Does Byron Sharp really know what marketers don’t … or is he just endorsing the old “push” model of marketing to “average” markets?

February 10, 2015

How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know is one of those business books that has fast become an must-read for marketers. It is provocative and interesting.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of “just get it out there to as many people as possible”.

In global markets of incredibly diverse individuals, diverse both in their needs and profitability, it seems strange to go for mass coverage. In a world where most brands are digital, where marketers have incredible amounts of data, though which they can target and engage people in relevant and personal ways, where product and message “push” are increasingly rejected, and test and learn is regarded as a much better way to engage and adapt,  then Sharp’s theory is certainly controversial. What I do agree with, is seeking to build deeper engagement with customers, to add more relevance and meaning, and to win through deeper not just more relationships with and between consumers.

Whatever you think, having an opinion on Sharp’s book (which essentially comes down to whether you believe marketing is an art or science) is almost a prerequisite to credibility in marketing today.

Sharp comes from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, University of South Australia. The book builds on the seminal marketing research by Ehrenberg and Goodhart, and is a manifesto for evidence-based marketing, building brands based on what works in scientific practice rather than what should work in marketing theory. In addition to outlining “7 evidence-led rules for unlocking growth through brand marketing”, the book challenges a number of pernicious and costly marketing myths that are sometimes still peddled today; “esoteric quackery concerned with segmentation, differentiation and how buyers perceive brands (take, for example, brand personality)”.

Bin the Brand Onion

For Sharp and his co-authors, marketers have made their lives unnecessarily difficult, handicapping themselves with unfounded theories of branding based on anecdotes and bad metaphors.

For example, there is little evidence to suggest that consumers want ‘relationships’ with brands, or that brands should seek to create ‘meaning’ in consumers’ lives, or that brand commitment and brand loyalty are anything more than just wishful thinking, or that brand positioning (in terms of creating a differentiated ‘brand personality’) is a productive endeavour. When you look at the data, what works in branding is surprisingly simple – making the brand easy to buy – by maximising it’s physically availability and creating an attractive and memorable set of distinctive brand assets; sensory and semantic cues such as colours, packaging, logo, design, taglines and celebrity endorsements that make the brand easy to like, memorise and recall.

Mass Marketing Works

Moreover, when you look at the evidence, there is no reason to complicate your marketing lives with targeting and segmenting customers, whether based on lifestyle, category usage or brand loyalty.  Positioning brands for particular target segments is as futile as brand positioning by creating a differentiated brand ‘personality’. Successful growth brands have universal appeal, and mass marketing with a reach-optimised single simple message, rather than being a mass mistake, is still the most effective way to drive sales.

Want Loyalty? Get a Dog

And there’s one more lesson from scientific analysis of marketing data – you don’t need to complicate your lives with a costly customer retention/loyalty program – because they don’t work and have no impact on growth.  Customer loyalty is largely a myth (customers are at best ‘promiscuous loyals’ – flitting fickle-like between alternative rival brands based on availability – 72% of Coke drinkers also buy Pepsi (UK)). Likewise for brand commitment – people buy brands out of habit, not commitment. The evidence-led path to growth is simple; market penetration by recruiting ever more new brand users in habitual purchase. And forget marketing designed to increase purchase frequency, it doesn’t work (difference in market share can nearly always be explained in terms of differences in market penetration, not purchase frequency) – focus instead the light and occasional users that account for much of your sales and growth (the typical Coca-Cola buyer in the UK buys Coke just once a month).

How Brands Grow

If there is one top insight in the book, then it’s this … the secret to growing your brand is to build ‘market-based assets’ and these come in two flavours – maximised distribution (physical availability) – and clear and distinctive branding using sensory cues (colours, logo, design…) that are easy to remember (“distinctive memory structures”) and recall.

The real challenge of marketing is all about availability – available in the mind and in the store.

Seven Rules for Brand Growth

After several bruising rounds of marketing myth-busting, HBG outlines 7 scientifically derived rules for brand growth.

  • Continuously reach all buyers of the category (communication and distribution) – avoid being silent
  • Ensure the brand is easy to buy (communicate how the brand fits with the users life)
  • Get noticed (grab attention and focus on brand salience to prime the users mind)
  • Refresh and build memory structures (respect existing associations that make the brand easy to notice and easy to buy)
  • Create and use distinctive brand assets (use sensory cues to get noticed and stay top of mind)
  • Be consistent (avoid unnecessary changes, whilst keeping the brands fresh and interesting)
  • Stay competitive (keep the brand easy to buy and avoid giving excuses not to buy (i.e. by targeting a particular group)

Implications for Innovation

The implications of the book for innovation are clear – once you’ve spotted a market opportunity, and a product solution, innovation should continue with building a set of distinctive brand assets; the sensory and semantic cues such as colours, logo, packaging, design, tag-lines and celebrity endorsements that will make the brand easy to memorise and recall.  The key to brand innovation is to achieve brand distinctiveness with sensory brand assets (and not conceptual brand differentiation).

The second major implication for brand innovation is that brands should focus as much on innovative distribution solutions as product innovation – the secret to innovation success is to get your distinctive innovation in front of as many eyes as possible.  So how can you innovate to maximise distribution (think Nespresso, Apple Retail, American Apparel).  So we should be focused on innovating availability – mental availability in terms of creating brand assets that can become memory structures based and physical availability, maximising distribution or owing a distribution channel.  In contrast, any time spent on market segmentation or targeting on anything other than needs is time wasted, and efforts to construct a brand ‘personality’ or attempts to make meaning with customers is futile (most memorable quote in the book “Rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness”).

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