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How to change consumers’ opinions and influence people

John McGee

The real challenge of marketing is all about availability — availability in the mind, and in the store


Professor Byron Sharp, author of 'How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know'

Professor Byron Sharp, author of 'How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know'

Professor Byron Sharp, author of 'How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know'

When it comes to books about marketing, you could fill a mid-sized local authority library with them.

Philip Kotler, Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, Seth Goden, Peter Drucker, John Kotter, Martin Lindstrom, Theodore Levitt, Rita Gunther McGrath, Al Ries and Jack Trout are just some of the thousands of authors who believe the world needs to know more about marketing.

One book, however, that stands out is How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know by Professor Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science which is part of the University of South Australia.

First published 11 years ago — with a sequel added in 2015 — the book challenges some of the many preconceived ideas that marketers have about their brands, and how they go about executing their brand strategy.

HBG, as it is known colloquially in the marketing world, is a manifesto for evidence-based marketing — and it insists marketing should be treated as a science rather than an art.

In so far as one can summarise a book in a few paragraphs, it says that the secret to growing a brand is to ensure that it is physically available to as many people as possible, and that it should have clear and distinctive branding that uses sensory cues — colours, logos and design — that are easy to remember and recall.

In other words, the real challenge of marketing is all about availability — availability in the mind and in the store. The more physical and mental availability a brand can achieve, the more likely it will succeed. Assuming people buy it, of course.

HBG was also the first marketing tome to identify a number of specific scientific laws that apply to marketing, and explain what they mean for strategy and business.

Even though the world has changed considerably in the 11 years since HBG was published, Sharp says that the basic tenets of his book remain the same.

“The fundamentals have stayed the same. I say this because we’ve checked, and indeed the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute does research that checks this almost every day, but also because How Brands Grow covers fundamentals,” he says.

"It isn’t about transient facts like ‘7pc of consumers have used TikTok or something like that.”

Sharp is a passionate advocate for the need to embrace evidence-based marketing, and believes that too many marketers are distracted or remain fixated on the wrong things — whether it’s customer loyalty, market segmentation, focus groups and bad market research.

“Marketers are human, and so like consumers they are habitual, slow to change. They are loyal to old ideas that feel right. Remember, doctors bled people for almost 2,000 years.

"On top of this, outdated ideas are still taught at most universities, and there is quite an industry that takes old ideas and dresses them up in new names.

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"I think there are many marketers and lecturers who would be surprised about how much of their thinking is near identical to that of marketers 50 years ago,” he says.

Nor is he a fan of brands taking a quasi-political stance — like Nike with Black Lives Matter, or Ben & Jerry’s with its lofty sustainability agenda. Or for that matter marketers who think consumers want to be friends with a particular brand.

“The key point is that consumers rarely notice. They know very little, and think little, about even the brands they loyally buy,” he says.

“Nike a sports clothes brand, Ben & Jerry’s is ice-cream that comes in cardboard tubs. Very few consumers know about the political stances of these brands.

“The question of whether they would care — be positive or negative — is moot. They don’t even know. They are too busy living their social, economic lives to listen to preaching from marketers.

"It’s rather shameful that marketers — remember, we claim we are customer-centric — don’t know this. So often marketers live in a bubble, far removed from normal people,” he adds.

When it comes to how brands should behave during a pandemic, he feels they should stick to the fundamentals and avoid preachy messages that tell consumers “we are all in this together”.

“It’s the same as ever: keep focused on holding and building mental and physical availability, as well as working to improve the product portfolio — and that may mean deletions just as much as additions. They should also work to ensure that marketing investments are going to the areas of sustainable growth, including the right channels, the right countries, and so on.”

In the post-pandemic world that will emerge, Sharp also believes that consumers will not change their behaviours as much as some other marketing experts would have us believe. They like their old lives, they want them back, and will embrace many of the old pre-Covid habits.

“Largely yes, they will return to their normal lives. There’s been an increase in ecommerce and food deliveries, of course, and they’ll hope to hang onto these gains post-pandemic — but that isn’t guaranteed,” he says.

If anything does change, Sharp would like to see more marketers embrace evidence-based marketing.

“The big, but slow change is a shift to evidence-based marketing. This revolution has many decades to run. Partly because there is so much more we are discovering, partly because shifting company culture and systems to become evidence-based is quite a transformation. It takes time and dedication. It’s not just a case of reading How Brands Grow.”

In the meantime, however, reading HBG would be a good starting point.

Professor Byron Sharp is one of several keynote speakers at the forthcoming DMX Dublin conference which will take place on March 25.

DMX Dublin is sponsored by Independent News & Media. For more information visit www.dmxdublin.com

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