Infidelity, Inertia and Unsegmented Markets: The Impossibility of ‘Alienating’ Consumers And Why Marketingland Needs To Man Up


“Don't leave me this way

I can't survive, I can't stay alive, 

Without your love oh baby”

 by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert

The oversupply of the unremarkable

I’ve said it before. Despite all the rhetoric, self-congratulation, slick case studies, creative awards, campaigns du jour, planning awards, effective awards, blogs, and authoritative conference talks, it’s obvious that the vast majority of what we produce as an industry isn’t brilliant or even good.

Most of what our industry puts out into the world is banal, patronizing, derivative, lazy,insulting, hectoring, clumsy, polluting, stupid, repetitive, intrusive, toxic, or just plain irrelevant.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Most of everything is probably fairly unremarkable. Our industry’s output simply conforms to what the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon termed ‘Sturgeons Revelation’ (or Sturgeon’s Law as if is often referred to). As he put it in in the March 1958 issue of Venture magazine:

“I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me aftr twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as a' other artforms.”

A brake on creativity

There will of course be a myriad of reasons for the oversupply of the unremarkable, and it would be foolish to suggest that there’s one easy universal panacea that will solve all our issues.

But if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to hold back the develop of interesting, provocative, distinctive work, it’s the fear that it will ‘alienate’ a brand’s existing consumers.

We’ve all heard the request: “We want work that attracts new buyers. BUT... it mustn’t alienate our current consumers.” 

And so what results invariably is work that holds back from doing anything too interesting. From being too impactful, too stimulating. It results in the sort of work that aims squarely at the middle. And thus caution and anxiety further feed the oversupply of crap. 

The assumptions that hold creativity back

If you believe that your brand in some way ‘owns’ its consumers, that loyalty is all-important, that brands attract different kinds of people and that the task for marketing and communications is to ‘convert’ consumers away from competitors to our brand, then you would indeed be forgiven for worrying that in the quest to encourage new users to switch to your brand, marketing communications might alienate your existing consumer base.

However, when we look at the recurring patterns in people’s buying patterns we find that there’s little basis for these assumptions. And indeed there’s little basis for worrying about ‘alienating’ consumers. And plenty of cause to be bold and courageous in our creative ambitions.

So what follows are three observations from data, and three allied reasons to stop worrying so much about ‘alienating’ consumers.

Observation #1: Those consumers you’re so afraid of ‘alienating’ aren’t devoted buyers of your brand anyway

Marketingland can be fond of talking about “our consumers”. But the fact of the matter is that brands don’t ‘own’ any consumers. Brands aren’t built upon discreet, siloed, and loyal consumer bases that never interact with one another. Buying one brand isn’t a barrier to buying any others.

The buying data demonstrating this is plentiful and clearly demonstrates that people are polygamous in their purchase behaviours, buying habitually from a repertoire of brands, buying some more frequently than others.

I realize that I’ve used the example below many times before in my posts. However, given some of the sillier talk about brand relationships and consumer behaviours such a “loyalty beyond reason”, these patterns are worth repeating.

We can see here that brands share their customers with other brands, and that they do so roughly in line with their market shares:

4. overlap.001

Thus, we see that:

Adidas buyers allocated on average about 68% of their requirements to Adidas,14% to Nike, 8% to Reebok, 5% to Umbro.

And Nike buyers on average allocated 63% to Nike, 18% to Adidas, 9% to Reebok, 6% to Umbro

In other words, brands share their customers with other brands, and they do so roughly in line with their market shares. 

Reason to have courage #1: Marketing's role isn’t to create or preserve devoted loyalty, but keep a brand in people’s repertoires

Rather than a static standoff between separate brand populations, brands find themselves in a more more fluid and dynamic environment, in which consumers are joining and leaving brands all the time. Far from deterring us, it should actually give us a little more courage.  

Few people have exclusive, devoted relationships with brands. So the challenge for marketing is not protect the fidelity of monogamous relationships. People quite clearly have open relationships with brands. Defection, polygamy, flings... call it what you will, but it’s already a natural - and predictable - part of any marketplace.  People enjoy variety, choosing from a range of options and (brace yourself) really people don’t care that much about their brand choice. 

It is a  function of any marketplace that people already leave your brand from time to time. The point of marketing is to create the physical and mental presence that encourages them to keep coming back.

Observation #2: Those consumers you’re so afraid of ‘alienating’ aren’t so different from those you’re wanting to attract

We like to think that different brands appeal to different types of consumers. However, the analysis conducted of TGI data conducted by Kennedy, Long, and Ehrenberg, comparing the user-profiles brands in each of some 40 industries, demonstrates that users of directly competing brands hardly differ in their profiles. 

Two batches of TGI data were analysed, with the same outcome. A first batch was for all brands in 13 industries with 100 attitudinal variables; the second hatch of data, some two years later, compared the top 10 brands in 30 other industries, with over 200 attitude variables.

The profiles of the different brands in each product category were compared  against the profile of the average brand in that industry. 

The findings are striking:

Overall, the individual brands percentage profiles deviated from each other by an average of 2 or 3 percentage points, which as the authors note “is... in effect zero”

Only around 8% of the individual deviations were more than 5 percentage points, and even these larger deviations averaged at only about 9. 

Just 2% of individual deviations were 10 points or more. 

So what emerges from this analysis is that when it comes to their user-profiles, brands rarely differ from the average brand in their category, and when they do so it not by very much.

This, the authors of this analysis conclude: “Brand segmentation generally does not exist - substitutable brands usually compete in what for them is a single unsegmented mass market, whatever its overall structure may be.”

Reason to have courage #2: If it’s relevant and interesting, it will be relevant and interesting for everyone in the category

When it comes to making creative judgements, it would seem to behove us to to remember that consumers in any category really don’t differ that much from each other. So all those non-users of your brand really aren’t that different from the people who are currently buying you.

And if within any market users of one brand don;t really differ that much from users of competitors brands, then perhaps we should worry a little less about ‘alienating’ anyone.

If you do work that’s interesting, relevant and useful and/or entertaining for non-users, it’s likely to be interesting, relevant and useful and/or entertaining for all those people who are buying your brand. Or as Byron Sharp puts it, “being competitive means selling to ‘the market’, not a special segment.”

Observation #3: Those consumers you’re so afraid of ‘alienating’ don’t change their habits easily

As Caroline Whitehall has written, if we look outside marketing- and adland, there’s a plentiful body of theory that helps explain why people act habitually, and why these habits are so hard to break. Five are worth mentioning:



Cognitive dissonance

Fear of loss


The phenomenon of hardwiring in the brain encourages unconscious, habitual behaviour. 

A memory is simply the phenomenon of a series of interconnected firings of brain cells. The act of repetition causes adjacent cells in the brain to become physically ‘hardwired' together. It takes time to create these connections (which is why brands should value the element of continuity). But once they are created they take even longer to disappear. Memory - and with it habit - takes time to undo.

And then there’s habit-encouraging influence of heuristics. 

We use heuristics - simple rules of thumb or mental short-cuts - in our decision-making. While it’s something that many in adland have a hard time accommodating themselves to, choosing which brand to buy is in general something that isn’t that important to most people most of the time. The fact that people are polygamous not devoted in their loyalties is evidence of this.

Heuristics remove the need for complex decision-making. No-one wants to run mental a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis standing at the breakfast cereal shelf.  So heuristics - e.g. “I bought that brand last time”, “it’s expensive so it must be good”, “that’s the one everyone uses” - make decision-making quick and easy.

So heuristics encourage habitual behaviour. They eliminate the need for fresh decision-making every time. As Whitehill observes, “all things being equal, people are far more likely to defer to their heuristic than to risk a new and different behaviour.”

And then there’s cognitive dissonance which actually encourages us to avoid, edit out or dismiss new information.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance highlights how we would rather stick with our own version of the status quo . We’d rather avoid contradictory opinions, arguments, or information of the status quo than create conflict or discomfort.

The origins of Festinger’s theory are entertaining enough to warrant an aside. He had studied a doomsday cult, whose members believed that the Earth was going to end in a cataclysmic flood at midnight on 21st December, 1954. The cult leader, a Minneapolis housewife Marion Keech claimed following the passing of the dread deadline that she had received a message from God. Apparently by believing  in the impending apocalypse the cult had moved God to spare the planet. A brilliant act of recovery. 

Festinger argued that in general we choose the easier route of ignoring inconvenient, conflicting information, altering the importance of information that conflicts with our existing views or behaviours, or introducing information.

Thus for example, we might not know that the alcohol we love is bad for us, so we ignore reading advice telling us it isn’t so healthy. Or we tell ourselves that life is too short to deny ourselves such an inexpensive pleasure -  or justify our love of it with the fact that we exercise several times a week. But what we certainly do is continue drinking alcohol.

Added to this is out is the well known pattern of thinking and behaviour whereby we fear loss more than we crave gain. We’d rather hang on to what we have and what is certain, than take a risk on a new opportunity. Even it carries potential reward and gain.

Finally, there’s the effect that forgetfulness has in encouraging habitual behavior. The organisational psychologists Hirschleifer and Welch found that in a stable environment, managers are more likely to continue with existing policies than implement new ones if they are unaware of the reasons the decisions were made in the first place.

Many of our initial brand choices will have been made years ago, and the initial impetus for that choice will be lost in the mists of time. So unless we are reminded why that decision was and what has changed since to make the decision less relevant, or to make another more relevant, the chances are that we’re are not going to change our behaviour.

Marketingland can tend to think of people’s habits and loyalties as being fragile. Easily influenced. And easily jeopardized. Not surprisingly that can lead to caution and conservatism. But people’s habits are hard (though not impossible) to change. And for all the talk of change in our industry, inertia and resistance to change is part of what it is to be human.

This isn’t mere physiological speculation. We can see this phenomenon of resisting change at work in people’s purchase patterns. So back to the data.

The analysis conducted by Eherenberg and Hammond analysis of individual household purchase records over 1 to 5 years from the panels of AGB/TNS, AC Nielsen, IRI, GfK and MIC shows just how hard it is to break people’s purchase habits.

The key finding is that “price-related promotions of an established brand are taken up virtually only by its existing customers.”

By way of an example, just 4% of those who bought a typical UK detergent on promotion had not bought it before in the previous five years.

So even offering money off isn’t enough to induce as the author put it “the mental effort of switching to a brand which is ‘unfamiliar’, and which one has avoided buying for years.”

Reason to have courage #3: Those consumers you’re so afraid of ‘alienating’ won’t change their behaviour so easily

So there are powerful psychological forces at work that encourage us to resist change and that sustain habitual behaviour. And they’re writ large all over purchase data if we can be bothered to look at it.

That said, perhaps we don’t need any psychological theory or indeed any consumer purchase data at all. Perhaps all we need is just one moment of honest, clear-sighted introspection.

Have any of us - satisfied, delighted even with say, our choice of breakfast cereal brand - seen communications content that’s prompted the reaction: “That Kellogg’s advertising is far too edgy for me. I really like Special K. It’s tasty, And good value. I’ve been buying it for years. But because of that advertising I’m never buying Special K again!”

I didn’t think so.

(How much marketing- and adland nonsense would we be spared if we allowed more of these moments of reflection?)

Keep calm and carry on

The fear of ‘alienating’ consumers is founded upon the belief that brands can and should demand some sort of exclusive loyalty from people, underestimates the power of our inbuilt human tendency towards inertia, and assumes that non-users of a brand in any given market differ significantly from existing users.

But purchase data quite clearly shows us that people exhibit a natural and predictable lack of fidelity towards brands in any market. Most people already aren’t that loyal. Which means that the task for marketing isn’t to preserve devoted and undying loyalty. Defections and flings are already a predictable and inevitable part of people’s relationships with brands. The point is to ensure that having having had from time to time a bit of action on the side, people come back to your brand.

The similarity of brands’ user-profiles means that substitutable brands operate in an unsegmented market. There are category buyers who really don’t differ that much from each other. Which further undermines the need to fret about alienating anyone.

Finally, inertia and the power of habit means that ‘alienating’ people is actually very hard. Those who get their knickers in a twist at the thought of ‘alienating’ consumers forget what should be axiomatic to all in marketing- and adland. That it is much harder to change people’s behaviours than sustain them.

So when someone demands that the work not ‘alienate’ existing consumers, we don't need to assemble some emergency focus groups or churn out acres of Powerpoint rationale. The best thing we can do is to go back to the data and examine the recurring patterns in people’s purchase behaviours. And tell everyone to chill the f**k out.

So no more pusillanimous aiming for the middle.


Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘The discovery and use of laws of marketing’, International Journal of Market Research

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Towards an integrated theory of consumer, behaviour’, International Journal of Market Research, Vol. 38, No. 4, 1996

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘What brand loyalty can tell us’, Admap, October 2004, Issue 454

Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails

Charles Graham, ‘Is your brand’s share trying to tell you something?’ Market Leader, Quarter 1, 2010

Kathy Hammond and Andrew Ehrenberg , ‘The Case Against Price-related Promotions’, Admap, June 2001, Issue 418

Rachel Kennedy, Stephen Long and Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Competitive Brands' User–Profiles Hardly Differ’, Market Research Society Annual Conference, 2000

Rachel Kennedy and Colin McDonald, ‘How to measure ordinary marketing’, Admap, May 2004, Issue 450

Byron Sharp, ‘The only way to grow your brand’, Admap, April 2003, Issue 438

Byron Sharp and Kate Newstead ,‘Loyalty is not the Holy Grail’, Admap, September 2010

Byron Sharp, Monica Tolo and Amelia Giannopoulos, 'A differentiated brand should appeal to a special segment of the market... But it doesn't!'

William Moran, 'Brand presence and the perceptual frame'

Caroline Whitehall , ‘Inertia is good’, Admap, December 2005, Issue 467