Time for Marketers to stop using “alternative facts”

What is a fact?

This has been a week in which America’s leadership  has been criticised for the use of “alternative facts” (a situation parodied in the video below).

But I think too many marketers and agencies are also still using alternative facts in the regular tasks of planning, measuring and reporting marketing activities.



Alternative facts

“Next year our brand will grow through increasing X”

For many brands this X will appear as  loyalty, retention, spend per customer, etc. Sadly, the reality is that these are not the most efficient levers for growth.

These are logical assumptions of what drives growth. But they are not true! They’re not facts. They are alternative facts! Their use can have a dangerous impact on revenues and profits, and the credibility of a marketer.

Different sources of growth are not equal

The challenge (and I have fallen into the trap myself in the past) is simple. mathematically, logically any of the levers below is good:

Total revenue =

Number of Buyers *

Frequency of Purchase *

Spend per purchase occasion

So, mathematically, we can increase revenue by focussing efforts on any of these items. It does not matter, from a calculation perspective, if we get 20% higher penetration (more buyers), 20% more frequency, or 20% greater spend. mathematically we’d still get 20% higher revenue.

The problem is that in the real world this doesn’t actually happen. But Google the importance of loyalty and you’ll have 33 million alternative facts to chose from!

Focus on the number of customers you have

The simple reality is that Big Brands are big because lots of people buy them.

In other words it’s penetration (not loyalty) that is the most important metric both for understanding current revenues, and for planning growth. The science backs this up, as highlighted by Jenni Romaniuk in the Journal of Advertising Research in 2013:

When packaged-goods brands grow, both penetration and loyalty increase, but penetration grows two or three times more than loyalty” (Romaniuk, 2013).

This is not saying loyalty doesn’t matter at all. It does, but it should rarely (or ever) be your strategic focus for your growth efforts in established categories.

Big brands have more customers and they are slightly more loyal too

Big brands have more buyers. They do also have a slight advantage in having slightly higher loyalty levels. This “double jeopardy” phenomenon was formalised for FMCG brands in 1990 by Ehrenberg, Goodhardt, and Barwise and had already been  “revisited, again” by Ehrenberg and Goodhardt in 2002.

It is therefore easy to be distracted by loyalty measures in your data as you can expect to spot differences. It’s just that customer retention is not the core driver of brand growth, it’s a happy coincidence of customer acquisition.

Not knowing this has been compared to “rocket scientists not knowing that the earth is round” (Ehrenberg and  Goodhardt, 2002)

Global leaders know this

We can see recognition of this in the investor reports of two of the world’s largest consumer goods companies.  PepsiCo highlight the importance of Penetration as the key way to drive Revenue Growth:


Consumer Analyst Group of New York, Conference 2016, PepsiCo

and Unilever reinforce Penetration as the key way to drive the core portfolio:

Unilever Paul Polman investor presentation 2016

Many marketers know this already. However, anyone who doesn’t know about Double Jeopardy (and in my experience it’s perhaps 30%+ of those in the broad marketing industry) is accidentally at risk of believing “alternative facts.”

Double check your strategy

Big brands are big because lots of people buy them.

Focus on Penetration above all else to drive revenue growth.

Double Jeopardy explains this reality.

This affects most of your marketing decisions

If you’d like to know the implications of this, read my longer analysis that examines the implications for research and for advertising. This contains some important advice on planning advertising, on social media investments, and on positioning your brand competitively. If you’d like to chat about this some more, do get in contact.


In the meantime, enjoy this video explaining why Alternative Facts are not facts:


Get noticed. (That’s it).

I wish I knew who originally created the “letter” below, seemingly from a potential customer. It’s been around for some years now and serves as a reality-check for brand managers.

What it dramatises is that most potential customers won’t work hard for us. Our job as marketeers is simply to get them to remember us and notice us in a shop (and, of course, actually buy us).

On smaller brands, there are a lot of CRM managers who might be excited by getting, say, 10,000 followers on Facebook. However, in a country with 10s of millions of households, that really wouldn’t be meaningful. 10k likes would represent 0.5% of households. (And for reasons hinted at here that is likely to deliver less than 0.5% uplift in revenue. If you want to chat some more about this, do contact me).

Resist the need to push for “engagement” for its own reasons (as highlighted by this letter which seems to have been around since at least 2010):


Dear All Of Advertising And Marketing.

My name is Brian. I’m what you would probably call a target demographic, or perhaps a consumer. In fact, I’m just a 27-year-old man with a nice wife (Sandra) and two children who I think the world of (except on Saturday morning when I could really do with a lie-in).

I work at a company that manufactures automotive parts. I’m a buyer. That’s not particularly interesting, but it pays the bills (and the lads are a good laugh). Since the economic downturn as they call it on the news  quite a few people have been laid off. But, there’s only me and another buyer here, so with a bit of luck I’ll be okay. The other day I saw one of my old workmates who is on the dole now, pretty depressing.

Anyway, apologies, I’m rambling. The reason for my letter is this. I was watching the telly earlier today, when on came an advert. It was (I think) selling sausages. It turns out that they wanted me to go onto the internet after watching their advert, and instead of looking at pages I usually look it, I should go to their website and then put up a video. A video that I would make.

Now I don’t know about you, but pretty much all I’m looking for from the maker of sausages is some really tasty sausages. That is all. I’m not saying that’s easy – I couldn’t make nice sausages. But that’s what I’d like.

I don’t know if there’s been some terrible misunderstanding, where you got the idea that I’d really like the prospect of coming home from work and spending my valuable free time taking part in your stupid idea about sausages, or tea, or washing powder, or pretty much anything else for that matter. But here’s the thing. I don’t. I don’t want to make a film, or draw a picture, or nominate a friend. Or compose a soundtrack or re-edit your advert. Really, I don’t.

If you’d like to tell me what’s good about your product, fine. I may buy it. I may not. I know that might sound boring, and I know it must be very tempting to sit in your nice, comfy offices and dream up schemes where normal people like me forget our everyday cares and participate in your marketing. But, to put a not-too-fine-a-point on it, please, please, PLEASE, if you wouldn’t mind, awfully. Leave me alone. Thanks.

Yours truly,


Which seems like a fair response!

How should you engage with consumers?

This does not mean that customer engagement, CRM, and loyalty programmes are a total waste of time and money (though I do think too many are!). However, it means recognising what they should actually be for. As I’ve written elsewhere, Big brands are big because lots of people buy them.

Your key task is to raise awareness and get a sale from as many people as possible.


So, when using engagement strategies, you want content that attracts more people. Your audience becomes the medium. If they share, retweet, tag or otherwise “engage” with your content, they amplify the reach of the content to others.

The job of engagement is still the fundamental task of getting noticed. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of loyalty. It’s getting noticed (by more people, more often) that matters most.

And Brian has been telling us that for years.


Keeping it simple: 4 roles for Digital for FMCG brands

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably got a digital marketing presence. (It is 2016 after all!). However, your digital activities are not working, or you’re not sure if they’re working, or you wonder if they could work better.

Be reassured that you are not alone. “FMCG brands struggle with digital.”   A Bain report highlights that even leading companies are not fully advanced:

Few have articulated a digital strategy, and most are not fully using digital technology across the value chain.
Some industry leaders have begun to experiment and innovate, but even they seem to systematically underestimate the power and potential of the Internet to transform businesses.

There is pressure to be online “as that’s where consumers are” and because “everyone else is” and because “it’s cheaper.”

However, those reasons (some of which may even be true!) are not sufficient.

Your digital success relies on a clear overall strategy. Digital is a medium and a tool. Your use of it relies on the same analytical rigour as your broad business strategy:

  • what are we trying to achieve?
  • why do we want to achieve it?
  • why do we think we can achieve it?
  • how should we achieve it?
  • (and what will it look like once we have achieved it?)


So in the spirit of keeping it simple, this article presents 4 roles for your digital strategy, and some steps below to ensure it is effective.

4 roles and the 4 Cs of digital

  1. e-Commerce
  2. Connectivity
  3. building Credentials
  4. Communication (specifically advertising)

Reason 1: e-Commerce i.e. selling stuff

E-commerce for FMCG brands is growing fast (up 28% in 2014). However, this still represents a small proportion of overall sales (3.9% according to this Kantar study) and even less in developing economies.


The important challenge for brands is to get onto a customer’s  online shopping list. Therefore, working closely with retailers (whether Amazon, Alibaba, or with traditional supermarket retailers, such as Carrefour) is often critical.

Since more than half of shoppers claim to repeat buy the same brands on each online shopping “trip”, you need to be on that list!

This is not a loyalty challenge.

Don’t interpret this as a loyalty issue! This is a customer acquisition problem. It may well be that once you have acquired someone they (by default of the shopping software in use) remain slightly more loyal. However, you need to be focussed on adding more customers.

It’s also important to realise your category’s role in consumers’ lives. Unsurprisingly, some categories (think diapers, baby food, etc.) have greater importance online since they cater to young families, are frequently bought…and are physically bulky/heavy.

And some countries are significantly more developed on the pre-requisites for a large e-commerce industry (e.g. fast internet access, trusted payment systems, delivery infrastructure reliability).

In short, it does matter that you focus on e-commerce as a channel. The Kantar report above highlights some key winners and losers in this. Worth a read! Be clear of course that there is no single solution for every brand. It changes depending on your category, your country, and your consumers.

Reason 2: connecting with consumers

Some brands can build a more memorable experience with their shoppers by providing added value through digital. I believe there are different ways of doing this: whether via the product itself (as with the toothbrush example below) or via other consumer-centric solutions (the re-order buttons).

Oral B has a bluetooth connected toothbrush that gives “real-time feedback on your brushing”

Amazon’s Dash buttons automate re-ordering of key brands.

Not only that, they provide permanent visual reminders of your “favourite” brands:

Amazon lets you shop with a REAL button: New Dash button allows a single product to be reordered

As the creation of the Internet of Things accelerates, we will see more and more devices talk to each other, and to us.



Whilst your packet of rice might not have much to actually say to you, it’s important for brands that they influence the “conversation” that leads to a retail purchase.

This moves brands from products or commodities into services. Evian has a solution that simplifies re-ordering of heavy bottles of water:

Your brand will be affected by increasingly-connected homes and consumers. Have you imagined how? (Get in contact and I’d love to work with you on it – or give you some further tips on how to start planning).

Reason 3: building credentials

Social media can help to publicise your brand amongst peer groups, friends and family.

This is not sufficient to achieve your sales ambitions, but can be leveraged, especially in some markets:


Think about what you do that allows your audience or customers to amplify your message. Don’t think about your online audience merely as the end of the transaction. Think about how they can be motivated to share/like/publicise/retweet your brand to their peers. Use the audience to be the media as well. This increases your all-important reach.

Reason 4: communication: i.e. advertising to people

The internet reaches people. We know that.

However, don’t for one moment think that people are automatically engaged in your communication online!

Your potential consumer is several times more likely to have twins, than to click on an online ad!


Visibility still matters – as it does in traditional media such as TV.

Reach is a defining value of a strong advertising campaign. The more people who see it, the more likely they are to buy it.

In fact, McKinsey highlight the importance of brand fame in explaining why developing market consumers trust friends.

“The more people I know who are using a product,” consumers reason, “the more confident I can be that it will not fall apart, malfunction, or otherwise embarrass me.”

It follows that the bigger the brand – and the bigger it is perceived to be – the better.

This is a critical point for FMCG brands – that big brands are big because lots of people buy them (and I’d love you to read more about the importance of penetration on this site if you haven’t already)

Going digital and making it work

So, assuming your want to build your FMCG brands’ digital effectiveness, one way to start is here:

Be clear on the campaign objective

This applies online as much as offline. What are you trying to achieve?


  • enhance the shopping experience
  • drive equity/brand engagement (e.g. youtube, Facebook)
  • drive awareness of promotion/call to action (geo-marketing)

Think mobile

With consumers increasingly consuming content on mobile devices, don’t copy & paste from the desktop.

Especially in the context of video, people spend longer (2-3 times) watching content on a desktop vs perhaps 10 seconds on mobile.

And even within mobile, the type of content consumed has changed. Desktop-like Landscape videos (where a user needs to rotate their phone) are giving way to more user-friendly vertical videos.

Think partnership: brands

Consumers don’t use your product or brand in isolation. Cereal goes with milk. Coffee goes with snacks. Retailer buyers control large categories (e.g. dry goods, fresh produce).

How can you partner with other brands, categories or channel partners to make activity more relevant for your shared consumers – and to increase visibility in store?

There are some great examples around. Get in contact and I’ve probably encountered some for your category.

Think partnership: providers

Finally, don’t ignore your digital, media and strategy partners. Ask them about the best examples. Challenge them to work to test new solutions for you. Learn.

It remains true that FMCG brands struggle with digital but external providers know a lot and can and should educate their clients on possibilities.

Work together. Digital is a tool, but it’s still being refined. Test and learn.


How to get an extra 5% topline growth? The answer is NOT intuitive.

Most companies still make too many decisions based on intution. This is despite the fact that increasing amounts of data (and increasingly powerful ways of analysing it) are now readily available.

Whilst, of course, intution or “gut feel” matter, they can be misleading. Just because you think you are right…does not mean that you are (as the leader of every failing business ever could probably tell you – afterwards).

I set out to work out what the challenges are, what the solutions are, and why it matters.


I have recently completed an Executive MBA at INSEAD business school. (It was a fabulous experience –  do get in contact if you’d like to know more about it).

As part of my Masters degree I needed to submit 3 lengthy essays. One of these already appears on this site here. However, my final dissertation was even more substantial and examined The future of decision making in the Big Data era.

I interviewed a significant number of industry leaders, especially in consumer goods businesses. It is clear that there are huge opportunities to better align Strategy with the Data available for decision making; and to better utilise people and teams to implement relevant actions that follow.

If you feel your company already does this brilliantly, superb! (I’d love to hear from you what works so well).

If not, do not worry. You are not alone!

Few organisations believe they are advantaged in all areas.

In fact, in a Bain & Company consulting study of 400 large companies:

only 4% of companies said they had the right people, tools, data and intent to draw meaningful insights from that data—and to act on them

Significant benefit

These missed opportunities are a commercial issue. An MIT study found that firms that emphasise decision-making based on data…performed 5-6% better—as measured by output and performance*—than those that rely on intuition and experience for decision-making

Take action

If you would like to receive a copy of my report on what companies can do better, do get in contact.

Three solutions for better FMCG marketing

Marketing: alchemy, magic or science?

magic book image

Marketing is a profession often viewed with suspicion. Some see it as no better than medieval alchemy: a profession which attempts to turn worthless base metals into glittering items of value.

There are others who see it as only a creative calling in which a spark of magic is required to bring brilliant unique ideas to life.

Most do not recognise that it is also a science. Data, logical conclusions and insights are required before we even attempt to turn base materials into something of greater value or before the creative forces can be unleashed.

The study of the science of marketing has been going on for a long time. Professor Andrew Ehrenberg (and many illustrious others) had identified law-like patterns in brand metrics many decades ago. The largest revelation from all of this has been in realising that what I had previously taken to be unique patterns in my brand’s data were not unique and, often, that the implications are not what I had predicted. In short, I was wrong. Science was right.

To those who read my website regularly, I should warn you that this article is much longer than normal as it goes much deeper into insights and their implications. I hope you enjoy it though. (If you want to read more, then there are many references at the end of the article. If you want to read less, search here for edited highlights)


As economist John Maynard Kenyes highlighted early in the last century, unlearning what we already thought we knew is the really hard bit!


Three solutions for better FMCG marketing

Target penetration growth, not loyalty growth

Strive to be distinctive, not different

Be memorable, not persuasive

These three statements are so easy to write, but so at odds with most perceptions of how to grow FMCG brands.

Hence the title of the next section:

The dangers of common sense

Before diving into the theory, the data and the logic, let’s start with a simple formula for a brand’s Total Revenue:

Total revenue

= Number of Buyers * Frequency of Purchase * Spend per purchase occasion

Seemingly nothing radical in that: if the goal of a business is to grow revenue, then logically any of the three factors can be influenced.

However this perfectly logical assumption is a trap. You may believe other factors are changing, and that you have strategies to drive loyalty and to encourage frequency. However, these are largely a fallacy.

Practically only numbers of buyers alter significantly between brands in a category. Put very simply, big brands are big because lots of people buy them.

The rest of this essay reviews the data and empirical proofs that underpin this and, importantly, reviews the implications for marketers in moving beyond this empirical reality.

Penetration – big is beautiful

Loyalty, share of requirements, or purchase frequency do not move significantly.

“When packaged-goods brands grow, both penetration and loyalty increase, but penetration grows two or three times more than loyalty” (Romaniuk, 2013).

Big brands have more buyers. They do also have a slight advantage in that the largest brands not only have higher penetration, but also have slightly higher loyalty levels. This “double jeopardy” phenomenon was formalised for FMCG brands in 1990 by Ehrenberg, Goodhardt, and Barwise. IThe double jeopardy reality had already been “revisited, again” by Ehrenberg and Goodhardt in 2002.

This is well proven data but it is amazing how many marketers (this author included a while ago) are not aware of this. And it is robust data, confirmed in 2012 by Uncles, Kennedy et al. using data spanning 25 years, across 50+ categories and 60 data sets.  It is so important that, whilst I will not use data to confirm academic knowledge throughout this article, I will illustrate it here. This example (using data in the public domain) is a shampoo category in the UK. (Source: TNS)

Brands Market share (%) Annual penetration % Purchase frequency (avg.)
Average   1.9
Head & Shoulders 11 13 2.3
Pantene 9 11 2.3
Herbal Essences 5 8 1.8
L’Oreal Elvive 5 8 1.9
Dove 5 9 1.6
Sunsik 5 8 1.7
Vosene 2 3 1.7

We can see that the leading brand has a share 5 times larger than the smallest. However, its purchase frequency is only 35% higher. The penetration (i.e. Head & Shoulders’ much higher number of buyers) is what is driving performance. It is double jeopardy in action.

Knowing this pattern exists in consumer markets makes it easy to spot it when you look. (Find some panel data now and try. Contact me and let me know how it looks!)

For me, this was a significant learning. I have previously created superb, seemingly compelling strategies to grow loyalty. However, academia shows that any minor gains in loyalty were more likely a statistical fluctuation, or a feature of successfully growing penetration instead.

Examining this further I discovered that a study of 880 entries in the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising annual effectiveness awards confirmed the finding.  “Focusing on penetration, not loyalty” was the key to success (even in strategies that had actually set out to grow a brand through increasing loyalty!).

In a related article one of those authors titled the piece “the dangers of common sense”, so apparently logical is the Revenue equation at the start of the previous section. Binet was “shocked to discover that what most marketing people do and what actually works are really quite different.”

To check this in my brand world, I looked back on past data for brands I have worked with. My own data conforms to the Double Jeopardy pattern. My conclusions often assumed something else. In a related point, the agencies that we as a client paid money to, were also often unaware of the Double Jeopardy phenomenon. I have uncovered a wonderful example from 2004. A well-known global research agency highlighted that our brand was 2nd in the market with smaller penetration than the leader. A further slide proclaimed the seemingly interesting “almost identical frequency of purchase between brands.” However, if that agency or I had been aware of Double Jeopardy this headline would have been unsurprising! It is the nature of FMCG markets as shown by Ehrenberg and others decades ago!


If brands are big primarily because of penetration (i.e. number of buyers) then it is important to attract new users.

Perhaps no surprise, but in the next section I’ve reviewed more of what it means to grow through acquiring new users, specifically that they are going to be light buyers (not average, medium …or loyal).

Growth comes from light buyers

To understand buyer behaviour, I’ve been using data such as that below for many years. (This is actual data, but anonymised by the removal of category/country titles!)

% Buyers
1 time 43 %
2 times 17
3 times 9
4 times 7
5 times 5
6 times 5
7 times 4
8 times 2
9 times 1
10 times 1
>=11 times 7

It shows, apparently, that we have a massive opportunity to encourage people to buy the category more often. 60% of them buy it only once or twice a year.

In fact, what I only realise – and realise very clearly – from reviewing the academic research, is that frequency/loyalty charts typically have this shape, with most buyers being very occasional! This shape – the “negative binomial distribution” effect on brands (captured as “NBD Dirichlet” by Goodhardt, Ehrenberg and Chatfield in 1984) typically shows the same pattern where most buyers are “light”, and a brand relies for its sales on the occasional purchases by lots of such buyers.

The reality of what happens is that the users who are added are “light” users. In any time period, a new user who buys once is going to be light (vs, for example, the rare 7% who buy monthly in the annual data above).

This is a key learning! It is easy for marketers to make false assumptions if they only look at their current data (e.g. the chart above). I have used data such as that above to focus on building loyalty and repeat rates. (The same global research agency presentation I referred to above went on to make a strategic recommendation to invest in frequency-building activities). However, realising that all categories look like this means we need to understand brand and category performance in a different way.

This does not necessarily mean that there is no such thing as a customer who appears loyal. Reichheld & Teal argue for such customers’ importance in their 1996 book, The Loyalty Effect. However, I have come to realize that the promotion of loyalty as a key driving force is not borne out by FMCG data. In services (admittedly not FMCG) a 1990 HBR article by Reichheld and Sasser suggested that “Companies can boost profits by almost 100% by retaining just 5% more of their customers.” When a trusted source such as the Harvard Business Review makes such a bold claim, the world pays attention. (For an alternative view it is interesting to read Professor Sharp’s dissection of the “loyalty myth” of the HBR article here)

However, as we’ve now seen, the FMCG data highlights that even if loyalty is important, penetration is much more significant.


Double Jeopardy highlights that Penetration matters, and NBD Dirichlet shows that brands sell mostly to large numbers of light buyers.

Those two thoughts require an adjustment for many marketers.

Loyalty programs, CRM, tight targeting on social media: all such activities make a lot less sense and need to be seen in a different light (with recommendations to follow in a future article. Contact me if you’d like a preview of my advice on that).

The challenge then is how to attract trial from the all-important light buyers.

Salience matters

To answer that challenge I have looked back on Ehrenhberg’s papers from the 1980s and beyond and also Professor Sharp’s research.  If growth depends on light buyers (who by their very definition do not purchase you very often) a brand owner needs to do everything to make the brand stand out. This, so far, does not present anything radical. Marketing strategies the world over will talk about raising awareness!

However, to grow a brand, Sharp talks about a brand needing both mental and physical availability.

In a buying situation the brand must be salient. At its simplest that means being visible on the shelf in the supermarket from which consumers buy this category, or being in the stores where such goods are bought. (This is distribution and merchandising, creating “physical availability”).

In that situation the potential consumer needs to recall the brand when faced with it on shelf. This is “mental availability”. The implication from this is that brands need to do everything possible to maximise linkages between communication outside the store (e.g. advertising) and communication inside the store (which would always be packaging, and could also be point of sale materials). A brand needs constantly to build salience.


All of the above has a significant media planning implication. I have tackled media planning in multiple markets. There is a constant tension between having strong “bursts” (heavy investment levels in a short period) vs weaker “maintenance” / “sustaining” investment. The argument for strong bursts is that it “cuts through” and gets noticed.

However, the danger of a “burst” strategy is that it could be 2-3 months since a consumer was last exposed to my brand messages. A lower level, but more continuous media strategy makes sense. “Mental Availability” will be stronger – i.e. the chance of being thought of in the buying situation. (This, of course, does not remove the need to create strong creative work that gets noticed, but I will come back to that below).

There are other implications about measuring the impact of advertising, especially vs competitors. A move to seemingly weaker advertising needs a more refined research methodology to capture its impact on long term memories of target consumers. We need to be mindful of research effects from brand scale. Romaniuk highlights that the classic Top-of-mind awareness indicator “is highly biased to brand users (and particularly heavy users) and will favor larger share brands. For the same reason, it is a poor metric choice for tracking a small (potentially growing) brand.”

The differentiation myth

To build salience in the form of “mental availability” large FMCG brands typically communicate through advertising. Hours (and hours!) are spent refining advertising messages and campaigns. Many marketers are brought up on the idea of Unique Selling Points. Reeves “created” the concept in the 1960s so it has had a long time to be established. Trout and Rivkin reminded everyone to “Differentiate or Die” in 2000.

However, whilst it seems conceptually appealing, a review of (again!) the data shows that all is not as we might expect.

What the data highlight is that most consumers buy from a repertoire of brands. In Sharp’s words they are “polygamously loyal” to a range of brands not an individual one. Brands gain most of their purchases from people who also buy other brands in the category. This is also consistent with the NBD Dirichlet fact that most buyers of a brand are “light”.

This means of course that advertising doesn’t convert or persuade! (What it does instead is remind, and build salient memories that connect the product to the brand and the category. It can then be recalled in buying situations).

In their 2012 article, It’s a Dirichlet World, Sharp et al confirm that “loyalties are distributed across consumers with little differentiation between brands, such that each brand in effect sells to all category buyers rather than a particular segment”. Other studies (e.g. Uncles et al 2012) explain this further. “From a consumer viewpoint, many people see competing brands as substitutable”. (The data in these studies is remarkable. It really is worth a read!)

For more confirmation, in an article by research agency, Millward Brown, reviewing their own BrandZ database of 6000 brand and category buyers, they confirm that “on average, the proportion of people willing to endorse any brand as “different from other brands of (a specific category) is low… Among those that consider a brand acceptable, an average of 18 percent agreed that it was different from others

Put another way, people happily buy a brand even though in 82% of cases they do not think it is different from others in the category.


This means that advertising does not “persuade” people of the merits of one brand over the other. Consumers remain somewhat indifferent.

What becomes important is to ensure consumers think of the brand as a suitable substitute in the category. This means truly understanding how the consumer thinks of the category and how your brand can fit into that. It is very different from trying to persuade them of a unique feature of your brand. It is actually about showing them that you are a good example of your category: a very different challenge from the USP way of thinking.

Time for magic

The title of this article raised the idea that marketing may contain a magical creative spark.

In a “Dirichlet World” where growth depends on new buyers and where loyalty is not a likely reality, creativity matters.

The largest brands in a category score highest on generic attribute measures for that category (e.g. refreshing, washes whiter, tastes good). Consumers see them as a good example of their category.

In the section above we reviewed that consumers see competing brands as largely interchangeable.

What matters is to be distinctive. This is the magic of marketing: to turn the generic into the memorable. Unilever’s washing brand, Persil/Omo, embraces the idea that “dirt is good”.  The benefit is still that the product washes whiter, but the story is distinctive. The benefit is not unique. The ingredients are not unique (or are unlikely to offer any sustainable advantage). However the story becomes memorable for the way it is dramatised.

This, for me, is powerful. In a previous role I was presented with a marketing concept from our global team to launch a new product. Striving to be different it avoided the core category attributes that the market leaders already “owned” and defined a range of unique selling propositions to stand out from the crowd.

However, what we needed was not a new set of rational benefits (which were of low interest to the consumer as the top ones were already “owned”). What we needed was a creative way of branding our version of the category core benefits. The sad fact is that we already had it – a creative world in which our brand already lived, distinctively! Our creative challenge should have been to say that we now also had a product from that same distinctive world that did everything the category leaders said their products did. We needed to brand the generic, not try to attach our brand to meaningless USPs.

It’s also important to watch out for the realities of researching such brand attributes. Scriven and Goodhardt reviewing “The Ehrenberg Legacy” in the Journal of Advertising Research in 2012 highlighted that “Users of a brand tend to say positive things about it (e.g., “It tastes nice”; “I like it”), whereas non-users are less likely to comment”. Usage drives attitude! “Whether people say that a brand has a given attribute largely depends on whether or not they buy the brand” (Romaniuk, Sharp, 2000)

So, brands with the largest penetration (user base) score highest on category attributes.

Consumers are not really “persuaded” of a brand’s unique attributes. Ehrenberg’s view of advertising was that it works by publicising a brand not by persuasion. If consumers were “persuaded” of rational brand benefits they would a) likely be loyal, b) stay consistent in their beliefs [but only about 50% express the same view in subsequent research interviews (e.g. Romaniuk et al. 2012)]. In Ehrenberg’s words in a 1997 article, the role of advertising is more as a “nudge” (a weak, reminding force) than as a strong persuader.

More bluntly an Admap 2009 article confirms that “Ads must be memorable, not persuasive, to influence choice.” This makes sense. If FMCG brands grow mostly through attracting new buyers or reminding light ones, then a brand’s communication needs to be remembered in store to “nudge” purchase behavior. Salience matters (and continuous media strategy reaching large numbers of people is more important than shorter bursts).


From an advertising and creativity perspective this all shows that we should not be afraid of category generics.

It is important to understand better what data actually proves. It is remarkably liberating to realise that the largest brand will always appear to “own” the category generics. Causality is not clear in a snapshot of the data. Respondents agree with the statements because they have experience of (i.e. buy) the brand. They do not necessarily buy the brand because they see the attributes as unique.

The largest brand appears to “own” attributes but that is simply the way consumers respond (saying positive things more about brands they buy). More buyers means high attribute agreement.

Seeking a “USP” can be a dangerous trap. Consumers buy a category for its fundamental attributes. The task for a brand is to turn those attributes into something memorable for that brand. The magic in marketing is in branding the generic.

Dumb data and alchemy


At the start of this article I posed the observation that marketing is perceived as little better than alchemy. However, I don’t believe it is possible to persuade someone to keep spending money buying a “bad” product.  It is not possible to turn lead into gold.

However, I do think that many marketers (this one included) have been guilty for many years of trying a similar trick, of trying to convert flawed knowledge of base data patterns into valuable strategic recommendations.

If we look at our brand’s data and conclude that we will grow best by increasing loyalty (rather than penetration), we fail to understand the science.

However, if we recognise that loyalty is a statistical artefact related to scale and penetration, then our media strategies need to act as constant reminders to the uninterested potential consumer. Strategies that “burst” to better “convert” competitor users are likely to fail. We need constant efforts to stay salient, to nudge and to top up mental availability.

If advertising does not really “persuade” because no sizeable FMCG brands consist of entirely 100% loyal converts, then its role is to be memorable. As described above we need to be distinctive and embrace the generic motivations of the category.

The science of marketing

To return to the title of this essay, marketing is not alchemy – though many alchemists still practice here.

It can be magical (and it can be a wonderful thing when brilliant creatives are given a tight brief and turn the generic into the memorable).

What I hope I have shown through this article is that it is certainly much more of a science than many (including this writer) have ever realised.  Key fundamentals were the Double Jeopardy law and the NBD Dirichlet model – which you should read if you haven’t already!

It’s important to humbly recognise that, whatever efforts brilliant marketers make, actually consumers don’t see brands in a category as very different from each other.

We need to recognise that research data appears to paint a certain picture (e.g. of the market leader “owning” a set of category attributes), but is often misleading.

All of this understanding drives a recognition of how advertising and media planning should work (through increasing salience for lots of non/light buyers) – which challenges a huge range of other theories (e.g. of advertising as persuasion).


If you would like to know more and think I could help you or your business, do get in contact.

In the meantime, happy discovering…


Some sources have been directly cited above. Others were a means to an end: they informed my thinking and pointed me off in new directions to explore even if they are not specifically referenced in the essay. I am particularly indebted to Professor Byron Sharp and to Martin Weigel for their excellent guides to these topics.

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