The liberation of magic



“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. 

You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how far the rabbit hole goes”


There are many reasons why creativity is stymied, stifled or compromised. Since it is inevitably the output of partnership and collaboration not all of them will be within our power to shape or influence. But there are some things that are. And one of those is a lack of understanding about consumers actually choose and buy, and how brands actually compete and grow.

For it is perhaps no exaggeration to suggest that the general state of knowledge within the average creative agency as to, is riddled with rhetoric, superstition, assumption, and unexamined received wisdom.

This lack of understanding can hold  us back.  It can make us and our creative output hostage to the assumptions and prejudices of others. It can render us unable to make an informed and persuasive counterargument to some of the sillier things that creative is asked to accomplish.  Worst of all, it can undermine the effectiveness of our efforts.

Our ignorance or superstition notwithstanding, when it comes to the patterns and the nature of choice and preference, the structure and dynamics of markets and the mechanics of brand growth, the knowledge of How Things Work is plentiful. Indeed the body of evidence stretches back a full fifty years to the pioneering work of Professor Andrew Ehrenberg.

That body of evidence continues to be developed and expanded today by others – in particular the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, and the Ehrenberg Center for Research in Marketing at the London South Bank University. Yet while the work and its implications has had the public endorsement of the IPA, it would seem, it has yet to fully permeate the walls and minds of the creative community.

In part this may be because of the gulf that still separates academia and practitioners. Some divide of course is natural and to be expected. The critical theorist and the Hollywood film director after all, will in all likelihood occupy different professional milieus, have different preoccupations and probably speak a different language.

I am not going to review the evidence in detail. Others – most recently the marketing academic Byron Sharp in his bestselling How Brands Grow – have done that.

Rather, my purpose in what follows is to try and attempt to build a bit of a bridge between the two worlds, and to demonstrate the creative opportunity that a more informed and nuanced understanding of consumer behaviour and perceptions unlocks.

Much of what follows runs counter to the inherited (and deeply ingrained) wisdom of our industry.  Or at least that which is trumpeted most loudly. Indeed some people refuse outright to believe the findings. Some have even dismissed them as “black-box mumbo jumbo”.

And yet the data sources are both respectable and prosaic, being nothing more than purchase data from the likes of Nielsen, TNS, Dunhummby, and the odd brand image tracking study. There is no blackbox proprietary methodology.

So acknowledging my enormous debt to the work of Professor Ehrenberg, and to the work of Dr. Byron Sharp, Professor John Scriven and their colleagues, I’m going to dismantle three tenet or pieces of received wisdom that get in the way of creativity and success:

    1. The notion that the purpose of marketing is to create and sustain devoted love amongst consumers of our bran

    2. The idea that in pursuing this the task must be to convert consumers of a competitor brand to ours

    3. And the belief that one of the primary goals of communications in attracting and keeping consumers is to create differentiation

More importantly (and practically), I’ll try and  demonstrate the creative opportunity and advantage this opens up for us. Specifically I’ll try and show how:

    1. Letting go of the need for differentiation expands the scope for imagination and creativity immeasurably

    2. Understanding the importance of salience leads us to value brand energy/vividness more than the fantasy of improving ‘equity’ measures

    3. Appreciating the important of reach demands that both creative content and channel strategy work to scale our efforts and effects

    4. Recognizing the existence of polygamous loyalties puts the vague and new-fangled notion of ‘engagement’ into proper context

What follows might prove to be a bit of a bumpy ride. But the implications will liberate creative imaginations.

Part 1: 

Pursuing scale, not ‘Love’

The rhetoric of marketing has long argued for the importance – indeed the primacy – of pursuing loyalty. It’s riddled with the language of ‘fans’, ‘community’, ‘love’, ‘tribes’, and ‘commitment’. And in some quarters it goes so far as to argue that the purpose of marketing is create ‘loyalty beyond reason’. 

As an industry we like the idea that consumers are passionate about what we do. That they have strong feelings and strong loyalties towards what we make. Though in truth this may say more about our need to be significant and liked than it does about anything else.

This assumption has been compounded by technology which gives us all new ways of deepening people’s involvement and extending interaction with a campaign.  As a result, the rhetoric of loyalty is now interwoven with the newer (and far vaguer) rhetoric of ‘engagement’. 

The problem is that this rhetoric is empty, and unfounded in empirical evidence. More importantly, this rhetoric focuses marketing and communications on the wrong tasks.  Tasks that in general, marketing will fail at. For in the quest for ‘engagement’ and loyalty it risks underestimates the enduring and crucial importance of reach in sustaining and growing brands. And it misunderstands the real audience for creativity – and with it vastly underestimate the scale of challenge for creativity.

Most people aren’t devoted to brands

We might like to think that the purpose of marketing is to transform people into devoted followers of our brands, but most people are not exclusive loyalists. Brands aren’t composed of mutually exclusive tribes of buyers.

The reality is that people are are very happy to buy regularly from a range of brands. And this is reflected in buying patterns. Thus, brands share their customers with other brands – and they do so roughly in line with their market share.

So while people are habitual and they do have loyalties, they’re polygamous in their habits, dividing their loyalty across a number of brands.  Very few consumers are 100% loyal to a brand. People who buy Nike also buy Adidas, and people who buy Coca-Cola also buy Pepsi.

No category or brand escapes this phenomenon. In other words, loyalty is much more like an open marriage than one characterized by unwavering monogamy and devotion.

Fans matter less than we think

But the fans or heavy buyers of a brand buy more! I can hear some people say. True, heavy buyers by their very nature dobuy disproportionately more than the average buyer of a brand.

However, irrespective of the brand or category we find that there just aren’t that many of them. They’re in the minority. Contrary to received wisdom, the vast bulk of any brand’s user base is composed of light buyers.

For example, the average annual purchase frequency of Coca-Cola in the UK is just once. And the average annual purchase frequency of Pantene in the US is just 1.8.  And while most people buy a brand only occasionally, it’s because there are so many of these light buyers that they are so vital to a brand’s revenues.

Asking to increase purchase frequency by ‘just’ one more purchase in a year doesn’t sound much. But when most people don’t buy any given brand that often, this can amount to a very big increase. For example, in the case of Pantene it amounts to an increase of 55.6% in purchase frequency. Putting ourselves in the consumer’s shoes, that represents a very significant change in behaviour.

This is why increasing purchase frequency is so much harder than most marketers think. And why we see that marketing which seeks to increase penetration (i.e. acquire new buyers) is significantly more effective than marketing which seeks to increase loyalty amongst existing buyers.

Brands don’t get disproportionate loyalty

One of the most pernicious marketing myths is that some brands are a bit special.  These are the brands that we like to characterize as being like religions, cults or tribes. They’re the brands that we deem to be ‘iconic’, or call ‘passion brands’. We argue that they cultivate a devoted following of loyal and unwavering fans. Even that they command ‘loyalty beyond reason’. Except they don’t.  They’re not that much different from any other brand.

Brands don’t get ‘above average’ loyalty.  In any category brands don’t differ very much in terms of how much loyalty they get. Big brands get ever so slightly more loyalty than smaller brands.  But the big difference between brands is not how loyal their customers are. But how many customers they have. Success is driven by scale. Not ‘love’.

Now this might make some people distinctly uncomfortable. After all many of us like to believe that people really appreciate, like, and are interested in the fruits of all our hard work.

But they’re not into it that much. And it’s time we faced up to it. Because while this understanding may not give any of us a warm cosy, fuzzy feeling, pursuing its consequences is more likely to make us wealthy than ignoring it.

Most people aren’t that into brands

So most people aren’t devoted to any brand. People are habitual and do have loyalties. But they have divided  loyalties, purchasing from a variety of brands.

All this reminds us that most people out there in the real world – that is, people who don’t devote their entire working day thinking about them – don’t regard learning about brands as very important and really aren’t that into them.

One need only look at how much knowledge people have actually acquired about brands to understand that unlike ourselves in marketing- and adland, people in the real world are not avid students of brands.

For example, research has shown that just 20% of a brand’s customers hold about 40% of the image associations.  The other half of a brand’s knowledge is spread thinly across 80% of its customer base. And of course when non-users of the brand (but users of the category) are included in the analysis the pattern becomes even more pronounced.

Similarly, when one delves into Facebook’s ‘People Talking About This’ metric (PTAT) introduced by Facebook in October 2011, we see that most people are not interested in ‘engaging’ with brands. In any given week, less than 0.5% of Facebook fans engage with the brand they are fans of. In a study of 200 brands, only one showed a level of engagement over 2%, and only 10% of brands reached the 1% mark.

Reach and fame are vital

If we want to grow our brands, then we’re going to have to go beyond simply thinking in terms of ‘engaging’ our most loyal customers. For brands depend on the interest and purchases of the many more people who don’t know your brand well, aren’t devoted to your brand, and don’t purchase your brand at all, or that often.

Unlike existing buyers, these people will have fewer memories of your brand, they will be less likely to notice your advertising, and less likely to think of your brand in buying and consumption situations. They may not even know what you look like. Or indeed where to buy you.

So while technology gives us all new ways of deepening ‘engagement’ and extending interaction with a campaign, when it comes to growing brands the far less fashionable (but far more valuable) dimension of reach still matters.

Simply put, anything we do must scale. Size has not been supplanted by depth and intimacy. We must find ways of connecting big populations not just niche audiences and communities with our creative content. So recognizing which consumers actually matter to the generation of revenue teaches us the importance of fame. Creativity’s role is to achieve big effects.

Treating fans as actors, not the audience

The notion of brand ‘fan’ has entered marketing vernacular, but reacquainting ourselves with the enduring necessity of reach (however achieved) helps put this consumer into proper perspective.

We can treat fans as creative collaborators, noisy advocates, and distribution channels. But they are actors in our content, not its ultimate audience. Their participation is merely niche marketing unless it is overheard and witnessed by the mainstream.

This demands that we must find ways of enabling the enthusiasm of our fans to spill over into the populations who are less interested, whether it is through the nature of the creative content itself or the channel and distribution plan that feeds and surrounds it.

Indifferent demands the extraordinary

Understanding the nature of people’s purchase habits puts the significance of brands into their proper context.  For while we in marketing and adland spend the vast bulk of our waking lives thinking about brands and communications, just because it’s important to us doesn’t mean that it is equally important to people in the outside world.

We can talk all we want about the personal, psychological, social, and cultural role of brands, but what the data teaches us is that the real audience for our efforts consists of people who don’t know our brand very well (or at all), aren’t devoted to our brand, or don’t purchase it at all.  They will have few memories and associations for us to build upon, they aren’t very likely to notice our advertising, nor are they likely to think of our brand in buying and consumption situations.

These people are a far cry from the enthusiastic, devoted, active fan. Who cares about what we do. And who may even want to get involved themselves. No. These people – the vast majority of any category’s buyers – aren’t enthusiastic. Or involved. They’re generally indifferent.

We shouldn’t be put off by the the indifference of the masses. Quite the opposite. For while it’s arguably a crueler, more unforgiving world out there than the comforting rhetoric of ‘engagement’ suggests, none of this should prompt fits of morbid anxiety or professional self-doubt.  For it demands that our work be extraordinary. Creativity of any kind after all needs some form of resistance to ignite and inspire it, whether that’s the resistance of materials, media, form, genre or inherited expectations and practices. And so just as the engraver needs the resistance of the plate, we need the recognition that most people in the real world just aren’t that interested.

This, not attention, is the real barrier to our success. And that’s a far, far bigger hurdle to conquer.  As Jim Carroll of BBH has written, “Surely we can turn apathy, ennui and boredom into a positive force, a force for good. Would not an honest acceptance of the diminished role a brand or category plays in consumers’ lives encourage us to think harder about utility, experience and reward?”

It doesn’t take that much for creativity to please a devoted customer. They’re more likely to notice your advertising than non-customers.  They’re receptive to content that justifies their existing purchase behaviours and preferences.

But it takes a lot more if it is to capture the imaginations of those many more who don’t have strong feelings about us.  The story in the data is quite clear. In the battle against indifference, mediocrity has no role. Commercial success demands a very great deal from creativity.


Whatever fashionable or comforting rhetoric might exist in adland,  the notion that the purpose of marketing is to create and sustain devoted love amongst consumers of our brand is unsupported by data. Your brand is dependent on lots of light buyers, not ‘fans’.

So when it comes to communications, the task is not cultivating the enthusiasm of the few, but igniting the interest of the many. Maintaining and growing brands demands being interesting to lots of people who don’t know you very well (or at all), who aren’t very interested in you (or at all), and who don’t think of you very much (or at all). The creative bar is therefore higher than we might ever have imagined.

Understanding that the bulk of any brand’s revenues come not from a small number of fans, but this much broader base of lighter buyers – and that growth demands acquiring more of them – focuses us on the truth that successful marketing is dependent on achieving scale. So while technology allows us to create interactions that allow for greater consumer participation or ‘engagement’ than our inherited media, depth of experience has not supplanted reach as the driver of effectiveness. Both creative content and channel strategy must work to scale our efforts and effects.

Part 2: 

Nudging not ‘Converting’

Allied to the myth of loyalty is the myth that the purpose of marketing and communications to persuade people and convert them to our brand. In fact in some quarters, the belief is that advertising is by its very nature, persuasion.

This isn’t a helpful perspective. It feeds that idea that advertising exerts a ‘strong’ force on people’s behaviours – that it ‘makes’ people do things. 

And in doing so, it feeds the belief that advertising must contain persuasive messages – or winning arguments. 

It encourages short-termism (surely the scourge of all marketing) – persuasion is after all, immediate and lasting or it is nothing. And it legitimizes the prejudices and practices of those walking dinosaurs – the copytesters.

Brands don’t own customers

Next only to military language, marketing is riddled quasi-religious concepts and language. We talk of converts and followers. Zealots, belief, and devotion. We single out some lucky brands to be ‘icons’ that somehow transcend the ordinary, grubby world of markets and commerce. Like the military language that pervades marketing, it’s the language of conquest and ownership.

There is no evidence that advertising works by converting or persuading.  Whether it’s born of hubris or ignorance of the facts, the notion of creating passionate, committed and unwavering consumer devotion is nothing more than a marketing fiction.

As Professor Ehrenberg et al pointed out many years ago, if consumers had been strongly persuaded in the past, “there would be many near-100% loyal customers for each successful brand, and they would be important to its sales.”  But as I’ve argued above, few people remain exclusively loyal to any one brand.  Brands are largely composed not of loyalists, but of light buyers who brand the brand  – as well as competing brands – occasionally. Which means there’s no such thing as ‘[insert brand] consumer.’ Just buyers of another brand who sometimes buy you.

Those who argue otherwise reveal that they haven’t examined the empirical evidence. For the plain and simple fact is that people have split loyalties, and they follow a predictable pattern.

Brands share their customers with other brands, and do so more or less in line with market shares of those brands.  Put simply,  the buyers of any brand in a category are most likely to also buy the biggest brands in a given category. And they’re much less likely to also buy the smallest brands in the category. It’s what’s known as the ‘duplication of purchase’ law.

Wendy Gordon has written of how marketers often like to imagine the consumer in permanent orbit around their brand. But the fact of the matter is that people are happily polygamous in their brand ‘relationships’ for the simple reason that the choice between one brand and another is not that important.

If it’s interesting, it will be interesting for everyone

There’s one belief 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 toointeresting. From being too impactful, too stimulating. It results in the sort of work that aims squarely at the middle. At the average. Achieve the norm. But for heaven’s sake don’t exceed it too much. It will frighten people away.

Now 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.

But as we’ve seen, brands don’t ‘own’ any consumers. Nor are they built upon discreet, siloed, and loyal consumer bases that never interact with one another. The fact that buying one brand isn’t a barrier to buying any others – that all brands in any given category compete in a fairly predictable manner with each other, sharing their buyers with other brands should tell us that there’s little basis for worrying about ‘alienating’ consumers. And plenty of cause to be bold and courageous in our creative ambitions.

For 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 those people who are buying your brand. Or as Byron Sharp puts it, “being competitive means selling to ‘the market’, not a special segment.”

Success is not a one-off event

The understanding that customers regularly buy from a repertoire of brands highlights the fact that advertising isn’t a ‘strong’ force that persuades and converts people.

It doesn’t have to. Instead, advertising works as a weak force. It works by nudging existing buyers’ likelihood to keep buying it as one of several options. Or it nudges non-buyers people to add it as an extra item in their repertoire, or as a substitute. But this is usually more a case of trying out, of testing driving, or of novelty-seeking than some kind of Damascene act of conversion.

And of course competitor brands will be trying to do exactly the same thing.  And that means there will be an continuous need for active brand maintenance.  For as we’ve seen, people people know that brands in any given category are broadly similar and few have strong and unique attachments.

Short-term thinking is one of the greatest scourges in marketing and communication. Understanding that the role of advertising is to keep nudging people, rather than convert them in a one-off act, reminds us that the real economic power of advertising is felt over the longer term.

What all this means is that advertising is not a one-off cost, as some would treat it. It’s a long-term investment in the health of a brand. Buyer data teaches us to to think long-term.  And to invest in creativity over the long-term.


In place of advertising operating as a ‘strong’ force that converts consumers, we should be thinking of it as ‘weak’ one, nudging people’s purchase behaviours, keeping our brand in the repertoires, or nudging it into people’s repertoires. Obviously this effect doesn’t work in isolation – competitors are also exercising this nudging influence.

When so much of marketing is short-term in its horizons, this perspective underlines the fact that advertising’s real effects are felt in the long-term. For brands to survive and prosper, they require long-term commitment. They require long-term financial investment. And they require a commitment to creative excellence.

Part 3: 

Pursuing salience, not ‘differentiation’

One of the central tenets of marketing is that in the battle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of customers, differentiation matters. A lot. Indeed it’s hard to find a marketer or marketing text that doesn’t argue in its favour.  But it isn’t helpful.

It leads to marketers and agencies stretching truth, credibility and relevance in the quest for something that the competition cannot, or does not. It leads to the insistence that this differentiation be based only upon tangible and functional characteristics. It leads to ideas being dismissed because “anybody could do that.” A tragically tedious argument at the best of times. 

It leads to the assumption that the purpose of this differentiation is that people will choose our brand to the exclusion of all others.  

And it leads to the insistence that the role of creativity is that people come to believe that our brand really is very different from the competition.  

The insistence that creativity’s role is to be a driver of difference both misunderstands how creativity works, and sorely misses out on creative opportunity.

Brands don’t ‘own’ anything important

Brand image tracking is good at giving us the impression that brands are indeed different.

But a key factor that distinguishes brands with high brand image scores is not the depth of the positive disposition towards the brand. Big brands simply have more users. And users are more likely to give any kind of response in these surveys.

So what distinguishes big brands in these kinds of surveys is not the depth of brand equity, but simply the number of people who have any mental associations with the brand at all.

There is another recurring phenomenon – known as ‘prototypicality’ – in brand image data. Responses don’t just vary according to size of brand. Responses also vary according to the attribute. Some attributes contribute more to category membership than others. That is, they represent those essential qualities that are needed to be part of any category or market.

So usage effect is reflected in the number of responses for each brand and prototypicality is reflected in the number of responses for each attribute.

And here’s the thing. When you factor out both brand size and prototypicality (the maths is hardly complicated), we find that brand images don’t differ that much from each other.

Positioning theory argues that brands must develop and maintain  points of differentiation and uniqueness. And who has not been in a strategy meeting which has centered around what our brand can ‘own’?  Yet the data repeatedly shows that if a characteristic matters in a category, it is shared by brands. Indeed, brands share characteristics more so than they exhibit marked differences.

Most people don’t know much about a brand

As we saw earlier, knowledge about a brand  – the root of any positioning – is not held uniformly by all buyers. A minority of a brand’s users account for half of brand knowledge, with the remainder spread thinly across the majority of its user base.

In other words, while some people know a lot about a brand, most of a brand’s users  will know little. Which somewhat undermines the notions of brands having clear-cut positionings in people’s minds.

Most people don’t have fixed perceptions of brands

If we were successful in creating clearly differentiated brands, we could expect to find that we were building enduring brand perceptions. That is, at an individual level what people think of a brand relative to its competitors would not vary dramatically over time.

However, the kinds of surveys that monitor people’s brand perceptions tend to interview a different group of individuals with each wave of interviewing. And these give the illusion that an individual’s brand perceptions are generally fairly stable.

But far from having fixed perceptions of brands, people’s views of brands are in fact very far from stable and vary across time.

Repeat responses – that is the proportion of people attributing an image attribute to the same brand on subsequent interview occasions ranges between 40% to 60%.  And the 50% who do not give the same answer as last time associate the attribute with some other brand.

What this means is that we should stop thinking of brands as ‘things’ in people’s brains, etched in, permanent, and enduring. Rather, brands must be constructed and reconstructed each time from all the myriad of associations in the mind.

And whether these associations are triggered and assembled is – like any memory – a matter of cues, circumstances, and indeed luck.

All of which feels very far removed from the notion of creating enduring ‘positionings’ in people’s minds.

Brand positioning doesn’t lead to exclusive relationships

The argument for differentiation tells us that it makes it hard to substitute with other brands. And that as a result, well-differentiated brands enjoy a more loyal customer base. However, irrespective of the category one looks at, despite the rhetoric of fans, zealots, engagement and the like, loyalty levels in fact differ little between brands.

Furthermore, people are polygamous in their loyalties.  People are quite happy to spread their purchases across competing brands – Nike buyers are happy to also buy Adidas, and Pepsi buyers are happy to also buy Coca-Cola.

The purpose of differentiation – offering something that the competition does not – is surely to render brands non-substitutable.  But people quite clearly find competing brands to be acceptable substitutes.

Creating mental presence

So if positioning and differentiation isn’t the driver of purchase preference, then what is? Contrary to the theory of brand positioning, there is a good amount of evidence that suggest that people don’t have to think of a brand as being different to come to buy it.  They just have to think, feel and remember something about it at all. This has been characterized as brand ‘salience’ – or the creation of mental ‘presence’ or ‘availability’.

It helps to think about salience as the ‘size’ of a brand in people’s minds. Being salient requires both quantity (how many) and quality (how fresh and relevant) of brand information in memory. It requires that this brand information be prominent in the memory, and that this memory content is easily accessed when triggered by purchase or consumption cues.

In this way, salience drives the probability that in purchase and consumption a brand will be recalled early in a consumer’s consideration set, under a variety of purchase and consumption situations, via a variety of stimuli, and – since all brands must contend with the presence of competing brands – to the exclusion of other brands.

Creative publicity, not ‘messaging’

Once we get out of the confines of the ‘messaging’ model of advertising, the creative palette expands.  Indeed, Ehrenberg and his colleagues long ago provided us with a brief and useful (though by no means exhaustive) taxonomy of the ways in which advertising can publicize a brand – and which suggests that there is by no means a one-size-fits-all solution:

We can simply proclaim the brand. This is simply advertising which declares the existence of the brand

We can declare the brand‘s membership of a product category.  Many advertisements in effect say the brand is an example of the product category. And if we think of brand salience as being the propensity of the brand to be thought of in buying situations, then making this connection is not as facile as might be thought.

Advertising claims (such as “The world’s favourite airline”) may appear to be promises of superiority, but in the light of people’s perceptions of brands and the fact that they still buy other brands as well, in reality they probably simply work as an interesting statement of category membership.

We can present the brand in some creatively memorable, yet often fairly meaningless way. Neither mints with holes nor meerkats are relevant or useful in making a purchase decision. But in the quest for salience, they do publicize, magnify and make interesting and memorable a truth about the brand or product (it’s got a hole in it, or it sort of rhymes with ‘market’).

We can appeal to the  emotions. Publicity can appeal to people’s emotions and values. It might not persuade anybody of anything, but it can be intensely memorable.

We can give people a ‘reason’ to buy. There is advertising which ostensibly gives people a reason to buy. But again, how it appears to work may not be how it actually works. Thus, most drinkers are unlikely to believe that Carlsberg really is the best lager in the world or that Heineken really does refresh the parts other beers can’t reach. But as they point out, saying ‘Better’ or ‘Best’ keeps the brand in front of the public.

Don’t fear the generic

The generic gets a bad name. How many times has a strategy been rejected because it is ‘generic’ to the category, because it isn’t differentiated? Or ‘ownable’? But the truth of the matter is that brands really don’t ‘own’ anything at all. If it’s meaningful and relevant to people, other brands will own it too. The competition isn’t for difference. But for memory.

And if brand salience is the propensity of the brand to be thought of (at all) in buying or consumption situations, we’ll need to spend more more time thinking about how we can transform what might have been dismissed as generic category motivations or undifferentiated product attributes into something truly interesting, memorable and of course attached to our brand.

It’s what we do with the generic that makes the difference.  The scope for insight and imagination is bigger than the insistence that advertising works through ‘messaging’ allows.

Treat difference as a jumping off point 

As we’ve seen, differences in brand image will tend to be small.  But while they may not be sources of significant differentiation, they may give us valuable starting points for developing communication strategies rooted in truths and perceptions about the brand.

So while they are be unlikely to be noticed by or to matter to consumers, even small differences can provide valuable creative fuel and inspiration.


If our task is to build both the quantity and the quality of the network of brand information in memory, or the brand’s ‘share of mind’ – to make it salient or interesting in purchase or consumption occasions, then we’re going to have to place a rather different emphasis on which inputs we value.

We’ll need to do a better job at understanding what the map of people’s existing mental associations around a brand looks like.  And that certainly means a less naive approach to analyzing brand image data. Although given how little brands differ and how stable perceptions are at aggregate level, we could probably spend less time and money poring over them.

If brand salience is the propensity of the brand to be thought of (at all) in buying or consumption situations, we’ll need to spend more more time thinking about how we can transform what might have been dismissed as generic category motivations or undifferentiated product attributes into something not differentiated but truly interesting, memorable and of course attached to our brand.

The argument in favour of mental availability or salience doesn’t negate the importance of relevance (I’ll avoid saying ‘insight’). Quite the opposite in fact. Rather than spend all that time noodling brand onions and agonizing over the largely irrelevant nuance of ‘difference’ between our brand and the competition, we should be spending far more time thinking about what people are interested in, and work back from that to our brand. And that demands a more rigorous, nuanced, and imaginative approach than all the psycho-babble, or patronizing simplifications that run through too much of so-called consumer segmentation work.

The belief that one of the primary means by which communications attracts and retains consumers is through the creation of differentiation is ill-founded. The nudging of consumers works primarily through creating salience rather than the imparting of differentiating messages.

Finally, the perspective that salience is about creating a network of easily accessed, category-relevant associations in the mind gets us out of the ‘messaging’ rut.

Focusing too much on the idea or the message as a single-minded verbal construct at the heart of what we make vastly overestimates the degree to which people respond to the verbal, the abstract and the intellectual dimensions of what we create.

Moreover, it encourages the notion that we have some semblance of control over what people do with our communications. It encourages the notion that we’re surgically inserting something precise and well-defined into people’s brains.

And in doing so, it obscures the crucial distinction between stimulus and response. It allows us to believe that in crafting the stimulus we are crafting, managing and controlling the response. We can be focused, single-minded and pithy all we like in how we express and define our ideas.  But it is an utter fool’s errand to expect people in the real world to be equally as focused, single-minded and pithy in how they respond and decode what we put out into the world.

Understanding that our task is to build both the quantity and the quality of the network of brand information in memory underscores the fact that that advertising’s real work lies in its aesthetic wholes, and that it operates larges silently, through its codes and signals.

Treating creativity merely as a means of tricking or bribing the viewer into paying attention to the message within it profoundly undervalues and undermines the both the nature and the value of creativity. Creativity isn’t some kind of distraction tactic, bait or bribe. It isn’t a wrapper or envelope for a message. It IS the content.

Recognizing our task as being the creation of networks of associations encourages to  embrace the fact that however tightly you might manage the stimulus, people’s responses to it simply cannot be controlled. We should stop expecting precision in people’s responses, and instead expect them to be fuzzy, general, and messy.

In considering how people will respond to what you make, we should abandon the distinction between ‘form’ and ‘content’, or between ‘execution’ and ‘message’.  The details of execution are not the merely window-dressing for a message.  They are the content. And as such deserve the investment of talent, time and money.

Part 4: Making Progress

What we know

Decades of data has given us a body of knowledge.  In contrast to much of the rhetoric, hearsay and received wisdom that flows through the hallways and conversations of adland, it is knowledge. Founded upon robust empirical data.  And this is what we know:

We know that advertising sustains and grows brands primarily through expanding their scale, not the  ‘love’ people have for them

We know that advertising exerts its influence on consumers as a weak – not strong – force, nudging existing buyers’ likelihood to keep buying a brand as one of several, or nudging non-buyers people to add it to their existing repertoires

We know that this nudging of consumers works primarily through creating salience rather than the imparting of differentiating messages. 

This cries out for a different perspective on what we make, and on how it actually works:

In place of difference, we should be thinking of salience

In place of creating deep affinity or love,  scale

And in place of effecting conversion, we should be thinking in terms of sustained nudging

If one had to reduce all this down to something, we might argue that we should be seeking to create and sustain momentum, energy, or dynamism for our brands.

Resistance (invariably expressed as indignation rather than reasoned argument) is to be expected. The idea that intimacy has not supplanted the necessity for reach will undoubtedly unnerve those in thrall to the twin metaphors of brand-as-person and brand-as-relationship. Not least of all because it challenges both the industry of marketing advice books, and our own sense of virtue, value, and significance. And the idea that advertising is a ‘weak’ force will surely disappoint those who’d prefer marketing to be a more powerful, macho affair.  Or who still believe that people are rational and advertising’s workings logical and linear.

Yet the truth of the matter is that none of this is a new discovery. The best advertising has always worked in this way. But most advertising isn’t good. Let alone great. Consciously or unconsciously it  assumes its role to bludgeon the consumer into submission.  It tries to argue the consumer into purchase.   It tries – with varying degrees of heavy-handedness – to reason the hapless audience into some kind of Damascene-like conversion. It has no interest in speaking to what interests the consumer. Its starting point is itself, rather than the passions, concerns and inclinations of its audience. It is, I suspect, born a prisoner of marketing superstition, labouring under over a century of inherited and ill-informed ‘wisdom’.

And today we can add a new category of failed marketing.  That which is so in love with the idea of the customer as a ‘fan’, fixated on notions of intimacy and the new ways we can connect people to our ideas that it forgets the older but still powerful concept of reach.

Technology has changed everything about our world. And nothing at all. The fundamentals of human nature have not changed. Similarly, the dynamics of brands, and markets have not changed. So whatever else might have changed, the fundamentals of marketing communications remain:

Be interesting

Be memorable

Scale it

Sustain it

If we – as both clients and agencies – are to stimulate great creativity that works, then this is an agenda we need to take seriously, and to heart.

We have got to start letting go of our reliance on unhelpful metaphors, accommodate ourselves to the fact that brands really don’t matter that much to people in the real world, and get to grips the data that matters, not merely the data that’s easy to monitor.

Escaping the curse of metaphor

Ever since Ernest Dichter introduced the world to the notion of brands having unique personalities, we have been an industry in thrall to the metaphor of ‘relationship’. The language of ‘commitment’, ‘community’, ‘bonding’, ‘relationship’, ‘passion’ and even (most bafflingly of all) ‘love’, are hard to escape for long.

The language we choose matters because it not only reveals our patterns of thought, but because it actually shapes our expectations, perceptions, and behaviours. And this kind of language is the language of commitment, of long-term relationships. It’s the language of steady partners and marriages. Some take it further and insist that brands can actually inspire love in people.

Perhaps this language is attractive because it gives us the feeling that we are not in the grubby business of selling people anything, but rather in the wonderful, nurturing business of creating warm and loving relationships.

Aristotle believed there to be three types of friendship: those of pleasure, those of usefulness, and true friendship. If we’re going to insist on the metaphor of relationship, let’s at least be clear what kind of relationship it is.

“Those who love each other for their utility,” Aristotle maintained, “do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.”

The metaphor of a relationship based on utility obviously has applicability to marketingland. Both parties are seeking gain. The consumer the satisfaction of his or her needs and wants. And the brand owner money in return for satisfying them.

The metaphor of friendships of pleasure too has some pertinence to how we use and experience brands. Whether our favourite brand of ice-cream is Haagen Daz or Ben & Jerry’s, we’re unlikely  to worry whether our pleasure and gratification has been reciprocated.  What matters is that pleasure was taken.

But beyond this, we should beware lest our metaphor run out of control. We cannot afford for the language and practice of of ‘interaction’, ‘participation’, ‘community’ and so on lead us to mistake metaphor for fact, and with it the degree of attachment people feel towards brands.

Let us not pretend that people’s interactions with the tangibles and intangibles of brands even begin to approximate the nature of our most meaningful relationships. For overestimating the depth of people’s involvement with brands takes our eyes off where both current and future sales revenue comes from. And our jargon fails us if it leads us to forget that the primary task of communications is not stoking the fires of passion amongst fans, but nudging the behaviour of the largely indifferent.

Putting brands in context

Our work as in communications is for nothing unless it stimulates a response.  And in this, our greatest obstacle is not attention, but interest. Yet as the fantasy writer Joan Vinge has written: “Indifference is the strongest force in the universe.  It makes everything meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it.” Similarly, in a speech he gave at the White House in 1999, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel said: “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end.”

Given that thinking about brands consumes the majority of our waking lives, it is perhaps not surprising that we would want to think and believe that the output of our endeavours is of  very great interest to the people to whom we seek to appeal. Indeed the line of argument and rhetoric goes as far as to argue that we are capable of evoking love for our brands in the minds of our audience.

Yet while this notion might see us through the long working day, the behavioural data speaks loud and clear.  Irrespective of the category we examine, we see that the vast majority of buyers are in fact not loyal to a single brand.  Devoted loyalty – borne of the belief that other brands just aren’t as good, or just aren’t the same – does not exist. Instead, consumers are perfectly happy to buy from a repertoire of brands.

The conclusion from this is inescapable. If people treat brands as more or less substitutable, then their choice of brand cannot not matter that much to them.  This is reflected in brand image data – for strip away the effects of both usage and prototypicality, and we see that brands really are not that much different from each other.

However much discomfort and worry this might cause some of us, the recognition that people aren’t that interested in brands is a far more realistic and better starting point for our endeavours.

Measuring the right things

The data holds implications not just for our creative product, but for how we evaluate it. For if brand image doesn’t change dramatically over the long-term, if the differences between brands are more often than not minimal, and if the big shifts in brand image are more likely to be driven by expanding the user base than by the effects of communications then surely we must question the scale of investment that goes into monitoring these differences and movements. And we should surely subject to a little more scrutiny demands that we be held accountable to key performance indicators asking for significant shifts in brand image or ‘equity’.

Rather than continue to insist on tinkering with brand image data of questionable value, perhaps we should be devoting more of our investment and energies into exploring how we might begin to measure salience. Given that it is by its very nature a complex, multi-dimensional construct and works at point of purchase or consumption, devising a useful and accurate methodology would be more than a little challenging.  But perhaps one that the research industry might more seriously want to address if its methodologies are to be properly reflective of how people actually behave, choose, and buy.

Of course we’ve been measuring brand image for decades. But today we have many more things we can count. Searches, likes, visits, page views, forwarding, referring, clicking, friending, +1-ing, playing, reading, posting, printing, downloading, opening promotional e-mails, completing a survey, blogging, reviewing, recommending, rating, creating, discussing, uploading, joining a group, installing a widget, downloading an app, bookmarking, subscribing, posting, watching…  Never in the course of human history have our daily habits, interactions, interests, desires,  distractions and behaviours left behind them such a trail of evidence and data.

Many of these things are easy to identify. Many of them require no research investment to monitor. And they are often highly response  – and easily attributable – to communications activity.  Not surprisingly we like to count them. What agency case study has not trumpeted seemingly impressive social media numbers?

But if we’re to be credible solvers of our clients’ business challenges, and not mere execution vendors (and thus peripheral and undervalued) then we are going to finally have to reconcile ourselves to the imperative that we must spend as much time with purchase and consumption data as we do with all the newer metrics we now have at our disposal. Media data is but one – albeit vital – part of the picture.

Our task after all, is not merely the achievement of communications exposure and interaction, but the shaping of preference and behaviour. Since it is that, which is the ultimate driver of our clients’ short- and longterm cashflows.

So by all means let’s monitor the new data sources and flows. But anybody who believes they shape communications strategy and cannot grasp that our task is helping our clients make money, who finds shopper data too tedious to bother with, who doesn’t know how to make sense of say, a Nielsen or TNS report, and who cannot grasp the difference between counting and analysis should be asked to leave our profession.  They are peddlers of bimbo strategies, bring the rest of us into disrepute, and limit our room for creative maneuver.

Part 5: 

Liberating creativity

Ten years ago Andrew Ehrenberg and his colleagues published a seminal paper – ‘Brand Advertising As Creative Publicity’ – in the august pages of the Journal of Advertising Research.  It is worth quoting at length from their conclusions:

“Some people fear that this ‘mere publicity’ stance is unhelpful to creatives. But we suggest that the exact opposite is the case. Advertising a better mousetrap is fairly easy if it is in fact a bit better. One can, for instance, just say so. But having to center your advertising on adding year after year some indiscernible ‘Whiter and Brighter’ product-boon can restrict the kind of creativity that aims at memorable impacts for the brand. In contrast, publicizing a brand gives ample scope for imaginative insights (‘The Big Idea’) and for disciplined marketing communication skills (‘Always Coca-Cola’). This can stimulate creativity, that is, making distinctive and memorable publicity for the brand out of next to nothing. This seems the hallmark of good advertising as we know it. We think still that advertising a competitive brand means just ‘Telling a brand story well’, without there being just one solution. There is huge scope – the campaign need not be hemmed in by the brand’s ‘selling proposition.’”

Professor Ehrenberg made no claim to being an expert on creativity. He was a statistician by trade (his Primer in Data Reduction is still in print) and came to be a marketing scientist. He dealt with data. Nonetheless, he recognized the creative opportunity that a real understanding of how people chose and bought opened up. It’s time that we ourselves as advertising practitioners starting opening up that opportunity for ourselves.

The opportunity that this perspective opens up is vast. Instead of the deadening and stifling assumptions that we must ‘persuade’ people, that they’re looking for ‘reasons to believe’, that we must offer something that ‘differentiates’ us from the competition, we are now set upon a properly imaginative journey, to find what is interesting, exciting and memorable that (crucially) we can connect in the memory with our brand.

So we should embrace the magic that is at the heart of so much of what we do. For we are not hidden ‘persuaders’. Or even partially glimpsed persuaders.

We never we were in the persuasion business. Nor are we in the ‘message’ business.  We are publicists. And our true contribution lies in the transformation of the generic, the un-ownable, and the otherwise meaningless into something compelling, interesting, memorable, and yes, useful for consumers.  And if that’s not magic, it’s hard to know what is.\

Marketing science – and with it the creative potential it releases – is far too important to be left to marketing scientists alone.


Part 1 Pursuing scale, not 'Love'

Les Binet and Peter Field, Marketing in the Era of Accountability

John Dawes, ‘Brand loyalty in the UK sportswear market’, International Journal of Advertising Research, vol. 51, No. 4, 2009

Mark Earls, Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, Business, and the Death of Marketing

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Repetitive advertising and the consumer’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40, No. 6, November/December 2000

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘What Brand Loyalty Can Tell Us’, Admap, October 2004, Issue 454

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

McDonald and John Scriven, ‘Why marketing needs marketing science’, Admap, October 2006, Issue 476

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

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

Jaywant Singh, Chris Hand, Hsin Chen, ‘Differentiation in a branded commodity category: Tapping into behavioural data’, Kingston University

Part 2 - Creating salience, not 'Differentiation'

Jennifer L. Aaker, ‘Dimensions of Brand Personality’, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. XXXIV (August 1997)

Neil Barnard, Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Advertising and Brand Attitudes’

Tim Bock, ‘Improving the display of correspondence analysis using moon plots’, International Journal of Market Research, 53, 2011

Jim Carroll, ‘Is That All There Is?’,

S.B. Castleberry, N. Barnard, T. Barwise, A. Ehrenberg, F. Dall’Olmo Tiley, ‘Individual attitude variations over time’, Journal of marketing management, 10, 1994

Martin Collins, ‘Analyzing Brand Image Data’, Marketing Learnings 8 (March 2002)

John Dawes, ‘Brand loyalty in the UK sportswear market’, International Journal of Advertising Research, vol. 51, No. 4, 2009

John Dawes, ‘Predictable Patterns in buyer behaviour and brand metrics: implications for brand managers’, in M.D. Uncles ed., Perspectives on Brand Management

Mark Earls, Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, Business, and the Death of Marketing, 2002

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, Rachel Kennedy, Helen Bloom, ‘Brand Advertising As Creative Publicity’, Journal of Advertising Research: Vol. 42, No. 4, July/August 2002

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, John Scriven, ‘Differentiation or Salience’, Journal of Advertising Research, November/December 1997

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Repetitive advertising and the consumer’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40, No. 6, November/December 2000

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘What Brand Loyalty Can Tell Us’, Admap, October 2004, Issue 454

Peter Field, ‘The creation of buzz and fame’, Admap, April 2008, Issue 493

Chris Forrest, ‘Brand Onions and other barriers to creativity, Market Leader, Spring 2007, Issue 36

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

Lawrence Green, ‘In search of the new creative idea’, Campaign 28th September 2007

Robert Heath, ‘Low Involvement Processing – a New Model of Brands and Advertising’, International Journal of Advertising, Vol. 19. No.3, 2000

Robert Heath, ‘Low-Involvement Processing Part one: A neuroscientific explanation of how brands work’, Admap, March 2000

Robert Heath, ‘Low-Involvement Processing Part 2: Seven new rules for evaluating brands and their communication’, Admap, April 2000

Robert Heath, ‘How The Best Ads Work’, Admap, April 2002, Issue 427

Robert Heath, 'Ah Yes, I Remember It Well!', Admap May 2004, Issue 450

Robert Heath, ‘Emotional Persuasion’, Admap, July/August 2006, Issue 474

Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick, ‘Fifty years using the wrong model of advertising’,  International Journal of Market Research Vol. 50, No. 1, 2008

Alan Hedges, Testing to Destruction, 1974

Nigel Hollis, ‘It Is Not a Choice: Brands Should Seek Differentiation and Distinctiveness’, Millward Brown Points of View, April 2011

Jean-Noël Kapferer, Strategic brand management: Creating and sustaining brand equity long term, 2004

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

McDonald and John Scriven, ‘Why marketing needs marketing science’, Admap, October 2006, Issue 476

William Moran, ‘Brand Presence And The Perceptual Frame’, Journal of Advertising Research, October/November 1990

Rosser Reeves, Reality In Advertising, 1961

F. Dall’Olmo Roley, Andrew Ehrenberg, S.B. Castleberry, T. P. Barwise, Neil Barnard, ‘The variability of attitudinal repeat-Rates’, International Journal of Research in Marketing, 14, 1997

Christoper Riquier, Byron Sharp, ‘Image Measurement and the Problem of Usage Bias’, 26th EMAC Conference, The University of Warwick, Warwick Business School, U.K., 20-23 May

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Evidence concerning the importance of perceived brand differentiation, Australasian Marketing Journal 15 92), 2007

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Where knowledge of your brand resides: the Pareto share of brand knowledge’, in Report 44 for Corporate Sponsors, 2008, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Using known patterns in image data to determine brand positioning’, international journal of market research, Vol. 42, No.2, 2000

Jenni Romanuik, Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Do brands lack personality?’ Report 14 for Corporate Members, March 2003

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience’, Marketing Theory, Volume 4(4), 2004

Francesca Roley, Lucy Rink, Patricia harris, ‘Patterns of attitudes and behaviour in fragmented markets, Journal of Empirical Generalisations’, Marketing Science, Volume 4, 1999

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, 2011

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

Jaywant Singh, Chris Hand, Hsin Chen, ‘Differentiation in a branded commodity category: Tapping into behavioural data’, Kingston University

Alan Swindells, ‘The invisible mechanics of consumption’, Market Research Society annual conference, 2000

Julian Viecli, Robin Shaw, ‘A Model of Brand Salience’, in Mark Uncles, ed. Perspectives on Brand Management, 2011

Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, Don D Jackson: Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interractional Patterns, Pathologies, And Paradoxes

Maxwell Winchester, Byron Sharp, ‘Arguments against brand positioning’, Marketing Science Centre, University of South Australia

Part 3 - Nudging buyers, not 'Converting'

Neil Barnard and Prof Andrew S C Ehrenberg, ‘Advertising: Strongly Persuasive or Nudging?’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 37, No. 1, January/February 1997