Functional insight, emotional insight – are these notions meaningful?

It is not uncommon to speak of functional or emotional insights. What is generally meant by these terms? Does this distinction really mean anything for consumer insights?

In market research, marketing and communication, it is not uncommon to oppose the functional and the emotional. We thus tend to say that needs or motivations* at the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy (to use this classification example) correspond to “functional” needs, while those towards the top are “emotional” needs.

But needs and emotions are two different “objects.” We could simply accept this linguistic slippage if it did not lead to a dangerous mistake: believing that no emotion is involved at the bottom of the pyramid.
To return to the issue of insights, there are at least two reasons why the notions of “functional insight” or “emotional insight” are not really meaningful.
The distinction between need and emotion.
First of all, needs and emotions are in fact two different “objects.”**
A need corresponds to what is perceived as necessary for a given individual. Some needs correspond to rational and logical necessities, and others are more irrational, “imaginary” or “symbolic.” Basic or safety needs are rational needs. Self-actualization needs are situated more in the field of the imaginary.
Emotion is in a different register. An emotion corresponds to a response to a stimulus (experience, memory, thought, etc.), and generally causes an outward physical manifestation (reddening, trembling, crying, laughter, tension, etc.) or an internal physical response (palpitations, choking, stomach in knots, etc.). It all depends on which emotion is being experienced.
So there is no real opposition between “functional” and “emotional,” and emotions are probably associated with every level of the Maslow hierarchy, with positive and negative variants depending on whether or not the need is satisfied.
A consumer insight illustrates not just one, but often two, needs
Here we return to the notion of consumer insight. A consumer insight is not an inert object, but conveys a force that corresponds to a dilemma. It is therefore not merely the illustration of a need, but rather of an expectation.
An expectation, like a desire*** has the following characteristic: we seek to achieve a goal or live an experience, but for various reasons this experience encounters limits or barriers.
There are therefore two needs in an insight: a motivation that corresponds to the positive psychological force of what we want to experience, and an element of tension that represents a barrier to this experience. In practice, we often see “mixed” insights whose components address both the top and the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy. So they are rarely “100% functional” or “100% aspirational.”
If there is one point to remember: emotions are everywhere and are not in opposition to needs that might be defined as “functional.” For the two reasons we have mentioned (needs and emotions are two complementary and not opposite notions, and insights are often combinations of functional and imaginary needs) we prefer to avoid describing insights as emotional or functional. And in practice, we must be sure to genuinely track emotions (where often we simply identify the higher needs in the Maslow hierarchy).

* Maslow uses the terms needs and motivations interchangeably
** we could go further by adding “sentiments” as yet another category
*** “we desire only what we lack” – Plato. Which leads to two questions: why do we want to achieve a given experience (motivation), and why do we believe it is not achieved (element of tension).

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