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How to Find Strategic Insights and Why it’s Essential




Jennifer Hart: What does a brand strategist do, and how is that different from a researcher?

Julie Garel: There is overlap, but the distinction is important. Researchers tend to rely on traditional quantitative forms of research and perhaps some focus groups that just touch the surface of issues, while brand strategists (or planners) use both data and rich qualitative approaches.

Brand planning borrows heavily from anthropology. We speak with consumers and other stakeholders in depth. We look for consistencies and inconsistencies in what they tell us. We dig deep into the emotions associated with needs that are relevant to a specific client’s brand. How does the consumer want to feel? What problem is a product really solving? And we use ethnographic observations to identify how consumers interact with a category. How are individuals behaving while using a particular product or service? Are they recommending it to others? Are they frustrated at any point?

This learning provides insights into how a product, service, organization, or destination should be positioned. Often, this type of learning leads to essential changes in the design of a consumer offering or a communications plan.

Jenn Hart: When do you know you’ve found an insight that will translate into breakthrough creative (creative that generates results)?

Julie Garel: Consumer language choices and facial clues are key. Even when studies are done remotely, it is possible to know when a particular topic is central to the values of a research respondent. When eyes light up or when tears are shed, those are massive clues. Typically, the clues are not that extreme, so I look for changes in cadence. Pauses, laughter, looking away to imagine something: these are all occasions for follow-up questions that might lead to some emotionally rich learning.

When I start to observe patterns in how respondents speak about something–then I’ve discovered fertile ground. I develop hypotheses about what I’m observing, which I then check out with additional respondents, and/or a survey that will provide quantitative validation or negation.

Eventually, this process leads to clear insights into how a client should speak about a brand. The brand language must be both differentiated from competitors and emotionally salient. Not just different for the sake of being different. And not just a story about a product attribute. The consumer needs to feel something in order to recall a brand and view it as valuable.

Jenn Hart: Do you have any examples, without compromising client confidentiality?

Julie Garel: I loved talking to stakeholders about universities. I learned so much about what students, faculty, alumni, trustees, top administrators, and local businesses feel about schools. We see our future-selves in institutions that deliver higher education. They deliver the dreams we have for ourselves. No wonder so many people wear their school sweatshirts. It’s identity. It’s a version of our best selves that must be honored.

Of course, I adore destination marketing. I’ve done a lot of it. I’ll immerse myself in the tourism experiences that define a place as well as how the locals view it. Each destination must present itself unlike all the others in its competitive set. Generic claims of relaxation or luxury get lost. Most destinations present lists of things to do. Those activities are the support for a more important brand idea. My job is to find the hidden gem of a message that tells future travelers they must go.

Jenn Hart: What would you like to work on next?

Julie Garel: I believe today’s consumer has changed profoundly over the past few years. We are all more in touch with our feelings. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed by our emotions. There’s so much messaging about illness and violence and disasters coming at us. Brands must be respectful of this. There is an opportunity for every product, service, organization, and destination to offer consumers sanctuary or solutions that address this new reality.

For me, it’s not so much a desire to work in a specific category, but rather, I’m driven by a chance to unearth the hidden truth about a brand that resonates with today’s consumer. If that truth can help people feel better about life or see eye-to-eye, all the better.


Julie Garel is a brand planner, qualitative researcher, and facilitator based in the Washington, DC area. She has extensive travel & tourism, environmental, transportation and hospitality industry experience. Julie has a Master’s in International Management and a Master’s in Environmental Management & Sustainability.


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Hart House Creative, its employees, partners, The Squeeze, and guest writers make no guarantees for results. Methods and marketing suggestions are based on prior knowledge and with the intent to inspire business owners and other creatives. Every client is different with different goals. None will be held liable for any negative results achieved from implementing suggestions from our website.

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