The age of science-driven art forms

I like the disarming idea that some books will simply drag our current ways of thinking to the ground. I call them dangerous books, and they are indispensable if we're to frequently prove ourselves wrong.

This is the first of — I hope — many posts where I add my own perspective to such a book. This is not a review, but you can consider it a very personal summary. Most importantly, by all means, should you appreciate my perspective here, do yourself a favor and go read the original thing. I promise it will be a thousand times better.

Let's do this.

Ever wondered how brands grow? Yeah, me too. I've read my fair share about it, and developed some rough theories of my own along the way. Well, Dr. Byron Sharp made sure they were all blown to smithereens with his stunning book How Brands Grow, an evidence-based essay against common marketing misconceptions and assumptions.

And these are the three main things I've learned from him.


1. Brands are not special

We're constantly facing an uphill battle, because (most) brands simply aren't that special. As a planner and community manager, part of my job is to make sure my clients create engaging content in order to develop relationships with brand evangelists, also known as "loyalists". The premise is simple: if someone is engaging with me, they will be more likely to buy from me instead of my competitor.

Well, research shows that these loyalists might simply not exist. Not in an exclusive manner, at least. Sharp explains:

The big discovery is that the customer bases of brands in a category are very similar—except in numbers of buyers. One way of thinking about it is that there isn’t a vanilla ice-cream buyer and a different type of person who buys strawberry—there are just ice-cream buyers who sometimes buy vanilla and very occasionally buy strawberry.

In other words, all this "humanization of brands" movement has been missing a key corollary to the whole metaphor of "brands as people": that we also don't have exclusivity of someone's friendship. Sure, we can talk a lot and that helps foster our relationship, but by all means I have other people in my life, and so do you.

Sharp continues his argument against "brand exclusivity" with a delicious dose of sarcasm:

If your buyers were really different from buyers of other brands that would suggest that your brand was suited to a particular type of buyer and not others. That would suggest that you had filled your niche—time for the marketing department to all go home.

So much for all those personas we brainstorm about so much. Of course, it's not that some sort of market segmentation doesn't make sense; but Sharp's research shows that this over-clustering of people in different audiences ultimately doesn't add up to actual consumer behavior and how markets grow. Brands aren't special in the sense that they don't own "loyal consumers" the way they think they do. Sharp wraps this up nicely:

Buyers are polygamous; brands share consumers.

Talk about a lesson in humility. I haven't felt like this since I read Kahneman.

But brands obviously play a role in consumers' lives. Just not in the way we so often think. That being said...


2. Brands are in the job market too

Renowned author and professor Clayton Christensen has a great talk about how we need to understand a product's job in a consumer's life. According to Sharp, this idea extends to the very essence of a brand, which ultimately is but one of many options:

Different cues also mean that different competitors are likely to be thought of as options by the buyer at any one time. Competitive options don’t even have to be in the same product category. For example, ‘something to wake me up’ can conjure a coffee, a Coca-Cola, a Pepsi, a brish walk or a swim. When marketers think of competitors they often think of functional lookalikes. However, it is better to think of competitors as ‘cue competitors’. Competitors are all other options linked to the cue, as these are most likely to be thought of and compete for selection.

Ultimately, brands compete with whatever job they promise to do better, and that is not restricted to the main competitor or even the smaller players — brands are competing with consumers' very own lifelong routines, habits and memories. In that sense, context matters more than ever when it comes to this constant battle against indifference. Sharp explains:

This doesn’t mean that our attitudes and beliefs are random, but rather that our individual brand memories, like our brand buying, are probabilistic. We each have a steady, ongoing propensity to think something, and for most of our beliefs that propensity is not 100%. Not surprisingly, whether or not we recall a belief is highly dependent on the situation, and is very much affected by the cues that are used to elicit the belief, and can change depending on what other things were going through our head at the time.

Wise words to live by, specially the next time we consider asking consumers to go out of their way to do something else for us. Seth Godin was already riffing back in 2006, "Making a habit is a lot easier than breaking one (ask a smoker)". When it comes to social media, we live in the age of cultural hijacking and everyone's searching for the next "Oreo moment", but let's not forget about the very essence of existing behavior hijacking. Sharp wraps it up nicely:

Loyalty certainly exists, but it is tempered by opportunity.

Riding a growing wave is easier than creating a wave of our own; just ask any surfer. The same goes with a brand's role in culture. And the same goes with a brand's role in consumers' daily routine. So the real challenge becomes to know which waves actually matter. That's where the empirical side of marketing can — must! — come in.


3. Marketing is data-driven art

It's precisely because everyone now has an opinion and the means to share it to the world that we need to be more data-driven than ever. Numbers don't tell the whole story, but they most certainly don't lie. This is the last but most fundamental idea I retrieved from How Brands Grow:

Today marketing managers operate a bit like nineteenth century doctors; they are affected by the scientific revolution, but are not yet governed by it. Even ‘best practice’ is still dominated by impressions and untested assumptions.

That being said, numbers themselves aren't the point. Data alone isn't enough. But it sure helps us reduce friction of analysis by introducing more objective variables into the equation, paired with the right dose of instinct and experience. And it helps us protect our work not only from those who will evaluate it, but also from our own assumptions which are subjective by nature. In the end, our opinions don't matter that much.

In my very first marketing class, we were asked if we thought of marketing as science or as an art. Some said science, some said art, a lot of debate followed, but in the end there was no clear conclusion. It depended on too many things and we were to interpret it as we saw fit. In short, it was the first step into the wild west of wondering where anything goes as long as we have some (biased) justification. I don't think that's enough.

It's only by developing a coherent data-driven strategy that we can properly frame the realm of action in which imagination can be set free. There is simply too much complexity, too many variables and too many unknown factors for us to even begin to understand the essence of social behavior, growth trends or the true role of brands in society without some empirical help.

So in a way, all things considered, marketing might just be both art and science. If creatives are artists, then strategists should play at the intersection of design, science and storytelling. The relationship between strategy and creativity becomes cyclical by embracing and mixing the tested rules and constant experimentation of science with the novelty and boldness of art. Einstein meets Picasso.

Welcome to the age of science-driven art forms.