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The Craft of Data and Art of Insights

In this session of the YCCI’s Learning from Leaders webinar series, Unilever’s Stan Sthanunathan discusses the universal need for effective insights leaders. “Insights,” he says, “are required in any function, any company, any industry.”

There are a few constants that define the work of marketers, according to Stan Sthanunathan, Executive Vice President of Consumer and Market Insights at Unilever. Most fundamentally, “marketing is the growth engine” of any business. “It always was and always will be.”

And yet it would be dangerously naïve to say the field has not changed in critical ways. Mass marketing has given way to mass customization, which is now giving way to hyper-personalization. There has been exponential growth in the number of ways a company reaches consumers. Barriers to entry have diminished, exposing multinationals to myriad threats. And, as he put it, “the speed of change has changed.” It took airlines 68 years to get 50 million users. It took Facebook three years. It took Pornhub 18 days.

So how do insights professionals stay effective—and thus relevant—in today’s world? In a recent webinar, Sthanunathan offered his perspective on what the future holds. 

Balance the craft of data with the art of insights

“I would never underestimate the importance of data science,” Sthanunathan said. “But if you’re single-mindedly, only focused on this then you risk becoming a data zombie. You must have the ability to pull yourself away and tell stories that inspire and provoke people.” You must, in short, balance the hard skill of analytics with the soft but essential skill of cultivating and curating insights.

For Sthanunathan, this means remaining curious, frequently asking why and, most importantly, articulating a clear and persuasive point of view about what the data implies, what it suggests going forward. Though controversial, he suggests insights teams should outsource the process work and, as he put it, “insource thinking.” Data and data analysis, after all, are becoming commodities; profound insights are not and will never be.

“The more you can outsource the process, the more bandwidth you’ll have for enhancing your thinking,” he said. “It is the thinking that provides us a point of view, and it is the point of view that gets us a seat at the table.” Remember… if you don’t get a seat at the table, you are likely to be on the menu!

To ground all of this work, employees must agree on what, precisely, qualifies as an insight—a simple fact that’s often overlooked. “You could ask 20 people that question and get 20 different answers,” Sthanunathan said. And, depending on the definition you have in mind, “you could have an insight staring you in the face” and not recognize it.

Unilever has agreed that an insight is something that is “retrospectively self-evident.” It might look obvious after you hear the idea, but nobody, until then, had voiced it. “It’s a somewhat cheeky definition,” Sthanunathan said. “But nailing down what counts as an insight is critical.”

Articulate the “so what” and “now what”

The role of an insights leader obviously starts with the generation of insights, but it ends with “ideas and impact,” Sthanunathan explained. At Unilever, the explicit vision for the insights team is to “inspire and provoke to drive transformational actions.” Conspicuously absent from this vision is the word insight. “And that’s because, at the end of the day, an insight is a means to an end, not an end in itself.”

Sthanunathan provided two examples of the ways in which his team has translated insights into impact. Marketers, he noted, need to understand their consumers; they frequently want to talk with consumers to gain more detailed perspective. Unilever has responded to this need with a computer dashboard that allows marketers to define, with a few clicks, the type of consumer they would like to talk to and, within a day or two, have a conversation over their computer with a representative consumer. (This program became particularly valuable given travel and social distancing restrictions set in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.). It is all about getting on the front line. Nothing is more important than that.

Another case Sthanunathan highlighted was piping consumer feedback directly into shop floors so that factory supervisors and workers can see firsthand how customers talk about the quality and experience of a product. This gives employees some idea of what they could do to make a product slightly better. “People talk about putting the consumer at the center of everything,” Sthanunathan said. “Well, here we put the consumer at the center of the manufacturing process.”

In the end, identifying trends, new markets, new consumers, new behaviors—these kinds of insights are all necessary for success, but they are not sufficient. You can be a master in generating this kind of analysis, “but that is table stakes today,” Sthanunathan said. “You must be able to travel the journey from ‘what,’ to ‘so what,’ to ‘now what.’”

Craft the future

Given the pace of change, Sthanunathan was adamant that history is of limited use in the realms of consumer and market insights. Traditionally, companies studied benchmarks from the past several years to understand what was needed going forward. But information that’s ten years old, he suggested, no longer reflects the current reality. Why bother with it?

“You need to help people dream up the future rather than trying to craft it from the past,” he said. “Historical information might tell you what the business could be if it perpetuates the past with a few twists here and there, but it won’t get you the really big picture world of possibilities.”

If you went back 130 years and asked people whether they wanted a brown fizzy liquid with sugar in it, they would say no. If you went back 15 years and asked people whether they wanted a phone without a keyboard, they would say no. But Coke and Apple pursued these visions and “the rest is history,” Sthanunathan said. “We need less predicting the future, more creating it.”