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Why brands matter more than customers’ enthusiasm

Dave Winterlich, chief strategy office at Dentsu, meets Prof Byron Sharp, author of game-changing industry title, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

Despite how excited media practitioners get about their field, most of that excitement barely ripples outside the industry pond. Most things that excite agency folk barely leave a mark on the consciousness of the wider business community.

But every now and then something comes along that seems to capture that community’s collective imagination.

Twelve years ago, in March 2010, Prof Byron Sharp, director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, published what he believed would be little more than a research book for existing clients of Ehrenberg-Bass, a text to furnish them with evidence-based marketing when they spoke to their CEOs and CFOs.

The book was How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know and had an initial print run of just 1,000 copies, which sold out in a day. The title went on to be one of the seminal marketing tomes of the last 20 years.


Even in Ireland it seemed that everyone in the industry had a copy in their laptop bag. More than a decade on from its publication, Prof Sharp discusses the impact the book had, whether the findings are still relevant in our fast-moving world and what his general take on marketing is.

Was he at all surprised at the success of the book? It was the institute’s advisory board that asked him to write it. As an academic title it had to be a hardback and with a decent publisher like Oxford University Press. “I never thought it would sell so well. I always thought it would be around for a while so I’m very pleased, it had a big impact, yes,” he says.

One of the key thoughts that runs through the book is the idea that very niche targets or media buying segments inhibit growth. “It’s incredibly theory-driven rather than evidence-based. I find it shameful that major companies with very clever marketers like Coca-Cola, who saw in their own data that half the buyers of Diet Coke were men still briefed the media agency to target women.”

One of the reasons why the book became such a success was because it applied what seemed to be common sense to its thinking. But Sharp says such sense only really becomes common with the benefit of hindsight.

“It’s very easy to attribute its findings to common sense but there was very little published on this subject prior to How Brands Grow,” he explains.

“I had expected some pushback but there was not much, only recently I have seen this lame criticism, it’s the sort of negative criticism that seeks attention by publicly saying they disagree with something I wrote. It would be very interesting if somebody came up with something substantive that disproved anything, but it hasn’t really happened.”

One of the main tenets of the title, which is now widely accepted as a marketing truth, is the fact that growth comes from increasing market penetration through light or infrequent users as opposed to increasing frequency from moderate or heavy users.

This again makes perfect sense as there are simply very few heavy consumers of any brand and, by their definition, offer little headroom for increased consumption. This is robustly supported by Sharp’s data.

Does he feel the idea that the majority of customer segmentation is based on heavy users, or even moderate users, is wrong? Yes, he says.

“It is surprising because we thought that we had a pareto principle effect in sales, that the top 80 per cent of sales came from 20 per cent of consumers, but that turned out to be wrong. The only thing that really is common sense is to understand that if you want to grow a category you have to target people who do not currently buy in that division.”

Sharp also makes that point that understanding and accepting the reality that most shoppers interchange brands, and that the end goal is not one of building loyalty or advocacy, “liberates you as a marketer”, he explains.

“You realise that brands matter because people have busy lives and want to get on with them. Brands help them do that. You do not need to try and get your customers to have religious zeal levels of enthusiasm for the brand in question. That is very freeing.”

It is relatively simple, Sharp says. “People don’t think about brands all that much, particularly when they are not in the market for the category. Marketing needs to do two things to do its job. The first thing is to get mental availability, that is to get into people’s heads who aren’t even in the market so that we can catch people when they fall. We need to be there when they actively enter a category, so we’re on shelf and we invest in paid search.

“The second key action is to simplify the language used. Catching people when they fall is given weird, so-called explainer titles like ‘activation’, but let’s be clear: we’re not activating anyone. If someone says they’re going to buy a lawnmower and searches online to check for brands, you, the marketer, has not activated them. If someone is not in the market for a lawnmower there is nothing you can do to make them buy one.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the seemingly simple rule of marketing. But while the theory is simple, the hard part is creating so-called mental availability when people aren’t thinking about that specific category, to simply get noticed by people.

“Very few brands manage to get attention when people are not in the category. Tech firm Apple is a stellar example of a company that knows how to make consumers pay attention. People who are not in the market for a new iPhone, maybe they just bought one and won’t be buying another one for three years or so, but if they hear there’s a new model dropping, they pay attention because Apple has a reputation for bringing out things that are worth paying attention to. And that is very impressive and the main reason why the company is so big.”