GuidesMarket researchReshaping the marketing and market research scene: Byron Sharp’s “How Brands Grow”

Reshaping the marketing and market research scene: Byron Sharp’s “How Brands Grow”

Last updated

22 February 2024


Hugh Good

I remember an ex-colleague going away to a market research event, flying from Auckland to Singapore, and returning pumped up on this thing he’d just heard about. 

He was talking about the influence of the mental availability of a brand vs. its physical availability—how you needed both to be successful and, as a result, how we needed to change our approach to measuring market share.

At the time, I was a bit like, “OK, calm down, Shaun, what’s the big deal?”

Now, reflecting on it, I realize he likely encountered the revolutionary ideas in Bryon Sharp’s book, How Brands Grow, in some workshop or presentation.

Later (2011ish), one of my research directors handed me a copy of HBG and said, “Whatever you’re reading now or doing now, stop doing it and read this!” It was sound advice, as it became one of the most influential and enduring marketing and market research texts of the 2010s.

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A niche set of ideas that got massive

First published in 2010, Sharp's book challenged conventional approaches to marketing and research wisdom, providing a fresh perspective on how brands can achieve sustained growth. 

Interestingly, Sharp didn’t think the book would be a popular success, even telling one interviewer, “I never thought that people in agencies would buy it.” He saw it as a niche text for CEOs and heads of marketing.  

However, the wider marketing industry had other ideas, and soon Sharp’s perspective on how research and marketing really deliver brand growth was shaking things up globally. The publisher, Oxford Press, only printed 1,000 copies in the first run—but sold out on the first day.

So what is "How Brands Grow" really about?

At the heart of HBG are several key tenets that depart from traditional marketing and market research wisdom: 

Penetration over brand loyalty:

A lot of conventional marketing wisdom pre-HBG was based on the assumption that customers’ brand loyalty (and measuring and increasing the loyalty of existing customers, along with repeat purchasing of your brand) correlates with brand growth and overall brand success.

Sharp argued, however (backed up with compelling statistics), that the primary driver of brand growth is increasing market penetration of your product or service

Therefore, instead of focusing solely on building brand loyalty among regular (heavy) purchasers of your brand, you should pay just as much attention to non-loyal (light) purchasers. They may buy your brand in addition to others within their repertoire.

It was simply a case of doing the numbers—encouraging the much larger group of light users to make one additional purchase a year is more impactful than urging heavy users to do the same.

Mass marketing mediums like broadcast TV aren’t (quite) dead:

Another trend that Sharp challenged was hyper-targeted marketing. 

Hyper-targeted marketing is about finding your brand’s unique audience (again, your loyal customers/heavy users) and having focused, targeted, personalized communications and conversations with them (typically at the expense of general marketing conversations with everyone).

At the time, marketing channels using a targeted or hyper-targeted approach would rely on niche publications, e.g., specialist magazines, targeted direct mail, or email campaigns vs. mass market advertising mediums like broadcast TV or billboard ads.

However, Sharp argues against this trend, highlighting that broad, mass marketing efforts, like live broadcast TV, are more effective at reaching a larger purchasing base, including loyal and non-loyal customers. 

By reaching all potential buyers in a category, you could maximize a brand's growth potential by encouraging many light purchasers to buy slightly more often rather than convincing a small number of heavier buyers to purchase more frequently.

Importance of mental and physical availability for a brand’s success:

Sharp also challenged traditional marketing measures such as ‘brand awareness,’ which focused purely on measuring consumers' awareness of a brand but neglected to measure how accessible it was. 

Sharp introduced the concept of mental and physical availability, arguing that a brand must be both: 

  • Mentally salient—the brand elements, logo, colors, etc., are memorable and effectively take up real estate in people’s minds.

  • Physically available—seems an obvious point, but the product being marketed has to be easily accessible, whether it’s in a physical or online shop.

Mental salience and physical availability work synergistically. When a brand is mentally salient, consumers are more likely to seek it out. 

Then, if the brand is physically available when and where the consumer intends to purchase, it increases the likelihood of conversion.  

Measuring these two dimensions gives a much more accurate reflection of a brand’s growth potential than looking at brand awareness in isolation and better explains growth (or a lack of growth) than awareness alone.

Significance of building distinctive brand assets

Sharp also highlights the significance of creating and maintaining distinctive brand assets that make a brand instantly recognizable to consumers. 

Traditional marketing emphasized the importance of consistency in branding but didn’t explicitly highlight the necessity of distinctive brand assets. 

Focusing on brand consistency typically includes establishing a cohesive visual identity, yet the importance of distinguishing and standing out is sometimes overlooked.

Sharp emphasizes the importance of brand assets, such as logos, colors, and jingles, that go beyond mere consistency. These elements should be distinctive, making the brand instantly recognizable. This distinctiveness contributes to mental salience, helping consumers recognize and recall the brand across different contexts.

For instance, McDonald's golden arches or Coca-Cola's iconic red script are powerful examples of how distinctive visual elements contribute to mental availability.

These assets all contribute to building mental availability and strengthening a brand's position in the market by building on their salience or prominence in consumers’ minds. 

Impact on market research

HBG has profoundly impacted the field of market research, challenging researchers to reevaluate their methodologies and focus. The book's influence on market research is observable in several ways:

A paradigm shift around segmentation:

Traditional market research segmentation focuses on identifying and targeting specific consumer segments with tailored marketing strategies. This often involves creating detailed personas and targeting messages to appeal to the preferences and needs of each segment—often to the point of excluding or alienating non-segment members. 

Sharp argues against narrowly targeting specific consumer segments. Again, he emphasizes the importance of targeting a broad audience (i.e., not focusing exclusively on individual segments) and increasing market penetration across all groups. By making your product and communications too focused on a particular segment, brands risk impeding growth by alienating the broader swathe of potential purchasers. 

Data-driven decision-making throughout branding and advertising:

Sharp strongly advocates for data-driven decision-making in HBG, emphasizing the importance of empirical evidence over assumptions. 

All of the claims he makes within the book, challenging traditional marketing practice, are backed up by empirical data and statistics. 

Over the last decade, there has been a rising demand for robust data analytics in market research. This has been driven by companies wanting to use real-world data and evidence to identify growth opportunities and optimize their marketing strategies. Although not solely attributed to Sharp's book, it has played a significant role in this trend.

Using behavioral economics to understand consumer behavior:

Sharp's integration of behavioral economics principles into marketing thinking has prompted a more holistic and data-driven approach to market research, aligning strategies with the realities of consumer decision-making.

Influenced by Sharp's approach and growing interest in behavioral economics/science, researchers have become more attuned to the heuristics and mental shortcuts that shape decision-making, incorporating these insights into data analysis. 

Recognizing limited cognitive resources driving consumer decision-making has led to a pragmatic use of data in market research, focusing on essential metrics that inform mental and physical brand availability strategies. 

Additionally, the acknowledgment of the impact of social factors on consumer choices has led market researchers to explore the role of social influence and context in shaping brand perceptions. 

Criticism of “How Brands Grow”

Despite its wide acclaim, HBG has its share of criticisms. Here are some key points of contention:

Limited relevance:

Some critics argue Sharp's theories may not universally apply. 

In particular, Mark Ritson mentions niche market segments (e.g., luxury)—characterized by unique consumer behaviors and distinct purchasing motivations—as examples where Sharp's generalizations might not hold. 

In these areas, consumers may prioritize product attributes like exclusivity, craftsmanship, or uniqueness, which may have limited mass appeal and thus may not resonate with a broad audience. 

Luxury brands, for instance, tend to rely heavily on building strong personal connections, very distinctive branding, and bespoke experiences, which may be difficult to deliver via the mass marketing strategies Sharp advocates. 

Critics argue that the nuanced dynamics of these markets necessitate tailored approaches that go beyond the one-size-fits-all principles and highlight the importance of industry-specific considerations in marketing strategies.

Market oversimplification and ignored segmentation significance:

Some marketing professionals, like Filipe Thomaz, contend that Sharp's emphasis on mass marketing oversimplifies the complexities of modern consumer behavior. For instance, consumers may be more likely to seek tailored experiences and solutions that address their nuanced needs in the technology, luxury, or healthcare sectors. 

Critics argue that a sophisticated grasp of individual preferences and the ability to deliver personalized content via tools like market segmentation can be vital for building meaningful connections with these consumers. 

They caution against a one-size-fits-all approach, asserting that a balance between mass marketing and strategies targeting individual segments is essential to navigate the diverse consumer preferences and expectations landscape in today’s complicated, dynamic global marketplace.

Limited consideration of digital channels: 

As the book predates the widespread dominance of digital marketing channels—especially Instagram and TikTok, some critics, such as Marie Oldham, argue that it doesn't adequately address the unique dynamics of online consumer behavior

While some social media existed when the book was published, awareness of its potential to track, profile, and personalize content to individual users was unclear, alongside digital platforms' wider, more general impact on brand growth. Whether Sharp would so strongly argue for the power of broadcast TV if the book was published today seems unlikely.

Enduring relevance and evolution of the book’s concepts:

A decade after its publication, HBG is still a landmark publication for marketers and researchers alike. The enduring relevance of its concepts is evident in the following ways: Reshaping the language of customer loyalty:

Debunking common myths and encouraging a shift towards a more nuanced understanding of the dynamic nature of consumer preferences and the role of things like brand penetration and brand salience in fostering lasting customer connections.

The importance of data-driven decision-making in marketing:

Reshaping the approach to marketing data analytics, emphasizing the importance of empirical evidence over conventional wisdom, challenging traditional marketing paradigms, and fostering a more data-driven and scientifically grounded understanding of consumer behavior.

It is still relevant in our hyper-digital era:

While the book predates our hyper-digital marketing world, its principles have been adapted and applied to digital marketing strategies. Concepts such as mental and physical availability, for example, remain crucial in the context of online consumer engagement and e-commerce experiences.

HBG has undeniably left an indelible mark on the market research landscape and wider marketing practices—its core tenets challenging traditional marketing wisdom, emphasis on empirical evidence, and focus on broad market penetration have reshaped how brands approach growth strategies. 

Despite criticisms, the enduring relevance of its concepts in the digital age and the book's global impact speak to the lasting influence of Sharp's groundbreaking work. HBG remains a foundational resource as the marketing landscape evolves, guiding marketers and researchers in their search for sustained brand growth.

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