Every business or professional discipline has a few books that are widely regarded as seminal works. In marketing, one such book is How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp. Published in 2010, How Brands Grow quickly became one of the most influential books in the field of marketing.
I read How Brands Grow several years ago, and I found it to be both insightful and provocative. So, I looked forward to reading the recently-published sequel – How Brands Grow Part 2 (Revised Edition) (Oxford University Press, 2022). The new book was written by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp (with contributions by two other writers also affiliated with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science).
To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the new book in this review as Part 2 Revised Edition.
Byron Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute have long espoused a set of marketing principles that differ significantly from those advocated by many marketing academics, consultants and practitioners. For example, most marketers have been taught that differentiating their brand/product in the marketplace is vital for marketing success.
Sharp made his position on differentiation clear in How Brands Grow when he wrote, “Rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness. Branding lasts, differentiation doesn’t.”
In How Brands Grow, Sharp also discussed eleven “law-like patterns” of consumer behavior and brand competition, and he described “the most important knowledge” in the book as follows:
“Growth in market share comes by increasing popularity; that is, by gaining many more buyers (of all types), most of which are light customers buying the brand only occasionally.”
“Brands, even though they are slightly differentiated, mainly compete as if they are near lookalikes, but they vary in popularity (and hence market share).”
“Brand competition and growth is largely about building two market-based assets: physical availability and mental availability. Brands that are easier to buy – for more people in more situations – have more market share. Innovation and differentiation (when they work) build market-based assets, which last after competitors copy the innovation.”
In Part 2 Revised Edition, Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp seek to show that the principles spelled out in the first book apply in a wider range of product/service categories and in a broader array of markets than were discussed in the first book. For example, Part 2 Revised Edition contains a significant amount of data from emerging markets.
The Application to B2B
One of the major questions I’ve had about the approach to marketing advanced by Sharp and his colleagues at Ehrenberg-Bass is whether or to what extent it is effective in B2B marketing. Therefore, I was particularly excited that Romaniuk and Sharp devoted a chapter in Part 2 Revised Edition to B2B.
It will be tempting for many B2B marketers to immediately dismiss the principles advocated by Romaniuk and Sharp because they stand in stark contrast to so many widely-accepted B2B marketing practices, such as account-based marketing, targeted marketing and personalization. However, I would argue that B2B marketers should at least give the ideas of Romaniuk and Sharp thoughtful consideration.
The B2B marketing practices that are currently popular are primarily designed for “high consideration” purchases that involve expensive and/or complex products or services, multiple decision makers and long buying cycles. But such high consideration purchases have never represented all or even most B2B commerce. Romaniuk and Sharp make a similar point when they write:
“The term ‘B2B marketing’ is often used as if it describes a single homogenous category. However, there is no single B2B market . . . The businesses on both sides of the B2B can come in many shapes and sizes . . . B2B businesses can sell consumables, durables or services. B2B categories can vary in price from discounted to luxury, and in whether the relationship with the buyer is subscription or repertoire in nature . . .”
The diversity of B2B commerce means that some B2B markets will exhibit the same buying behaviors and competitive attributes that characterize many B2C markets. In those markets, the principles advanced by Romaniuk and Sharp may well be relevant for marketers. In their chapter on B2B, the authors discuss how those principles apply in various B2B markets, including business insurance, business banking and concrete.
For me, the bottom line is that B2B marketers should give thoughtful consideration to the ideas contained in Part 2 Revised Edition. In fact, if your haven’t read How Brands Grow, I suggest you read that book first because it does a slightly better job at explaining some aspects of the Ehrenberg-Bass approach to marketing.
Both of these books contain provocative ideas, and they are worthwhile reads even if you ultimately decide that many of the ideas don’t apply to your market.
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