There’s nothing like starting the year with some heavyweight marketing fisticuffs. That was obviously what was going on in Marie Oldham’s head at the turn of the year as she penned her wonderfully hostile article for advertising trade magazine Campaign.
Oldham, the esteemed chief strategy officer at VCCP Media, was meant to be promoting Volume 26 of Advertising Works – the collected case studies of the successful IPA Effectiveness Awards for 2016. But from the very outset of her article Oldham got stuck into marketing professor Byron Sharp like there was no tomorrow.
“Challenge Byron Sharp and grow your brand” was her titular opening salvo. Most marketers at this point would look at that title and hide under the coffee table but Oldham was just getting started.
She went on to point out that many brands have broken Sharp’s seven rules for brand growth and cited Eurotunnel, Pepsi and The Economist to name but three aberrant cases. She was particularly bruising on Sharp’s most contentious claim, his rule number one, that brands should “continuously reach all buyers of the category” and eschew the standard segmentation, targeting and positioning route to marketing success. Oldham concluded that half of the 39 winning IPA case studies for 2016 exhibit clear targeting strategy and thereby negate many of Sharp’s claims.
Sharp’s popularity is somewhat paradoxical given his proselytising about the relative ineffectiveness of targeting or differentiation. His own rise to power is based on targeting the right executives at the right companies and differentiating himself (it’s science, you morons – science, I tell you!), and that leaves him somewhat open to accusations of strategic hypocrisy.
But this article is a defence of Sharp, not an extension of Oldham’s critique. While it’s true that Sharp has certainly made enemies in our industry, he has done so by calling an algorithm-based machine-learning excavation device a spade, and our industry is infinitely better off as a consequence. When I was a junior marketer in the 1980s we looked to the great American pioneers of our field to lead our thinking: Levitt, Trout, Aaker and so on. But over the past decade something has gone seriously wrong with the direction of marketing thought. Obsessed with the shiny distractions of digital and the soft platitudes of politically correct but commercially inane attempts at brand purpose, marketing has lost its way, its edge and its impact.
The real gift of Sharp and his Ehrenberg-Bass Institute was to catch the helium balloon of bullshit that marketing was becoming just in time to attach a series of rigorous, practical and wonderfully quotidian concerns that weighed marketing back down to ground level. The contributions are not necessarily new or sexy, but my goodness they have been essential.
The emphasis on salience over acontextual brand awareness. The focus on distinctive brand assets over ephemeral attempts to deliver mission and purpose. The open hostility for marketers who overstate the role of brands and consumers’ ‘love’ for them. The idea that brands must be available in the mind and on the shelf to sell might sound obvious but, trust me, most modern marketing departments are too busy workshopping the values inside their new rhomboid of brand trust, or working out how to get a 3D ad on the new Wankometer 8000 VR machine, to have such prosaic concerns anymore.
How Brands Grow is not an original book, nor is it especially easy to read. But it is the only book on marketing in the last 15 years that you had to consume because of what it said and the implications it held for marketers, and because every CMO you met literally had it in their bag. Given the perilous state of the printed word, it might also turn out to be the last marketing book anyone ever reads.
Plonkers will continue to write them, of course, but no-one is going to read the damned things. I’d like to reserve a special shout-out to all those marketing professors currently working on books on strategy, digital marketing or disruption and joyfully challenge them to consider whether a printed 400-page tome that takes three years to complete is anything other than prima facie evidence that you don’t understand any of those words you are meant to be writing about.
Sharp’s success, impact and focus on law-like rules certainly now leave him open to challenge and revision. Oldham’s critique may be the first of the year but it will surely not be the last. However, before we all start picking holes in the venerable rules and aggressive approach of Ehrenberg-Bass can we pause and appreciate just where marketing would be without them?
My bet is floating somewhere past Uranus.