Did you know ‘Aha Trees’ grow at airports? A great way to do brand research

***This is a Guest Post. Please see below for author info***

I’m a firm believer in quality research. But I don’t believe you need large research budgets to discover a key consumer insight for your brand. All you need is a plane ticket, common sense and passable social skills. And yes, your ‘target group’ should also use planes. (Works on rail or bus journeys, too.)

Get to the airport early. Not because of security procedures. But because airports are a wonderful way to observe and engage with your target consumer. To discover an ‘Aha Tree’.

I guess I have to tell you what an Aha Tree is, before you can find one. Aha Trees grow consumer insights. The Aha Tree is nothing more than a mind mapping method I evolved. You start by drawing out the ‘trunk’ of the tree and label it with the subject that you are researching.


On the left hand branches you note any surprises that made you go: ‘I didn’t know that….’
On the central branches, you note your surprises that made you think: ‘I didn’t realise that….’
The branches on the right are the one’s most likely to give you an ‘Aha’ that you can use. That’s where you note your deductions: ‘You know it’s really true that…’

Let me give you an example. The other day, while traveling to Delhi, I noticed a burqa clad lady reading a Vogue magazine. Out comes my mental scribbling pad. “I didn’t realize that burqa clad women were interested in fashion.” I chased that observation a little further and deduced: “For most women fashion is a question of self-esteem”. The Aha Tree had borne fruit!

I then Googled around for clothing brands for women and discovered that the self-esteem platform was open. Good lord, millions of dollars waiting to be made. So how does one find a million dollar insight at an airport? You train yourself to look for Aha Trees.

Here are three simple research techniques that work well for me:

  1. Observe
  2. Make friends
  3. Use a ‘projective’ technique

1. The observation technique:

Look around you at the people waiting with you at the airport lounge. (I am writing this article at an airport, on another trip to Delhi.) I just saw a person talking self-importantly on his bluetoothed hands-free set. (Why does he need a hands free set at an airport? You won’t have to ask him to know why. Put on your Sherlock hat and you’ll discover why.)

2. Make friends:

Sherlock Holmes comes to your rescue here as well. With your powers of observation you’ll probably be able to guess where the person sitting next to you is from. Or what he or she does for a living. Let me try it on the person on the next seat so curious about what I am keying in to my communicator. His face tells me he is Bengali but his style of dressing suggests he is not Indian. The henna in his beard suggests he’s been to the Haj. Could be from Chittagong.

“Excuse me. Are you from Chittagong?” I ask. And that leads to a discussion till boarding is announced. It turns out that he is now settled in Dhaka. But he confirms that women can be very fashion conscious beneath the burqa.

3. Use a projective technique:

This one’s easy once you’ve made a friend. I’m usually lucky enough to find someone I already know, at the airport. Once you have someone to talk to, you just indicate anything interesting that catches your eye: “Do you think that man using the bluetooth head set is upset or is he just being fashionable?”  My friend from Dhaka informs me that men are far more “fashion conscious” than women. He corrects that. More keen to impress others. What you must have realised was that my friend from Dhaka was giving away his own views on fashion. Aha, you deduce: “Fashion is a way to impress”. But that platform’s been taken.

Hey, you won’t get a million dollar insight with every observation.

Any one trip by air is worth at least three ‘Aha’s. Once you’ve generated several possible ‘obvious truths’ for your brand, of course you should use quantitative research to confirm which one connects most with your audience and is still unoccupied by any of your competitors.

So, the next time you are at the airport, dig around. You might just discover a million dollar ‘Aha Tree’.


Sumit Roy runs the world’s smallest learn-by-earning brand building ”university”, www.univbrands.com . Here’s his take on why air travel is one of the best ways to discover consumer insights if your target group also travels by air…

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is the Founder and CEO of SimpliFlying, one of the world’s largest aviation marketing firms working with over 85 aviation clients in the last ten years. Nigam is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior executives globally, from Chile to China. Nigam’s impassioned and honest perspectives on airline marketing have found their way to over 100 leading media outlets, including the BBC, CNBC, Reuters and Bloomberg, and into leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He writes a dedicated monthly column in Flight’s Airline Business, challenging the typical assumptions about airline marketing. His new book on airline marketing, SOAR, is an Amazon bestseller that’s shaking up the industry and inspiring other industries to learn from the best airlines. Born in India, raised in Singapore, he now lives with his wife and two young daughters in Toronto.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 6 comments
  • Jennifer Tremblay

    I found this very interesting reading and very insightful. I will forever make better use of my airport layovers and turn my long waits and frustrated Argghhhhs into thought provoking ahas!

  • Debashish Sinha

    Thanks. I enjoyed reading it. I do observe people a lot but did not know how to use it. I will surely try it next time I am in a mall or mutiplex.

  • Rory McDonnell

    Interesting technique but I'm not entirely sure it works for every topic. I agree with the concept of an 'aha' moment but is this not simply another form of 'laddering'…

  • Siraj Bloch

    I learn this in my B-School as characteristic of an insight.

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