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On curiosity, repertoire and universal human truths

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Ricardo Sapiro has dedicated his career to brand marketing. Training with Johnson & Johnson before moving on to Wyeth Whitehall, both roles in Brazil, he made his reputation during a 15-year tenure at Unilever. With local, regional and global brand marketing roles, he ran the business in Brazil and across Latin America, as well as spending four years in London as global VP for Sunsilk.

In 2010, Ricardo set up Touch Branding, a São Paolo-based agency dedicated to developing and articulating brand positioning. Insights – what he likes to call human truths – are his currency. When Insight Agents’ Founder & MD, Sam Knowles, caught up with Ricardo recently, he was treated to both a masterclass in insightful thinking and a refreshing counter-blast to modern marketing’s slavish addiction to Big Data.

“It’s not fashionable to say this, but …” is one of Ricardo Sapiro’s favourite ways to start a sentence. He goes on, “Insights about products don’t come from an in-depth knowledge of a product or a category. They don’t come from analysis of how consumers use your products, about shopper behaviour. Insights – genuine, transformative insights – come from understanding people as people, not as shoppers or consumers. Brand marketers need to be able to put themselves into the shoes – into the lives – of those who buy their products.”

For Sapiro, insights emerge when we shine a light on the hidden tensions of human existence, tensions which brands can adopt to build a relevant and empathetic propositions. They’re not developed by 20 people playing games in a room for two days with unlimited Post-its, familiar as that approach is to anyone who’s worked in marketing since 1985. Rather, they’re created by small, intimate, informed teams made up people who are characterised by keen curiosity and – a signature Saprio word – repertoire, characteristics that modern business and marketing fail to value at their peril.

“Many leaders don’t see the point of mining for insights. Leadership often thinks that insight and growth are opposing forces, and there’s profound prejudice against harnessing insight and business as parallel routes to the same end: to growth. That’s the most significant barrier we need to overcome to help leaders root brand propositions in human truths. Once you allow that, it’s amazing to see how using insights can energise and transform a business.”

Unusually for a consultant, Sapiro has seen at first hand the positive business benefits of embracing genuine insights: he was a pivotal part of the team that developed “Dirt Is Good” for Unilever’s laundry category (OMO/Persil/Skip) in the mid-2000s. Inside Unilever, he helped to usher insight-led leadership from a peripheral “nice to have” to a central principle of purpose-led marketing, working in the company that bought the world Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and the corporate brand’s Sustainable Living Plan.

As to key distinction between instinct (a gut reaction) and insight, for Sapiro it’s repertoire. Those who cultivate a rich repertoire borne of curiosity become much better at judging whether ideas are genuine insights – higher human truths – or not. Without that open-minded repertoire, unperceptive folk can think they’re having insights every few seconds, when in fact they’re just making casual and often banal observations.

Repertoire is less about experience and more about an open, positive attitude of mind. “Too many experienced people are incredibly narrow-minded,” says Sapiro. “In fact, experience can lead you to dismiss too quickly those very ideas which could be developed into insights. And if you become immersed in product or category or business specifics, you close yourself down to the potential that looking up enables. Repertoire is about breadth over depth.”

Not all brands are lucky enough to have human-truth-grade insights as the foundation of their brand communications. In beauty, only Dove has the insight that most women don’t think they’re beautiful (whence the Campaign for Real Beauty); in laundry, only OMO has “Dirt Is Good” (enabling the brand to engage parents and families in the very real, learning benefits of outdoor play); in running shoes and athletic gear, only Nike has Just Do It (allowing the brand to celebrate the athlete in all of us). In terms of communication, these brands are very definitely not all about face cream, washing powder, and sneakers. Insights come first, products second.

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“Dirt Is Good” illustrates well Sapiro’s compulsion for repertoire. He recalls that some of those in the team charged with creating a new platform found the proposition very difficult to grasp. Specifically, those who struggled were people without children, but also men – including fathers – who were not actively involved in the day-to-day job of bringing up young kids.

For decades, the category had been focused on consumer washing habits, foam, enzymes and whiter-than-whiteness. But the disruptive manifesto cry that “Dirt Is Good” has nothing to do with category norms or direct product benefits. It is an emotive appeal for parents to encourage an over-protected, indoors-only, video game-sated generation to get out into the fields and woods and roll about in the grass and make dens. Of course mums can depend on Unilever’s laundry products to get their clothes clean again. But they can put their energy into focusing on enabling their kids to learn and grow through outdoor play rather than worry about what muddy trousers might say about them as mothers.

Curious creative individuals and teams who cannot isolate unique human truths can nevertheless use their repertoire to identify powerful product or category observations that no other brand has yet claimed, and then use these as the basis for impactful brand communication. Sapiro’s favourite example is Evian’s Live Young, a campaign based on the observation that hydration is a good thing for the body, and that drinking pure water regularly can help people look and feel young. “I don’t think that ‘drinking water prolongs youth’ is an insight, but no other brands were playing in this space, and Evian has made great capital out of it.”

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One area where Sapiro is candidly out of step with contemporary marketing orthodoxy is on the role and importance of data, particularly Big Data. “For me, this obsession with data spoils everything,” he declaims. “Marketers are so anxious about grasping every last bit of data that they don’t invest energy in getting to the deeper level.

Fear of missing out means ceaseless acquisition of more and more data without stopping to look for insights. This is hijacking the souls and sapping the energy of marketers. Big Data is a huge distraction, and it does more harm to the very souls whose job it is to develop differentiated brand positioning.”

For aspiring brand marketers, agency planners and creatives, Saprio recommends looking beyond business and into the world of the arts, human sciences and even politics. In his first career as a brand marketer and a second helping marketers become more insightful, he has found little evidence in business of curiosity, repertoire and the desire to tap into higher human truths.

Nor does he underestimate the difficulty of the challenge – of being insightful. “By this point in the history of marketing, we’ve seen everything, it’s all been done,” Saprio says, though not gloomily. “By having a curious mind and broad repertoire, we make it more likely that we’ll put old ideas together in new ways and find untapped human truths that we can attach to brands as authentic and compelling brand propositions.”

A version of this interview will appear in Sam’s forthcoming book, How To Be Insightful, to be published in Autumn 2016.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands and third-sector organisations to find simple, true and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission and confidence they need to communicate more effectively. His mission is to eliminate jargon and corporate multiple personality.

Sam is currently writing a book called How To Be Insightful, the history, psychology and application of insight. The book is based on the Insight Agents’ STEP Prism of Insight (TM) model of generating ideas. It will be published soon.