How Brands Grow – A Higher Form Of Ignorance?

I came across a quote by Theodore Dalrymple recently. It referred to the increasingly common – and understandable – use of the internet to obtain information on medical conditions.

“Information without perspective is just a higher form of ignorance”

Theodore Dalrymple is the nom de plume of Anthony Daniels, a retired doctor (and the most wonderful writer as any Spectator magazine loyal will know). I can see where he’s coming from. The doctors have years of experience and that gives them the perspective to make the best use of information, both old and new.

It made me think about the increasing amount of information available to marketers. This comes not just in the form of “big data” about the market and the target audience, their profile and their precise behavior in different contexts, but also in the form of new models and theories. The information coming from the latter that interests me most is the information derived from social sciences and an increasing, although admittedly still very limited, understanding of how the brain actually works. And like any rational person I become more interested if it is supported by empirical data.

The ones that interest me less are things like “How brands grow” by Byron Sharp that I have been hearing a lot about. I am not uninterested, just less interested. I understand that Mr. Sharp is quite defensive about his work and any doubters or critics, like my good friend David Taylor, are accused of being luddites, typical marketers who believe in logic with magic and not just ‘scientific evidence’. Well let me help Mr. Sharp brush off any comments I may have to make by declaring right up front that I have not yet read his book, only some of the critiques including those from David. I did however have the privilege of knowing Andrew Ehrenberg and hearing him explain first hand his findings on the relationship between category penetration and average weight of purchase for a large, statistically robust sample of FMCG brands. I am given to understand “How brands grow” is a continuation of Andrew Ehrenberg’s work.

I remember at the time thinking the findings were challenging and profound but, in Andrew’s own words, they really only explained why some brands are bigger. He explained to me that his findings were like Boyle’s Law (pressure of a given mass of gas moves in a constant relationship with volume). It is an immutable law of physics. So I asked Andrew what he thought might be the immutable laws in marketing that would, in effect, compress the volume and raise the pressure (if you follow the analogy). He laughed and said, “I am just a statistician, that is for you clever marketers to figure out!”

What was clear to me then, and is just as clear to me now, is that Ehrenberg’s work was not a theory of how brands grow but an observation about what happens when they do – useful but only up to a point. I suspect Mr. sharp’s book is more of the same – useful but only up to a point.

What concerns me is that in the hands of inexperienced marketers and business people it runs the risk of being a higher form of ignorance.

That said, let me defend the use of information about medical conditions by the general public – I have to for no other reason than the best practitioner of this (or worst offender) is my wife. She would argue, and I will not argue with her, that, at the very least, it enables you to have a better conversation with the doctors. But I support the idea that without perspective and experience it is well short of great insight, which is to say an insight that solves a problem or presents an opportunity – like how to grow your brand.

Let me illustrate what I mean with this old riddle. A man lives in a high-rise block of flats. Every morning he gets up to go to work and takes the lift to the ground floor. When he returns in the evening he takes the lift to the 7th floor and walks up the remaining flights of stairs to the 14th. Why does he do this?

Here are some of the most common explanations offered:-

  • He wants to keep fit
  • He knows someone who lives on the 7th floor and visits them before going back to his flat.
  • The lift is faulty

All are plausible theories (although each can be challenged – if he wants to get fit why doesn’t he walk all 14 floors every other day or indeed every day, if wants to get really fit?).

The answer is that he is a dwarf and he can’t reach the button for the 14th floor in the lift. That is something you would know immediately if you lived in the same building, would have figured out pretty quickly if you were a dwarf and perhaps eventually if you had any experience of dwarves. I would further argue – but have no statistical proof – that a curious, creative, lateral thinker is more likely to solve the riddle.

I will read Mr. Sharp’s book and I am sure I will find it interesting but I doubt it will give me a comprehensive, foolproof scientific model for how to grow brands. Hopefully, it will improve the conversation.

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