Mark Ritson: Byron Sharp is wrong – of course brand perceptions influence sales

mark ritson byron sharp

It’s fair to say no book has had more influence on marketing practice in the past decade than How Brands Grow. Professor Byron Sharp’s book is hardly a page turner, but inside its red cover exists a heady combination of insight, empiricism and contention.

The book’s biggest and most debated claim is unquestionably its challenge on target segmentation and Sharp’s call for “sophisticated mass marketing” to replace it in most, if not all, cases. His assault on one of the central tenets of marketing theory has continued to echo around conference venues and marketing departments. But it’s a noise that has also distracted marketers from spotting one of the other equally salacious claims contained in How Brands Grow.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST: Marketing Week Meets… Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow

Sharp is a fan of distinctiveness and goes to great lengths – I might add, persuasive ones – to make the case for using brand assets like colours and other graphical elements to stand out and better look like yourself to the customer. But that focus on distinctiveness comes at the expense of differentiation. Sharp questions “the importance of perceived and valued differentiation” and contends that distinctiveness – making a brand more easily identifiable – should be “at the centre of brand strategy”:

Any seasoned brand manager might prefer a greedier approach, in which distinctiveness and differentiation are equally potent and equally possible. That has certainly been my consulting experience. My long and lovely 15 years working with LVMH in Paris, for example, was founded on a belief that the 70-something brands I worked on during my tenure should focus on their DNA (the intended brand image we wanted to project) and their codes (the visual identifiers of the brand that we used to stand out and to claim mental saliency).

But Sharp is rarely a thinker who embraces plurality and nuance. The idea that mass marketing and target marketing can sit next to each other in an advanced, long-and-short-of-it brand plan is not something he countenances. Similarly, distinctiveness must be the “centre” of the strategy, rather than sitting with differentiation, for ultimate impact.

It is obvious that a significant amount of perception does drive behaviour in many purchase situations.

And that binary prioritisation was clear this week when he published a new blog on ‘Some inconvenient truths about brand image perceptions’. In the blog, Sharp questions marketers’ obsession with brand tracking and the ultimate value of changing how consumers perceive a particular brand versus the competition. Sharp does not question the ability of marketers to measure these things or for advertising to alter them, but he does challenge the value of increasing or decreasing them.

“The truth is,” he writes in his blog, “that we have practically no knowledge of how much particular perceptions affect behaviour – what is a tiny change worth? Anyone who claims otherwise is either lying (trying to fool you), or fooling themselves.

“Spider graphs, perceptual maps – none of them tell us how much any perception is worth.”

Sharp’s main contention hangs on the old caveat that correlation is not causality. If I survey all the marketers who have bought How Brands Grow and then compare them to marketers who have not bought the book I might observe a significant difference in their perception of the book on attributes such as rigour, applicability and value for money. I might infer from this data that if I can get more marketers to think it is rigorous, applicable and good value they too will buy the book.

Sharp’s point is that behaviour drives perception, rather than that perception drives behaviour. Buying the book triggers post-hoc rationalisation (‘it must be applicable and good value or I am an idiot’), as does subsequently reading the thing (‘it must be rigorous and applicable because Professor Sharp says it is here, here and here’).

Again, this is an extreme and oversimplified point of view. Clearly behaviour does influence perception but Sharp’s account does not explain what led people to buy the book in the first place. The distinctive red cover?

True scientists welcome debate

It is obvious that a significant amount of perception does drive behaviour in many purchase situations, and that this perception is then solidified and strengthened during post-purchase experience. People bought How Brands Grow because they perceived it was rigorous and applicable and good value, and that view was then bolstered by buying and (perhaps) reading it.

Clearly the importance of pre-purchase image perception varies greatly across different contexts. Higher-image categories like fashion are far more susceptible to image influence than, say, the purchase of industrial concrete.

Similarly, high-involvement purchases where price and risk increase (the purchase of a luxury handbag from Gucci for £3,000, for example) are more likely to entail pre-purchase image formation far more than lower involvement purchases (a £40 handbag from Zara). But arguing that pre-purchase brand perception is essentially impossible to value is ridiculous.

Sharp’s approach is defensive to the point of being blinkered and rhetorical.

There is a mountain of evidence from other scholars using other samples that the perception of a brand, prior to purchase, influences the degree to which they will consider it, prefer it and ultimately buy it. The name Koen Pauwels might not be as familiar as Sharp’s but he is a brilliant advanced marketing professor based at Boston University. Pauwels won the Marketing Science Institute’s Best Paper award for a study that demonstrated that both attitude surveys and online behaviour measures are useful to explain and predict future sales.

Pauwels can show, with data, that brand perceptions not only change but that these changes result in measurable and significant changes in sales. In a current research paper he shows this happening with 76 brands across a range of different categories.

Pauwels can show this is partly causal and not simply a post-purchase correlation because, unlike Sharp, he uses longitudinal data. Rather than compare a purchaser and a non-purchaser of How Brands Grow at one point in time, Pauwels follows consumers over a period of time to see if their earlier shift in perception (‘I now think the book is more rigorous’) results in a subsequent change in behaviour (‘I bought it 30 days after my opinion changed’).

This week he openly refuted Sharp’s claim that it is “impossible” to quantify how particular perceptions drive sales: “I don’t see how the truth is served by Byron Sharp’s unfounded and absolute claim,” he concluded in a blog. Sharp’s blog is “nonsense” and “pseudo-science”, according to Pauwels.

He is right. Sharp goes too far, too often. And when he presents his opinion as scientific fact and, more concerningly, a significant proportion of his rabid devotees nod their heads and make copious notes of this, the profession of marketing is hindered, not helped. We owe a great debt to Byron Sharp for the way he has provoked and prodded our discipline to be more disciplined. For that he will go down as one of the greatest marketing thinkers of all time. But his definition of “scientific” method is naïve at best, and dangerously self-serving at worst.

When other scholars post contradictory evidence-based conclusions, often from much more robust samples of data, he either rejects them on methodological grounds (his response to Dunnhumby’s empirical refutation of his loyalty work was that their sample was “flawed”) or he simply shuts up shop and closes the debate down (he blocked Pauwels on social media yesterday when he aired his contradictory perspective).

This is not science. Scientists embrace debate and counter-argument because, ultimately, no theory can be permanently proven. We simply adopt the explanation we cannot disprove and if we do eventually falsify it we move on and evolve our understanding of the world. Proper scientists don’t reject qualification and refutation, they welcome it.

Indeed, they look for it because in proper science falsification delivers a positive outcome. As the greatest scientist of the last 100 years, Richard Feynman, put it: “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”

This is clearly not how Professor Sharp approaches his work or his “scientific” method. His approach is defensive to the point of being blinkered and rhetorical. It’s his way or the “unscientific” highway. Again, let me reiterate that I regard him as one of the greatest marketing thinkers and someone I will always turn to for advice and insight. But he who wields the sword of science must expect the blade to cut both ways.

When you dismiss others with your data, you should stand ready to have your own work treated with the same empirical contempt. You should welcome it. Sharp can be wrong like the rest of us. He often is. But his influence and impact mean his mistakes have more bearing than your average marketing numpty.

Read his books, savour the insights and the perspective but sprinkle a heavy dose of sceptical salt on every page. Absolutes sit uneasily in the ever-changing, heterogeneous world of marketing.

More importantly, ignore Sharp on measuring and valuing brand image. It is not his epistemological forte. Working out which attributes you want to stand for, which ones you want to grow, which you want to reduce and whether – a year from now – you have achieved your ends, are among the most worthwhile and valuable activities a marketer can ever commit to.

The post Mark Ritson: Byron Sharp is wrong – of course brand perceptions influence sales appeared first on Marketing Week.