Mark Ritson: 3 things I learned about brand building

Katie Sweet

We all know Mark Ritson — brand consultant, Marketing Week columnist and all-around smart person. He recently gave an insightful talk to our Insights Alliance, a group of like-minded professionals working together to transform and digitize the world of insights.I learned a lot about brand building that insights and marketing professionals alike can benefit from. Let’s dive into my top three takeaways.

1. You might not be as good at putting yourself in your customers’ shoes as you think you are

Mark started off by saying it’s absolutely essential that your whole company has a market orientation before your brand can be truly successful. Market orientation can be defined as a focus on identifying and meeting customer needs or wants.

With that definition, what business would claim to be anything other than market oriented? It seems like a no brainer.

But Mark outlined the problem in an example. In one study, marketers were asked to estimate the amount of time their audience spent on various social media channels. Those estimates ended up aligning with the amount of time the marketers themselves spent on social media, rather than with the audience’s time spent.

The scary part is, the marketers thought they knew how their audience behaved. But they didn’t.

Normally, marketers look down from their tower to the street to view their consumers. That’s not what we’re talking about with market orientation. We’re talking about doing a 180 degree swivel so now we’re understanding how customers see us: the product, the company, the service, everything. In my experience that swivel is missing in most managers’ mindsets. They think they can do it, but they can’t.

Mark Ritson

The problem is, once you start as an employee at your company, you will never again see your company the way your customer does. You’re biased now.

In fact, Mark goes so far as to say it’s dangerous to believe you think the same way your customer thinks. You are not the typical customer anymore.

Your first response is probably wrong unless research from real customers confirms it.

Mark Ritson

“Market orientation sets up insights,” Mark went on to say. Without first having the knowledge that you don’t know anything until your customer tells you, you won’t listen to insights.

You have to turn off your preconceived notions, and train your organization to do the same. Once that happens, the insights team will be much better set up for success.

2. You’re probably spending too much on performance marketing and not enough on brand building

One common question among marketers: Should I focus on building a strong brand into the future or on driving sales right now?

To answer this question, Mark referenced The Long and the Short of It, by statisticians Les Binet and Peter Field. In their work, performance marketing is referred to as “the short” while brand building is called “the long.”

They found that both are important for a successful brand.

The most important part of ‘The long and the short of it’ is the word ‘and.’ It’s both. You need both in the right proportion.

Mark Ritson

Binet and Field even tell us how much money to spend on each. For example, CPGs should spend 60% of their budget on brand and 40% on activation. Yet Mark hypothesizes that most CPGs are spending too much, as much as 80%, on short-term ROI-driven activation.

There are typical reasons as to why this might be the case: the CFO doesn’t understand the importance of spending on brand if there isn’t a short-term return, the average marketing tenure isn’t long enough to care about long-term work, etc.

“All that is total bullshit,” says Mark.

The real issue is that very few companies look at a three to four year horizon. They’re only looking one year at a time. And within a short time window, brand building activities don’t result in the same level of growth as activation activities.

It can be illustrated in a graph like this, where the red line is activation and the blue line is brand building. Looking at a window like this, any reasonable person would invest more in the activities that produce the red line.

Only once you look a few years out do you see the benefits of brand building. It could look something like this:

Unfortunately, if you’re only planning one year at a time, your results won’t look like the graph above, they’ll look like this one below. Notice the blue line (brand) never quite reaches the potential of the previous graph.

3. You’re probably sick of your brand assets, and that means you’re doing something right

While Mark believes in the value of brand differentiation, he believes distinctiveness is absolutely essential to building a strong brand. While differentiation refers to how your brand is perceived against the competition, distinctiveness refers to whether or not a brand “pops” — whether it stands out to consumers and comes to mind in buying situations.

You may think this is obvious, but the data tells us that most of the brands you represent aren’t distinctive enough. They’re overly clever and underly distinct.

Mark Ritson

As humans, much of our thinking is System 1: it’s fast, unconscious and automatic. We don’t weigh the pros and cons of different brands every time we make a decision. Sometimes, we make decisions based on which brand comes to mind first or which one we recognize first in a store. In those instances, being distinct matters.

Again, this sounds obvious. But as brand builders, we spend so much time and attention on our brands. We spend every day looking at the same colors, logos, packaging and mascots. These elements can start to feel played out very quickly.

But consumers don’t spend as much time on our brands as we do. As a result, we get sick of our brand assets loooooong before anyone else does. If we keep switching up the elements of our brands, they’ll never be truly distinctive.

You win in distinctiveness if your agency thinks you’re crazy. Your team bemoans the lack of innovation. And you don’t care.

Mark Ritson

We have to have the courage to keep using these assets even when internal teams push back and say it’s time to move on. Because we don’t get to make that decision. The customer should be the one to tell us when it’s time to move on.

Final thoughts

One of the great things about Mark Ritson is that he can say things that sound obvious, but that still blow your mind because they’re great points you never considered in the context he describes.

The three big takeaways that blew my mind in this presentation were:

  1. Never assume you know what your customer is thinking

  2. Don’t sacrifice the long-term brand impact for the short-term results

  3. Stick with your brand assets longer than you think you should

Looking for help building and maintaining a strong brand? We can help you create ads, brands and products people love. Have a chat today to learn more.