brand strategy

Unlocking messy tensions* (*it’s where the best insights are)

Strategy Director Victoria Aspinall discusses the subject of tension, and why exploring and unlocking tensions can help you uncover customer insights.

Tension. It was everywhere at Christmas and the festive season. Family arguments, disagreements over presents and plans – and on top of it all, tension around whether we’d actually get the Christmas we planned. 

Tension is stressful, and generally something we seek to avoid at all costs. 

But… it’s not always bad. In fact, tension can be just what we need. 

The dictionary definition of tension is “a relationship between ideas or qualities with conflicting demands or implications”. As we all know, it happens when different forces or pressures pull in different ways. Which sounds pretty much like every decision I’ve certainly ever made. 

But it goes on to say that tension is “applying a force to (something) which tends to stretch it.”

It’s with a context of these conflicting demands and desires that your customer make their decisions. It’s within a context of tension that your customers decide what to do, where to shop, what to buy. There’s never one product, one decision, one reason to buy.

It’s by unlocking the messy tensions that you can truly understand what drives and motivates your customers. 

And it’s within these messy tensions that your business can grow. 

Unlocking a tension means you are resolving a real need for your customers, even if it’s one they don’t know they have yet. It’s how you can position your brand and business to overcome it, make life easier – and win over hearts and minds in the process. 

So – with every nugget or belief about your customers, question whether it’s a tension or just a fact. A great way – but not the only way – to check this is to look for ‘buts’. 

‘People love our platform because it helps them learn new things’ – is a fact.

‘People love our platform because it helps them learn new things… but they feel self-doubt about taking on new things, and often don’t do anything with what they learn’ – is a tension-driven insight. 

The first one gives you a nice quote, the second gives you something actionable to fix. 


‘Consumers want to be more environmentally friendly’ – is a fact.

‘Consumers want to be more environmentally friendly…. But they don’t feel that the small things they can do / change will actually make an impact’ – is a tension-driven insight.

‘Girls want to play more sport’ – is a fact

‘Girls want to play more sport… but they suffer from a fear of failure more than boys which prevents them getting involved’ – is a tension-driven insight

Where there’s a ‘but’ there’s a way to win, a need to be fixed and a tension to be resolved.

Tension is human. Your customers are human. If you’re not facing into the human tensions around your brand or product, you’re not getting to the heart of why customers do (or don’t!) buy you. 

So, instead of avoiding tension – face into it. Identify the messiest tensions in your customers lives and face into them. It’s where the best insights are. 

About the author:

Victoria is the Strategy Director at CreativeRace, having previously been a Strategy Director at London-based Clear M&C Saatchi where she led strategic projects for large, global clients including Disney, Prudential, GSK. Prior to that she worked at a variety of brand strategy agencies including BrandCap and Kantar, as well as in management consulting at Deloitte.