Thank you, Professor Sharp. Yes, thank you.

by Nigel Hollis | January 25, 2017

Recently, Mark Ritson wrote a piece in Marketing Week titled, “We should thank Byron Sharp, not attack him.”  And I think Ritson is right, we do need to thank Professor Sharp. We do not have to agree on everything, but in laying out some fundamental truths about how marketing works Sharp is laying the ground for real progress in how marketing is practiced.


One of the fundamental problems with the practice of marketing is that too much of it is done on the basis of gut feel and hearsay, and not enough on proven and well-established learning. This is particularly true of advertising where practitioners seem to believe that ‘creativity’ lies outside the scope of any generalization. So, if Professor Sharp has been instrumental in convincing marketers that there are consistent and replicable ways in which marketing works to build sales, good on him.

If you think this is a complete 180 on my behalf then you have not been paying attention to previous posts (this one for instance). My main frustration with Professor Sharp’s laws is that they do not cover more ground. His generalizations tend to focus on the creation of volume market share, and are not concerned with the value those sales create. Brands exist to make profit, not just sell more stuff; and one of the main ways they do so is by commanding a price premium.

Let’s quickly review three of Sharp’s basic tenets:

  1. Brands should “continuously reach all buyers of the category”. Agreed. I doubt there are many brands in the world that could not benefit from increased penetration through targeting light and non-buyers.
  2. Brands should create and maintain distinctive brand assets. Agreed. If you want your brand to get noticed on a crowded shelf or web page it had better stand out from the crowd.
  3. Brands need to be salient in relation to specific needs, occasions and contexts. Agreed. Mental availability (coupled with physical availability) is the key growth driver for most brands.

Any marketer who works toward achieving these goals will likely grow their volume market share. However, I do think that the mental and physical availability model is too limited. All the data I see finds that a brand cannot command a price premium without being perceived as different from the alternatives by potential buyers. Neither book really addresses the issue of how brands command a price premium. And yet there is ample evidence to suggest that this is how brands really make money. Not by selling more stuff to more people, but by selling it at a better margin. A good example is found in the 2016 IPA Awards where Guinness aimed to reduce price elasticity and reversed its value market share decline.

Last and probably least is the whole issue of brand liking or affinity (please, not love). If a brand evokes an instinctive, positive response then it is more likely to be chosen than one that does not. This is response may in large part be guided by experience but marketing can help boost that response. Creating engaging and likeable content is one way of doing so. The IPA Awards 2016 Grand Prix winning campaign from John Lewis aimed to increase brand salience (John Lewis equals Christmas gift giving) but also had the objective of deepening brand affection. It succeeded on both counts and John Lewis sales outpaced both retail and online sales between 2012 and 2015.

So do I agree with Professor Sharp? Yes I do. Do I believe his viewpoint on what makes effective marketing is limited? Yes I do. What do you think? Please share your thoughts.


Leave a comment
  1. Masum Villah, January 29, 2017
    I like it.
  2. Sylvain Desfosses, January 28, 2017

    Hi Bryan,

    A last comment about your observation on global consumption. Global consumption have nothing to do with a man's POV. Many economic factors explain a global consumption. Sharp's doctrine is not necessary applied by the majority of the players in the FMCG field. I think you take a short-cut that is not fair. For the segmentation question, imagine that the users of the category (light/moderate/heavy) represent 10% of the population of a specific market. Now imagine that you can build a smart segmentation that can reach 17% of the population (not only 10%). To me, it's a good way to increase penetration. I'm not sure that in this case, Sharp will be desagree. The problem is when the segmentation reach less that the total category (5% for example). In many cases, this is the reason why segmentation doesn't work effectively. An other reason why segmentation doesn't work is the quality of the studies. I like the suggestions of the author of the book THE BRANDED MIND about segmentation (read the page 219 to 221). Good segmentation follow a rigorous protocol and I suspect that the Sharp's observations are the mirror of the bad segmentations that possibly prevail.

  3. Sylvain Desfosses, January 28, 2017

    Hi Bryan,

    Firstly, I'm really interesting to know all your sources, please. Secondly, I understand your point. Even if I think Sharp is right, I already have the same intuition concerning penetration. Yes, maybe it's an outcome, not a strategy. But the problem is that REACH is a real strategy (even if you like it or not) and without reach it's very difficult to increase penetration. If a brand is the first in a (broad) category, it's a good way to achive penetration quickly. But it's not always a strategy. It's sometime an business opportunity. When you talk about segmentation, I think that Sharp's POV is deliberately exagerated to strike the marketer. A good Sharp's quote about segmentation (not sure that's the exact formulation) : ''segmentation is like salt in a meal. Use it carefully, without excess.''

    Note : English is not my mother tongue. French is my mother tongue. So sorry, if my english sound special. :)

  4. Missing user, January 27, 2017

    Hi Nitya,

    Just saw your question. I think there is no simple answer to this one. Depends on the category, the brand, the individual, the purchase situation!

    Our emotional response always influences what we do but how much it does so and whether it is the final decision maker varies. Particularly for habitually purchased goods then recognition will trigger an instinctive positive response for a buyer and that's that, little conscious thought involved. However, when they don't see their brand, or needs change, price changes, or whatever, then the same person may stop for a second and think a bit more about their purchase. You might remember the classic example of Tropicana losing sales after a pack change. People could not easily recognize their usual brand and so were forced to look for it and in the process noticed new alternatives to try. And then there is the case of "riskier" purchases. Even though the instinctive reaction still helps guide decision making people are going to put more conscious thought into choosing a bank, buying a car or a vacation.

    My conclusion? Make sure your brand is easily recognized and associated with positive ideas and feelings. Those associations help fuel the instinctive response and will be ready to influence more conscious thought when the need arises.

    Hope that helps!

  5. Nigel, January 27, 2017

    Thanks for the comments.

    Looks like you got cut off short there, Bryan, but you offer an intriguing viewpoint. I do think there is a risk that if everyone pursues the same strategy and without real focus on what they need to achieve then no one wins. To my mind it comes back to the question of how you build penetration. Segmentation and focusing on one segment, then another, then another is a perfectly viable way to build penetration provided you can do so under the same brand positioning. You might want to check out this post and the accompanying comments.


  6. Nitya , January 27, 2017
    Thanks for sharing... one of the other shifts in consumer behaviour being talked about is a move from consumers think - feel and then do to consumers now do then feel and then think... what's your POV on this ? 
  7. Erik du Plessis, January 26, 2017
    Well said.
  8. Sylvain Desfosses, January 25, 2017

    Maybe some responses will come from the next Byron Sharp book. Scientific laws take time to be discover because they must be replicated many times in different contexts. But one way to creating engaging and likeable content is by the use of strong emotions. The book VIRAL MARKETING - The science of Sharing (Karen Nelson-Field) is perhaps a start. This book is sponsored by Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and with Byron Sharp supervision. The author reveal that there's more high-arousal positive emotions with great branding execution behind viral success. 

    The next step according to Karen Nelson-Field is to use single-source data and their established emotions framework to examine the relationship between emotions evoked by content and actual in-market sales.

    Style of the Ad base on a specific emotion can be a distinctive branding element. Your colleague Erik Du Plessis (The Branded Mind) evoke the feel-good factor to explain a high persuation score. I'm agree with you that price premium is also a very important issue to measure the value of the brand. But we must start with something and sales is a good starting point. After we can go deeper.

  9. bryan gildenberg, January 25, 2017

    I think that the overwhelming majority of companies that have followed Byron Sharp's doctrine, at some basic level, aren't growing.  And that Global FMCG has gone from 2011 (pre-Sharp doctrine's wide spread) growing 2.5x the rate of global consumption to in 2016 having global consumption growing 2.5x faster than FMCG (now that it has become inarguable doctrine).  This may be the weirdest coincidence of all time.  But empirical data would suggest that these Laws of Growth either work less well when they dictate activity rather than describe outcomes, or there's something wrong with the "Nash Equilibrium" of this law, which is that when too many companies try to do nothing but increase penetration, category growth somehow slows. 

    Actually, what I think is that penetration, at its core, is an outcome.  Not a strategy.  I think what most companies are doing to achieve penetration is to do old school marketing reach activity through channels and methods dating back to the 1980s, and it's possible that stuff works as well as it used to.  I find the choice between "penetration" and "segmentation" to be a weird false choice (as I think Sharp kind of does too) - why can't segmentation help you design better marketing plans to achieve penetration more effectively?  Ritson talked a

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