Are You Available?

Jul 13 2011

“It is impossible for ideas to compete in the marketplace if no forum for their presentation is provided or available.”  - Thomas Mann

“Always within an arm’s reach of desire.”  - Robert Woodruff (former chairman of Coca-Cola)

Getting connected

In the final chapter of How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp focuses on the key to great marketing: making your brand easy to buy.  There are two aspects to making brands available which are covered extensively throughout the book: mental availability (something discussed at length in this blog previously) and physical availability.  He argues (based on empirical evidence) that product innovation only works when a brand is salient and well distributed, through distinctive and clear branding and breadth and depth of distribution.

The book argues for new models of consumer behaviour, brand performance and advertising which sit comfortably with latest thinking in neuroscience and psychology as well as being based on hard data and physical laws which govern markets and buying behaviours.  For example, behaviours are seen to drive consumer attitudes and opinions (rather than classical marketing view), brand loyalty is ephemeral and most sales based on occasional customers who have little relationship with the brand and devote as little mental energy to their choices as possible.  Growth is seen to come from increasing penetration rather than growing use among loyal customers and similarly price promotions largely allow existing customers to save money and do not win new customers (in the long term).

Getting noticed

The book compellingly argues that distinctiveness (and not differentiation), salience and relevant associations are keys to successful advertising, when these refresh and build on existing memory structures (respecting existing connections), with continuous and broad reach across all customers.  All of these arguments not only make sense based on the empirical data presented in the book, but in terms of the way memory and decision making works in the brain.  This means that the huge investments made by companies in loyalty programs and customer relationship management are more often than not unsuccessful in driving long term brand growth.  Likewise, short-term price promotion strategies largely reward loyal customers who have bought the discounted brand in the past, and have no long term effect on the likelihood of purchase of new customers.

Most of the time we all satisfice rather than optimise our brand choices.  With little time to evaluate brands, we are cognitive misers who seek to devote as little time as possible to decision making in-store.  Although marketing and brand managers would like to think that customers carefully evaluate their brand and it’s attributes, in reality they do not.  Thus brand loyalty is merely an outcome of the satisficing strategy (habits help us to save time and energy), something that most marketing theories studiously ignore.  This leads marketers to focus on building reasons why customers should choose their brand over a competitor, whereas in reality they might be better served to focus on the reasons that the majority of customers are ignoring their brand.  The important battle is to get into the customer’s consideration set(s), before it is filtered out.

To put it another way, it’s more important not to be not noticed, than it is to be noticed.

Getting remembered

Our memories of brands vary across buying occasions and are imperfect - we know very little about some brands, and almost nothing about many more.  Customers buy brands and do not evaluate and trade off features in most buying occasions, based on their feelings and priorities at that time.  Market research generally assumes that brands are evaluated rationally across a range of features - the evidence is that this is not true.  Brands which are more popular, are popular because they are more available in the memories of customers, and mental availability is highly correlated with physical availability (our brains are biased to things we have seen more often and more recently).  Brands with larger market share have an in-built advantage have greater physical and mental availability (and therefore more money to spend on marketing too).

Market shares follow a predictable power law which gives unfair advantage to larger and incumbent brands.  More importantly, customers of different brands in a category express similar attitudes to those brands and similar reasons for buying them - they know and like the brands that they buy (behaviour drives attitudes), and are in turn more likely to notice, consider and buy these brands.

Salience means more than being ‘top of mind’ (which merely measures the link in the consumer’s mind between the brand and a description of the ‘category’).  Salience comes from the mental availability of the brand, based on the network of connections which exist in a customer’s remembered experiences (implicit and explicit) across a wide variety of contexts (time, place, occasion, location, etc).  The larger and fresher the network of connections, the greater is the chance of a brand being recalled across a variety of buying occasions, and of being selected from the relevant consideration set.

Building mental availability is about building a rich network of connections, rich in both quantity and quality of memory links to the brand (something that typical brand awareness measures do not capture).  The sheer number of links is important, but also the strength and relevance of those links, which come from repeated exposure to the link and from the association of the link with the right contextual and experiential cues to trigger the link.  The key to building such connections is consistency and distinctiveness (i.e., a clear brand signature and core values) along with repetition, so that the brand can be recalled across with broadest range of buying occasions.

As long as the brand is mentally available, then the marketer only has to ensure that the brand is ‘within an arm’s reach of desire’ for each of those occasions!

Seven rules

The book finishes with seven simple rules for marketing, based on the data patterns and examples described in the book.

  1. Continuously reach all buyers of the category (both with communications and physical distribution) and avoid ever going ‘off air’
  2. Ensure the brand is easy to buy, reflecting how the brand fits into the customer’s life and addressing any reasons that emerge ‘not to buy’
  3. Get noticed (either implicitly or explicitly) to prime the customer’s mind
  4. Refresh and build memory structures that make the brand easy  to notice and buy (i.e., respect existing connections)
  5. Create and use distinctive brand assets which help customers adopt simple heuristics based on clear and noticeable cues
  6. Be consistent, yet keep things fresh and interesting (avoiding unnecessary changes)
  7. Stay competitive ensuring that the brand is easy to buy and avoid giving reasons not to buy (don’t market to one group at the expense of another)


How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know by Byron Sharp (2010)

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