Byron Sharp on conference pontification, marketing absolutes and marketer pride

Ahead of his keynote at Mumbrella's MSIX conference next month, Professor Byron Sharp, director of the world's biggest marketing research centre The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, speaks to MSIX curator Adam Ferrier about people at conferences who ask "questions that aren't questions", gets angry about people calling his book How Brands Grow 'absolute' and says he doesn't have any regrets.

Sharp: There is no magic key to growth

What motivated you to write the modern marketing bible (maybe a bad analogy for a book on marketing science) ‘How Brands Grow?’

The Advisory Boards of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute asked for it. They asked me to take a break from writing about our newest work and write a book on the fundamental discoveries and what they meant. The purpose was so that the CMO could have a book they could give to their CEO and CFO to explain that they were making changes in marketing (again!) but this time based on substance not fashion.

So it had to be hardback, and have a respectable publisher. We got Oxford University Press – very respectable, although terrible for marketing a business book, they have no sales force, no presence in bookshops.

Your style of communications can be very ‘absolute’ e.g. Calling your findings ‘Laws’ and ‘Rules’ and so on. In such a complex world of marketing can you really be as sure and ‘absolute’ as you are (in a world where nothing can be proven only disproven)?

Seriously?! Please have a look at How Brands Grow again, I think you will find that is an unfair characterisation. Some people (who haven’t read the book?) like to think that it’s dogmatic and therefore can be criticised. I urge readers to judge for themselves, if anyone thinks I’ve said something that’s too “black and white” and doesn’t apply in an important circumstance then do tell me.


In How Brands Grow I carefully point out that these are scientific laws, which simply means reoccurring patterns that have been observed over a wide range of different conditions. Not religious “thou shalt” laws. How Brands Grow is far less prescriptive than most business books which present simple ‘magic bullet’ strategies.

If I hadn’t included the section on “seven simple rules for marketing” I’d have been accused of being too academic, and not practical. People do expect business books to offer some suggestions for action. So to quote from the book:

“There is no magic key to growth. It’s difficult because the potential returns are great and all your competitors are trying to grow too (at your brand’s expense). But you are much more likely to succeed when it’s understood that the key objective is to build its market-based assets. The brand must be easier to buy for more people in more situations.”

Growth is possible—all the laws of marketing in this book support this—and it doesn’t just depend on new products. Better advertising, better branding, better media strategy, better in-store displays and following the seven rules presented above—these are all paths to growth.”

What’s the one rule all marketers should pay attention to that will drive the most success for their brands?

There is no one magic bullet.

Broadly speaking, and in a professional sense who do you admire and why?

I very much admire the productivity of the marketing community. And resulting contribution to making the world a wealthier place and everything that goes with that, i.e. healthier, safer, kinder, more resource efficient, more environmentally friendly.

I’m proud to be a member of the marketing community. More marketers should be proud.

What’s your biggest regret?

I don’t have any regrets.

You are the keynote speaker at MSIX this year. What are you particularly excited about talking about?

Science and creativity.

We are opening the floor to a discussion after your talk what question do you fear getting asked, and what question do you really want to be asked?

I loathe questions that aren’t questions, ie no question mark on the end. Where someone just wants to hold the microphone and pontificate.

Do you think you can ‘science’ your way to good advertising? If you made an ad with all of your scientific understanding, but lack of ‘creative flair’ how effective do you think it would be (assuming a strong media plan)?

Media strategy is imperative, you have to distribute your ads to the market. Good branding is imperative, it won’t work for you unless people realise it is your ad. But even after that, we know that without good creative the advertising can never perform very well.

Which advertiser in Australia currently do you think is doing a great job, and not so great job with their communications in Australia?

I haven’t been in Australia lately.

Complete this sentence ‘Marketing Science is…’

… the study of buying and selling.


Professor Byron Sharp is the director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. He’s also the headline speaker at this year’s MSIX conference in Sydney on November 3. You can check out the program and purchase tickets here.

Earlier this year, Thinkerbell’s Adam Ferrier challenged the orthodoxy of Ehrenberg-Bass during a provocative session at Mumbrella360:


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