organizational thinking.

Framework for Humanizing Insights

A key differentiator in Stan’s framework is the distinction between consumer insights and people insights. People are only consumers for a few hours of the day; if you don’t understand how to add value to hours of their day outside of being consumers, you run the risk of creating a brand that lacks staying power. Insights functions need to utilize not just big data or smart data but must work to create a deeper, more holistic understanding of the consumer and humanize those insights. 

Insights professionals cannot be replaced by big data if they leverage the power of artificial intelligence together with human insights to tell stories in impactful and powerful ways. How can insights leaders tap into this effectively?

Create consumer empathy and not sympathy

These simple words are often difficult to execute. When 40% of consumers in America live paycheck to paycheck, how do we creatively bring them into the board room, into the brand managers’ room, to bring awareness and empathy from a top-down lens?  “Insights do not reside in PowerPoints. Insights reside in immersing yourself with consumers,” Stan explains. At Unilever, Stan and the then-CEO sat in on one-on-one interviews with consumers in what turned out to be an “aha” moment for both of them. This led to the creation of a hypothesis-led insight that in turn focused on data mining to produce actionable insights.

Tap multiple sources to generate meaningful insights

Research tells us that consumers often cannot articulate what they want or how they came to a particular decision. This challenges traditional market research methods and the time spent by companies doing qualitative research by speaking directly to consumers. Inadvertent bias that consumers exhibit can influence the outcome of qualitative research, but that does not necessarily discredit the value of the research. As Stan notes, “Insights are not something you can always get when consumers simply tell you what they go through. They are something we can glean through multiple sources, triangulate, and come to a point of view, and that is more of an art than a science.” The information uncovered during qualitative research is an important factor in ultimately determining the true insights.

Uncovering the Consumer’s ‘Why’

To consistently elevate the insights function, professionals must not only tap into the what (e.g., 80% of consumers purchased this item), but reach deeper to investigate the why through ongoing conversation and experimentation. It is not enough to know what consumers are doing; to humanize insights, brands need to understand their consumers’ underlying goals and motivations.

Listen to what consumers say about us, not to us

Social media has become a powerful data gathering tool to listen to what consumers are saying about brands. Inspired by the way data gathered from the Unilever customer care phone hotline created a powerful engine for innovation within the company, Stan created a platform called the “Digital Voice of the Consumer.” This platform harnesses first-party data from social media, Amazon reviews, and other sources to create an interactive dashboard in warehouses globally. The dashboard captures real-time consumer feedback to create accountability for decisions on the factory floor, thereby empowering warehouse managers to take corrective action for any issues. 

Changing Mindsets of Leadership

In order to effectively humanize consumer insights, Stan called upon insights leaders to facilitate a mindset change in those leading the brand. The perfect balance between the art and the science of insights requires the ability to inspire, provoke, and challenge those around you. 

Over the last few decades, Stan shared that the defining role of the insights function was to provide accurate and meaningful metrics and reports. In the coming years, technology will replace that function. Insights professionals who exhibit bravery – those who have the courage to provoke people to think beyond the data – will be the ones who create lasting impact in the industry. Stan believes that you must continuously push boundaries by seeking to solve problems that your colleagues did not even know they had. When you challenge the status quo and established business practices, you position yourself as an integral part of any team.   

Another facet of the changing mindset is the ability to tell stories that inspire people, not merely impress them – “fact-based but not fact-filled,” as Stan says. Creating a compelling narrative is much more important than proving you have produced a comprehensive presentation or successfully mined the data.  

Inspiring Action & Driving Impact

The future of the insights function will be around two key themes from the inverted pyramid: Action and Impact.

The tools and techniques of the insights function need to go beyond the simple asking and answering of questions, beyond big data. Honing and developing the muscle of humanizing insights will shape the future of the function, while becoming an agent that drives change within the organization will create the types of moments that inspire and provoke marketing partners to take transformational action.