Byron Sharp “How Brands Grow”: what’s right?

In his recent IPA talk Byron Sharp accused branding experts like Kotler and Aaker and most of us marketers as being primitive, ignorant users of “medieval” practices that are a waste of money. He sought to sell us on the set of scientific “laws” in his bible, “How Brands Grow” (HBG). He literally kicked the s**t out of core marketing principles such as segmentation, targeting, loyalty, differentiation and emotional engagement.

So, is he right? Is this the end of marketing as we know it?

Well, he’s got mountains of data as back-up. Leading companies such as Mars and Coke are applying the laws. And a lot of what he says reinforces some of our key brandgym principles of brand and business growth with hard data. On the other hand, the approach is a bit “mechanical” and is very light on practical examples of how brands have grown using these laws, as opposed to just being big.

Clarification: this is a book on the laws of what makes some brand big, and is indeed not a practical guide. In Byron’s own words:Scientific laws tell us how the world is, but just in the same way that Newton’s laws don’t tell Boeing how to build a Dreamliner, empirical laws about marketing still mean there are billions of creative ways to build brands.”

So, in this first of two posts I’ll suggest what I think he’s got right…. In the second post I’ll point out the mistakes, flaws, shortcomings and loopholes in his laws.

The posts are longer than usual, reflecting how important I think this stuff is. So get a cup of coffee, sit back, and here we go…

1. Penetration is key

The biggest bombshell from Bryon Sharp is that all brands have similar levels of loyalty. This is defined by frequency of purchase for consumer goods, or defection rates and number of products bought per user for service brands. The big difference is penetration: bigger brands have bigger user bases. They also have slightly higher loyalty (the “double jeopardy” law). This has been tested across multiple categories and countries.

I find this hard to swallow myself, having worked on a good few programs to convert light users to heavy users. But on reflection it does ring true, as changing consumer behaviour is horribly hard to do. It seems that in a given category loyalty has a natural level, and its hard to shift it.

2. Light users are as or even more important as heavy ones

The second Byron-bomb is that most users of a brand are in fact light. For example, Coke UK is bought by c.50% of people in a year, but about half buy it only once or twice a year. And these people are in risk of forgetting the brand and not buying. Secondly, Bryon Sharp suggests the heavy users of a brand are so into the category and the brand that they don’t need much specific marketing.

The implications of laws 1 and 2 are pretty radical:

–       Stop trying to turn light users into heavy ones

–       Stop cross-selling and loyalty programs

–       Focus all out on growing penetration

–      Increase reach in terms of all users, especially light and non-users, and marketing presence for as much of the year as possible

3. Leading brands are distinctive, not different

Here Professor Bryon Sharp is preaching to the converted. His data shows that when you take out the effect of size, brands in a given market have pretty similar brand image profile. But big brands are stronger across the board. They have a distinctive way of marketing on the core needs of the market, and so are more strongly associated with these needs.

4. Create memory structure to build “mental availability”

Again, this is point we’ve been posting on for a while. Strong brands create and nurture brand properties such as logos, music, colours, slogans. Neuro-science research shows it takes 2-3 years to establish really establish these properties in our minds in the form of memory structure. These brand properties mean people are more likely to remember you and find you at the supermarket shelf on “auto-pilot”.

We also violently agree with the risks of messing with memory structure. We posted a couple of years ago on the example in the Bryon Sharp talk of the drop in sales suffered by Tropicana when they ditched their orange and straw for a wacky new design.

5. The power of “physical availability”

Another point I’ve been banging on about is the importance of distribution and finding new “routes to the consumer”. It aint sexy, but boy it works. Key to Tesco’s growth in the UK to take number 1 position from Sainsbury in the UK was simply a faster expansion of its store network. Walkers crisps in the UK grew strongly by expanding distribution UK-wide.

6. People don’t want a love affair with most brands

Music to my ears here. Byron Sharp shares our view that for most brands people are not looking for a relationship or love affair. Rather, they want to be able to buy quickly and confidently. This means the right balance of emotional “sizzle” and product “sausage”. As I like to say, lifestyle marketing and emotional benefits work better for Prada than they do for petfood. He even shows data suggesting that only a minority of Harley Davidson’s users are actually brand lovers. Most have a more mundane view of the brand.

I poked fun at Kevin Robert’s Lovemarks in my “Where’s the sausage?” book, creating the imaginary concept of “Hugbrands”. Sharp was a lot tougher in his talk, making fun of how Roberts dreamt up the Lovemarks idea during a red-wine fuelled evening and deriding the lack of empirical evidence to support it.

So, lots of stuff that makes sense. Leading brands become big by building penetration through distinctive marketing that creates powerful brand properties, by expanding distribution and by combining sausage and sizzle.

In the next post we’ll look at the what’s missing in How Brands Grow.

To explore how to apply the principles of Byron Sharp How Brands Grow in depth, we offer a short, on-demand Grow the Core course on our brandgym Academy platform here. The course is only £95+VAT and is fully refunded if you go on to take the full Mastering Brand Growth program.

We also explore the principles Grow the Core alongside seven other modules on our flagship brandgym Mastering Brand Growth program. If you’d like more info on the program, simply pop your name and email in the form below