• Erika Brenner

The Power of Outsights (part one)


[ALT TEXT] Text blob expanding and contracting in the center of the screen, releasing bubbles, with a text inside that says: “The Power of Outsights, by Erika Brenner”.

I’m excited to share that I have been invited to give a talk for the Marketing Association in Oslo (MFO - Markedsføringsforeningen i Oslo) on January 28th, 2021 (and if you're wondering, it was recorded and all measures towards keeping everyone COVID-safe were taken!).


The event, M.FOKUS, wants to address an interesting and really important topic: “What is our role as marketers, in an increasingly diverse Norway?” and so, for this talk, I’ve shared a little bit of why I believe outsights are crucial in contributing to the conversation about diversity.


Using my own intercultural experiences, I wanted to give the viewers some tips on how they can cultivate different perspectives within themselves and their companies, as well as how they can embrace an outsider mindset to unlock the creative potential of diverse thinking.


I talked a little bit about this here on the blog before, but I figured this could also be an interesting topic for a post on its own. This will be a two-part post: on part one, as I did in the talk, I want to first make the case for the power of outsights; and on part two, I will share 5 things I’ve learned living as an outsider that anyone can do to broaden their horizons and embrace a more diverse thought-process.


So, as some of you might have read in some of the older posts, I’ve been working with brand strategy and consumer insights for most of my career, in different countries, like Brazil, China, and now, here in Norway - and I think it’s pretty obvious that culture, brands, advertising… are all pretty different between these places.


There is one thing that the marketing industry is obsessed with though, no matter which country you work in: insights. The human truths that kickstart our ideas and are so important to the work that we do.


But let me ask you, and be honest: How often do you take your own experience as the “consumer truth”?


I mean, I understand, it’s practical to assume our consumers think as we do, but let’s face it: as marketing professionals, we are very biased. The regular consumer doesn’t think like us - even if the consumer IS “like us”.


Image of a person with sunglasses, gently touching the side of the sunglasses, in front of a garage door. On the left side of the image, the sentence reads “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”, from the American-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin

The thing is, we don’t see things as they are, we see them as WE are.


So when we make assumptions about our consumers based on our own frame of reference, we might get lucky and that works, but, more often than not, it doesn’t.


Because it doesn’t resonate. So it might just go unnoticed, but it also might turn into a PR nightmare like that infamous Kendall Jenner x Pepsi ad from a few years ago.


It might have seemed like a good idea in the meeting room, but it just wasn’t authentic or real.


So let me ask you another question: How often do you get out from behind your computer to go talk to your consumer? Like, forget the McKinsey reports and all the data and ACTUALLY go meet real people?


I would dare to say not very often, right? I mean, I get it, who has the time - I know.


But the thing is, as my friend Rob Campbell has said before, we need to go play in the jungle, not in the zoo.


Sure, research and reports are useful, but they are still "controlled environments" - and we need to be careful not to get too immersed in our little marketing bubble. Now and then, it’s good to get out and see the real world. Talk to real people, in real situations.


But what I believe we need to really be asking ourselves is: when we talk insights, are really talking about the consumer, or are we just talking to a mirror?


True insights might not always be convenient or comfortable, but for an industry so passionate about “out-of-the-box” ideas, we really should be making more of an effort to explore outside of our bubble (or our box, I suppose), right?


And that’s why, instead of talking about insights, I realized it was important to talk to people about my experience with OUTsights.


Like insights, outsights are the consumers, industry, and brand truths that we connect and can spark ideas - but from an outsider’s perspective.


And here is a little story about how I discovered outsights: In 2010, when I moved to China, I realized pretty quickly that I was “slightly” different from the local consumers.


In this image, Erika is at the international EXPO in Shanghai, in 2010, surrounded by a group of Chinese students that requested to take a picture with her because she is a foreigner and different from them and the people they were used to seeing.

I looked so different from them, so foreign, that I used to get stopped on the street because they wanted to take a picture of/with me.


And while this was somewhat amusing, I started getting worried that it was going to be a problem, that it would compromise the quality of my work. As I wasn’t an “insider” of that culture - so how could I find the right insights?


How would I know what would resonate with consumers when I was clearly so different - and therefore I obviously couldn’t use my personal references, my inner compass, to guide me?


But the reality was that the exact opposite happened: if anything, being an outsider became an advantage.


As I couldn’t rely on my instincts, I was forced to let go of everything I thought I knew.


And you know what? It was a total game-changer.


While the locals have an obvious advantage of understanding cultural references, outsiders can offer a new interpretation of the same references, a nuanced understanding of the same situations.


Being the outsider gave me a whole new perspective, and I had no choice but to become a better observer, a better listener, and to ask better questions.


Image from the inside of a boat in the ocean, with a distant island in the background. On the top left corner, it reads “You have to leave the island, in order to see the island” from the Portuguese writer José Saramago

As a result of having that distance, I was able to see a more complete picture - my “assumptions” became a little more objective, and my ideas a lot sharper and more creative.


And as Burger King’s CMO, Fernando Machado, often says, creativity is a key competitive advantage for business - so I do believe that having an outsider’s perspective has also made me a better marketer.


The good news is: while living abroad has certainly accelerated my understanding of outsights and the boosted creativity that followed it, research has shown you don’t have to go abroad to get the creative benefits of intercultural contact.


In fact, as I wrote in this other post, going abroad in itself is not what increases creativity - studies have shown that merely dating someone from another culture had the same impact, as well as collaborating in multi-cultural environments.


The important scientific conclusion from these studies is that to enhance creativity, the secret is immersion - to truly, deeply, understand another culture.


Ultimately, broadening our horizons, stepping out of our bubbles, and exploring the plurality of the world around us in a meaningful way can boost our overall creativity, and by consequence, have an impact on our work.


And that’s why I want to share 5 things that I’ve learned in all these years living as an outsider that I believe will help you cultivate an outsider's mindset - and therefore help you embrace diversity within yourself, and hopefully within your companies, so you can also unlock the creative potential of it.


Check out part two of this post for those tips!