Byron Sharp How Brands Grow: what’s missing and what’s wrong?

My last post looked at Byron Sharp How Brands Grow claim to have the definitive laws of brand growth and his talk at the IPA, focusing on the things I think he’s got right. Here, in this second post, we look at what I think is missing.

1. MISSING: there are more ways to grow

The biggest issue with Byron Sharp How Brands Grow is how it over-simplifies marketing to a process of increasing penetration by “mental availability” (e.g. awareness, saliency, distintiveness) and “physical availability” (e.g. distribution, impact at point of sale).

These are indeed very important drivers of growth. But they are not the only ones. There are other ways to grow that don’t get a mention in HBG:

– Creating new occasions: McDonald’s offering breakfast

– Brand stretching: Special K going from cereals to cereal bars

– Increasing volume per usage occasion: Axe’s “Spray More, Get More” campaign did this by getting blokes to spray all over, not just under their arms

– Premiumisation: Gillette have increased price and profit per razor over time by adding extra functionality

Clarifcation: HBG is in Byron’s words about “Growth in market share within categories” and not about “Entering different categories, and attempts to expand the overall category.” So, there is a need to manage your expectations on what you will get from HBG: a more accurate title would be “Why some brands have bigger shares”.

2. MISTAKE: mixing up user profiles and brand positioning

Byron Sharp How Brands Grow shows that the user profiles of brands are much more similar than we think. Looking at lots of categories, and different ways of segmenting markets (demographics, attitudes, values etc.), he shows brand profiles within categories are very close (with obvious exceptions, such as premium brands being bought by people with more money).

However, the dangerous leap Sharp then makes is to say that portraying a specific type of user is wrong, as it fails to talk to the spread of people using the brand. For example, he says Yorkie’s “Not for girls” was bad marketing, as it missed out girls, who in fact eat a lot of Yorkie choc bars.

Sorry, but this is a basic error. Who we portray and who we want to use the brand are two different things.

Potraying a certain type of user helps create a distinctive brand story and mix, standing out and getting remembered, the very things that Sharp (rightly) urges marketers to do. Most ads by Coke portray young people drinking from a 330ml iconic bottle because this is: i) aspirational, ii) distinctive. Special K cereal shows ladies in red dresses, but this doesn’t stop men in blue dresses eating the stuff as well. Again, its about being distinctive.

3. MISSING: how to actually grow penetration

There’s loads of backward-looking data in Byron Sharp How Brands Grow showing that big brands have more penetration. But there’s bugger all practical advice on the trickier subject of how to actually grow penetration. Byron’s focus is on academic analysis about why some brands have bigger market shares than others. Indeed, in commmenting on my last post he said “Experience (and case studies) can lead us astray”.

Well here’s a start on how to grow with some brand examples:

– Step-change in quality: Muller’s creamier yoghurt vs. incumbent Ski

– New benefit: Pantene and shine, supported by Pro-Vitamin B5

– Innovative packaging: Muller’s tub with separate youghurt and jam you mix

and of course

– Distinctive properties: O2’s blue bubbles and Felix the cat

– Expanding distribution: Tesco

4. QUESTION MARK: loyalty thinking stuck in a time-warp

Modern technology and marketing means Byron Sharp How Brands Grow laws on loyalty (all brands have same levels) can be broken or bent. Take TV series watching. Sharp shows that only a minority of people watch consecutive episodes of any TV series. But the data is from 2003. And since then there is a little thing called Tivo/Sky+ which means with a press of a button I can record a whole TV series if its watchable enough.

Then there is Nespresso. Their online membership data base and re-ordering system means that in premium coffee I have 100% loyalty to the brand.

And being a Times+ subscriber means I now get a Times newspaper 365 days a year. Again, 100% loyalty.

And so on.

5. MISSING: benefits of loyalty programs beyond loyalty

Another dangerous leap from data to conclusion is the one on loyalty schemes. Because loyalty levels are hard to budge, Sharp seems to suggest that all loyalty programmes are a waste of money.

Well, try telling that to Tesco, one Sharp’s examples of successful brands. They pioneered loyalty schemes with Tesco Clubcard. And they think its so good they bought the company who created and managed it (Dunn Humby)! Two things missing on loyalty programs:

– Increasing value per shopper: Tesco use Clubcard to target relevant promotions and messages at different user segments

– Loyalty programs can drive penetration: O2 found that non-users were attracted to the brand by their O2 Rewards scheme, thinking “Oh, they seem like a nice company as they care for their customers”. To quote Hamish Pringle in his book Brand Immortality: “O2 loyalty strategy turned out to be a highly effective recruitment one. Two-thirds of the very considerable growth came from new customers.”

6. WRONG: Advertising is only about salience and memory structure

Sharp suggests that advertising should not seek to persuade and focus instead solely on reinforcing memory structure and keeping a brand top of mind. In HBG he says “Many brands are already successful. They do not have anything to say that the market does not already know”. Nothing to say that’s new? The flaw with this theory is that it is likely to lead to to wallpaper advertising with lots of brand properties (colours, symbols, slogans etc.) but no freshness.

I agree 110% that brands need to avoid chopping and changing and have posted on this several times. But they also need freshness. Walkers, one of Sharp’s examples, has been able to do 72 adverts with ex-soccer star Gary Lineker over 16 years because a stream of new news has kept the campaign fresh. We’ve had countless new flavours and promotions such as Brit Trips and Do us a Flavour.

7. MISLEADING: The shape of frequency distribution is always the same

To support his case that frequency of usage is always the same he shows graphs of Coke usage in the US and the UK, and says “Look! Just the same.” Well, the shapes are similar. But there is a big difference he fails to point out:

USA: 89% buy Coke, 14% buy once/twice a year = 16% of buyers

UK: 50% buy Coke, 40% buy once/twice a year = 40% of buyers

In other words, there is a huge difference in frequency between the two countries, reflected in a much higher consumption per capita in the US. So, one way for leading brands to grow is to change the rules of the category and increase frequency. As the brand leader, you will get most of this growth.

In conclusion, I love the way Byron Sharp How Brands Grow brings some data to the party to help reinforce some key principles of brand growth, especially the need to create brand properties and build distinctiveness. But no-one, including Mr Sharp and his book of rules, has the definitive, all encompassing rules of how to grow brands. I wish it was that easy. But the reality is, thankfully, much more messy.

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