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  • Writer's pictureRuth Palmer

How to uncover meaningful customer insights to power up your startup brand

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Telescope above the city skyline at sunset
Photo by Lex Photography from Pexels

We all hear the term insight banded about in marketing rather a lot, but what do we actually mean by insights? The best definition I have seen is by Gary Klein. He defines an insight as

“an unexpected shift in the way we understand things.*”

This is brilliant because it describes that “aha” moment, when we learn something from a customer that flips the way we see the problem. It’s in these moments that you can discover the golden idea gives you a clear advantage over your competition, but most startups don’t bother. They steam ahead with a head full of assumptions and forget to slow down and listen.

Here are some great examples of insights that paved the way for success.


The brand we now so readily associate with safety didn’t always have it at the heart of their brand. Pre 1960 Volvo was simply known for creating reliable, durable cars. But in the 1960s they did two things.

  1. The carried out extensive research into traffic accidents and driver behaviour, finding that both driver error and safety features that didn’t cut the mustard were the cause.

  2. They carried out market research with their own customers and discovered that safety was the key concern.

So they did 2 things in response

  1. Innovated with the goal of making their cars the safest on the road top of mind, and helped other manufacturers do the same (they invented the 3 point seatbelt around this time and then made this available to other car manufacturers for free).

  2. They made safety the focus of all their ad campaigns, directly connecting with their audience on an emotional, instrinsic level.

They didn’t just SAY they were all about safety, they designed that purpose through their products and built it into their culture, then talked about it consistently over time. The result? A strong brand with a very clear only-ness and a loyal customer base.


In the early 2000s Unlever (who owns Dove) carried out a research study called "The Real Truth About Beauty." The study aimed to understand how women perceived beauty and their own self-image. The findings revealed a significant gap between women's self-perception and the narrow beauty ideals portrayed by the media and advertising industry.

The result is a 20 year long campaign focussed on real beauty, including models of all ages, shapes, sizes and races focussed on inclusion and celebration of beauty, whatever that means to you. Dove have ​​developed educational resources and initiatives focused on fostering positive body image and self-esteem. As part of this, 10 years ago now they created this beautiful video that movingly showed how women's perception of their own beauty differed dramatically to how other people saw them. This video has been viewed 70 million times.

What can we learn from this example?

Dove's research was laser focussed on perceptions in the category, it didn’t ask people about how they used their soap. This is so important because the insights that come from this broader and deeper understanding of people’s perceptions and beliefs can reveal insights that provide powerful "aha" moments from which you can build powerful meaning into your brand; genuinely providing a unique benefit to people on an emotional level. This provides you with a platform on which to build emotional connections, which are much more powerful that feature-focussed ones. I mean is anyone going to share your story that your product has a breathability rating of 20,000g/m² - probably not.

Strong brands create emotional connections with their audience and align with their values and beliefs so that when you buy their product, you are making a statement about who you are and what kind of world you want to live in.

In my own experience, the brand positioning of D3O was built on consumer insights. We had a gut feeling of course about where we were going, but it was the conversations we had with athletes that really opened up our imaginations to what the brand could stand for.

D3O is an impact protection material that contains intelligent molecules that lock together on impact, making it temporarily harden to absorb force. It looks and feels like a soft foam until the impact, so our original ideas were around comfort. However our conversations with pro snowboarders, skiers, motocross riders and skateboarders revealed that the real benefit was improving their ability to perform. In some of these cases, athletes weren’t even wearing protection; “It just gets in the way and I can’t focus.”

So we built this concept out and landed on a brand essence of “revolution.” We were revolutionising your performance through a revolutionary smart material.

This spirit of revolution was contagious and it lived and breathed through the culture of the company. Our company colour was fluorescent orange and we celebrated the athletes achievements front and centre to communicate what the brand enabled. We did a lot of great storytelling using this idea.

So how do you uncover these golden insights on which you can build your brand?

It’s all about empathy.

Find your inner therapist

To really get good insights you need to be humble, patient, curious and good at listening. Some people find this harder than others. How would a therapist get people to talk? They would make them feel at ease, get them to open up, and ask them lots of open-ended “why” and “tell me more” questions that revealed the inner workings of their mind. So for example if I’m talking about coffee, the conversation might go a bit like this:

Me: “What does coffee mean to you?”

Them: “Well it’s really part of my morning ritual, I don’t feel right without a coffee in my hand”

Me: “What is it about coffee in the morning that’s important?”

Them: “It wakes me up, but really it’s like a pause before I have to start doing everything I’m obliged to do in the morning, it’s kind of a respite before the day starts”

Me: “How do you make your coffee?”

Them: “I use a pourover”

Me: “Why do you use that method”

Them: “There’s something about the simplicity of it that I like.”

Me: “Can you tell me more about that? Why is the simplicity important”

Them: “There’s something about measuring out the beans, grinding them, pouring the water over in circles that’s really meditative, and I guess it goes back to having that pause at the beginning of the day that’s just mine.”

So from this short example, we have lots of juicy ideas that we can build on. If these ideas and emotions are represented in multiple interviews, we can start to sketch out some ideas for our brand purpose around mindful coffee experiences that would really connect to this person on an emotional level. So in that split second when they decide which coffee, or brewing contraption to buy, our product has a stronger emotional pull than another, and we get the sale.

Beyond that though, building your brand on golden insights like this allows you to see where your passions and values might align with others. Building your brand on purpose in this way opens up a whole new world of possibilities for building a strong culture, brand partnerships and dialling up the magnetism of your brand.

If you want to uncover your customers' insights, our Minimum Viable Branding Sprint 1: Listen & Understand is just about to launch. Find out more here.

Thank you for reading

*Insight Literacy: Why We Need To Clarify What Insights Really Are, Brent Dykes, Forbes:


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