Telling it true: isn’t it time to flex the “truths”?

Re-examining Professor Byron Sharp’s Laws of Marketing Growth

How much has the way we consume media changed since 2010 and have our media strategies kept up? Carat Global CSO Sean Healy re-examines Professor Byron Sharp’s Laws of Marketing Growth in the context of 2021.

The world isn’t what it was 18 months ago, let alone a decade ago; how we behave today as people and as society is vastly different. Technology, connectedness and media have all advanced too, yet our marketing approach tends to get locked into accepted 'truths' that frame media as the 'train-tracks' on which creative is delivered. As the key to building an end to end experience for people, media cannot simply be judged on the lowest buyable cost per reach point.

One of the key drivers of this approach are interpretations of Professor Byron Sharp’s Laws of Marketing Growth, which have become 'our' orthodoxy for a decade or more. We are not seeking to challenge Byron Sharp's canon of research into how buyers behave. However, we did see extensive debate about the validity of the orthodox model in the face of the decline of 'big brand' market share in FMCG from 2015 onwards. This raised questions about the paid-media, TV-led reach model, in the face of compelling evidence that younger shoppers were buying into new market entrants with a digitally-led approach to experiences. There has been a lively ongoing debate involving Sharp and, amongst others, Professor Scott Galloway.

A decade of change

People's relationship with media has transformed since Sharp’s 'How Brands Grow' was first published in 2010. A time when Instagram had barely one million global users. DVDs were sent in the post by LOVEFiLM. The biggest global disruption was a volcano in Iceland, which stopped a few transatlantic flights for a few weeks.

Today, whether you are debating a passion point on Clubhouse, listening to your favourite podcast on Spotify, meeting the love of your life on Bumble, or simply finding a recipe for dinner on Google – you are doing it in media. People are fully immersed in a rich ecosystem of media led experiences every day. Media is the connective tissue of our global society. The average daily time spent with content led media has increased from just over eight hours in 2020 to nearly nine hours in 2021.

Brand purpose

Rather than hitting everyone, every day, between their eyebrows with the same message until it wears out, brands need to offer a rewarding value exchange in media today. Sharp argued that beyond distinctive assets, a brand does not need a purpose or role in the world: "It is clear to see that many brands exist and thrive with a distinctive market positioning strategy. Think Marmite. Great brand. No purpose".

First of all, a brand’s purpose is not necessarily the same as its social impact programme. Marmite may well have a clear role to play in peoples’ lives (brand purpose). Furthermore according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 74% of consumers say that companies placing profits before people during the COVID crisis would lose their trust for good. Moreover, 24% started using a new brand because of 'the compassionate way they responded. Today, brand behaviour goes beyond pushing out consistent messaging until wear-out. People don't just need reminding a brand exists every day; they expect every brand to offer them a deeper value and meaning in their life today.

Take the pursuit of distinctiveness, still a resonant idea.  Distinctiveness was originally framed around brand and advertising assets such as logos and colour palettes. A brand's distinctive assets and sensory cues become more important in a time of panic purchasing and socially distant shopping. Indeed, in 2020 brands that flexed their distinctiveness to react to the pandemic have come out on top – take KFC's tweak to ask consumers to rebrand their 'Finger Licking Good' slogan.

Brand distinctiveness

However, it is widely accepted that we are now in a world where the way a brand feels is as important as the way a brand looks. Our own Brand EQ report identified a close correlation with brands being seen has having high EQ traits and outperformance in shareholder value. Distinctive assets should be seen as part of broader distinctive experiences, enabling disciplines beyond branding and advertising to contribute towards making a brand stand out. We should continually ask ourselves whether our use of media contributes to brand distinctiveness and if the principles we are working to encourage or inhibit this.

A modern media strategy

We must acknowledge that for many brands today, media strategies based solely on maximum weeks on air and reach at the cheapest 'cost per point' fail not only to contribute to distinctiveness; they also fail to contribute to any competitive advantage.

With growth hard to come by, we need to consider which theories and rules help us fix the basics (incrementality) and whether there are approaches that can unlock faster growth (competitive advantage). If everyone follows the same 'truths' dogmatically, then every brand buys the same plan, which in effect is what is happening right now in some categories. Perhaps it’s now time for us in the marketing world to move away from the analogy of linear 'train tracks' and embrace media as primed with all of the possibilities of the platform era. This unconstrained thinking is the real route to competitive advantage that every brand needs right now.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA's terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA's newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 08 June 2021