“When you are armed with a powerful insight, the ideas never stop flowing,” writes Phil Dusenberry, former chairman of BBDO North America, in his 2005 memoir Then We Set His Hair on Fire (the book title refers to the infamous accident during the filming of Michael Jackson’s commercial for Pepsi).

Dusenberry draws an important distinction between insight and idea: an insight is a grasp of the fundamental truth that sets one brand apart from its competitors, where ideas illustrate the insight so that everyone else can grasp it too.

Dusenberry gives the example of his brand claim for General Electric. “We bring good things to life.” This slogan went beyond the obvious fact that GE was so pervasive, making everything from lightbulbs to toasters to railroad engines to nuclear reactors. The key insight was not that GE makes everything, but rather, that the things GE makes make life better. Simple as it sounds, Dusenberry’s rivals in the ad business had failed to get it. Hundreds of good ideas flowed from this insight, which endured as a slogan for nearly a quarter of a century.

George Lois, the iconoclastic creative adman, laid out much the same manifesto a decade and a half earlier, in his 1991 book What’s the Big Idea? He cites the legendary campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach for the original Volkswagen, the “people’s car” that Hitler had developed in the 1930s. The ads— headlined Think Small, Beetle, and Lemon— are still famous nearly half a century later.

Lois recalls a conversation he had in his New York office when coming up with the big idea for Volkswagen (VW). “I figured out the marketing problem. We have to sell a Nazi car in a Jewish town.” Lois and his partner Julian Konig solved the problem by making all the perceived negatives of VW—its size, funny shape, etc—appealing through the use of charming, irreverent humor. The Beetle became an icon.

Many companies have re-examined themselves to gain the vital insight that makes their brands stand out. Kone makes escalators, elevators, and automatic doors. When the firm wanted to strengthen its brand, it began by repositioning itself as an “accessibility” company. That makes perfect sense: all of its products allow you to get from one place to another inside a building.

Why the need to redefine Kone’s benefits and position? The new way of looking at the company provided a heightened insight into its benefits from the user’s point of view. As an escalator-and-elevator company, Kone was indistinguishable from its competitors. With the insight of providing accessibility, it raised its position to category leader, with the added emotional appeal gained from the suggestion that its products assist the disadvantaged.

In the 1990s, when rebranding was a fashionable management buzzword, some companies tried to reposition themselves in ways that were more silly than insightful. The insight at the heart of a brand must be simple, focused, and truthful, as simple as “this is the best.” Then the ideas that flow from it begin to build an emotional bond with the customer.