How do brands really grow?: Seth Godin Vs Byron Sharp

how do brands really grow

I’m a huge fan of business books and have probably read more than I ever needed to, some I have loved, some… not so much. Some I liked the main idea, some I didn’t, but me liking the arguments and them being right are very very far from the same thing. 

Seth Godin is one of my favourite authors in the space. Books like Purple Cow, All Marketers are liars and Permission Marketing have been instrumental to my thinking in building  Pooch & Mutt. In his more recent 2018 book, This is Marketing, Seth sets out his stall like this; We should not be looking to build markets for products, we should be looking to build tribes of engaged people and then make products for those people.

On the flip side of this (as I interpret it) is Byron Sharp, whose much-loved 2010 book How Brands Grow argues that it’s not really the engaged super fans that are the ones that are going to grow your brand, your brand grows by getting customers who buy your product occasionally to buy it a few more times. Growth comes from people who don’t really care about or love your brand. As someone who bought into the Lovemarks (2004 book by Kevin Roberts) thinking, this grated on me, but me not liking it doesn’t make it wrong. 

Byron cites the great example of Harley Davidson, who has an army of super-loyal super fans, who meet up, ride together and even have ‘Harley-owner’ as a key part of their identity, but who Harley makes very little actual money from – these people are more likely to buy second-hand bikes and to work on their bikes themselves. Harley makes more money from the dentists who use their bike to commute to work when the weather’s good, people who don’t have leather H.O.G. waistcoats. These people buy bikes new from a dealership and take them back to the dealership for servicing. In this example he’s right. 

This made me look at the products I buy and the brands that I engage with, which led me to realise that there’s quite often no correlation at all between engagement and purchase. To take some well-known UK brands as an example; Innocent (the smoothie people) is one of the seminal UK Challenger brands (even under Coke’s ownership), I follow them on most social channels, occasionally engage with them and really like the work that they do. However, I haven’t purchased an innocent product for years. On the flip side, I always buy Colgate Total toothpaste, to the point where if I ran out and there was none in the shop, I would buy another brand (I like clean teeth), but buy another tube of Colgate Total as soon as I could and throw the other brand away (or more likely ‘keep for emergency’ and let it fester in the bathroom cupboard for years). I am totally loyal to the brand from a purchasing point of view. However, I would never follow Colgate on any social media and can’t imagine engaging with them in any way. This makes me think that Byron might be right. 

Seth, rarely talks about big brands and writes more conceptually than citing examples of brands we might know. He also is passionate about people starting their own businesses in an area that they care about, rather than working for big corporates to build someone else’s brand. He refers to examples like a niche high-end hi-fi equipment supplier who constantly provides top-quality information about the market, new products and what’s going on in that world. As someone who is interested in that world, you would follow this supplier as a trusted information source, and when it’s time for you to buy something, you would buy from them, because you trust them and you know that you and they are part of the same ‘high-end, hi-fi equipment lovers tribe’ as you. Even if it takes you years to actually buy from them.

Again to reflect this back to my personal habits. I have followed people like movement guru Tim Shieff (@humantimothy on Instagram) for years, I like and learn from his content and when he brought in his @wayoftherope programme and products I bought a rope from him, which I use regularly and recommend to others. Equally, I followed @muttmotorcycles for ages before I bought one of their bikes. I’ll now post about their bikes and recommend to others who have then gone on to buy them. Both Tim and Mutt clearly fit Seth’s model perfectly, they are part of their tribes and high up in the hierarchy of those tribes. We want to be part of the same tribe, so we buy from them. It looks like Seth could be right after all. 

Does this mean that both Seth and Byron are right?

Potentially it does. 

I think it’s worth bringing in the concept of the adoption curve to explain why. If you aren’t familiar with the graph below, google adoption curve or click here to read the 1st google result. 

My conclusion is that Seth is correct for brands on the left of the curve, new brands, start-ups and small, niche brands. These rely on social media to get the word out, as that’s effectively all they can afford. This means that you have to have a great product that is unusual (a purple cow) that people will tell other people about and customers who buy it will recommend it to others. This works (in my opinion) when you are still a ‘discovery’ brand, when people can tell their friends about you and look good/knowledable because they know about something and the person that they are recommending it to doesn’t. This is a form of social capital, similar to the ‘Music Person’ building their music credentials by talking about the new track from a band that you definitely haven’t heard of. This stops working when the likelihood is that the person that you recommend to already knows about it. You don’t increase your social capital by recommending the new track by last years X-factor winner, or the new flavour of Colgate toothpaste, but you would by recommending Sea Sick Steve or Native Toothpaste (at least in the UK where no one knows it).

At around the point that most people in your market know about your brand – about midway through the early-majority on the adoption curve, Byron becomes right. To grow your sales you don’t need to get more people to know about your brand and what you do (they most likely already know). You just need to get people who know about your brand and occasionally buy it to buy it more often. Byron writes a lot about ‘brand saliency’, the degree to which your brand is considered when a customer is in a buying situation and says that it is your job to build brand saliency. (My interpretation of) his solution to this is just to spend lots of money on media and make sure you are seen everywhere. As a small brand owner I disagree with this approach, but see how it can be right for a bigger brand that’s part of a multi-national corporation and has loads of cash to spend on marketing. 

The truth is that it’s is difficult to know why people buy any product, because people aren’t people – a collective who all think the same, they are persons – individuals who all think differently and act for different reasons. Some things will work for your brand and some won’t. You might have a hugely engaged Instagram following, but have products that are not right for them to buy. You might have a product that sells itself off the shelf with no marketing whatsoever. You may sit somewhere in the middle.

Byron questioned in Campaign Magazine if Ben & Jerry’s is known for their activism (which they probably think they are) or for being the brand that puts big chunks of cookie dough in ice cream (which may well be the reason that people buy it), but even if he is right that doesn’t mean that Ben & Jerry’s should stop being an activist brand. They should do what feels right to them, and what works for them, which it clearly does ($681m sales in the US alone) and every other brand should do what they feel is right for their brand, as long as it brings in results. There’s no point in being a bankrupt purpose brand and just as little point being a passion-less brand just doing it for the money – You’d be better off being banker.