Elections are popularity contests. There’s only one winner.  Successful marketing is also about being chosen, so is it a good strategy to be a bit Marmite? Or is it better to avoid extremes and be acceptable to all?

Many a brand manager claims that success will come from building a small but immensely loyal following. Marmite embraced the fact that some people can’t stand the stuff with its “Love it or hate it” advertising. But don’t be fooled. This isn’t like picking a president. Even people who love Marmite don’t eat it exclusively in their sandwiches or on their toast. In any category where there is regular repeat purchase, such as grocery products, big brands are bought by more people, more of the time. Small brands don’t have a tiny cadre of devoted followers; they are bought some of the time by some people. The idea that aiming to be perfectly appealing to a small segment is a winning strategy for a grocery brand was debunked by the work of English academic Andrew Ehrenberg and popularised by his Australian protégé Byron Sharp in his book How Brands Grow. Instead, they argue, market penetration is the key to success for fmcg brands.

It is different in categories where you can only use one at a time, and buy infrequently. Few people who have an Apple iphone considers Samsung when it’s time to upgrade, or vice versa. Even where we are not tied in by familiarity with a system, a strongly defined position that some will love and many will reject can still work, especially if it’s at a price premium. Farrow & Ball, the upmarket paint brand, is easy to mock for its quintessential Englishness and its cutsey names. (The title of this piece uses two of the mildest.) But they don’t seem to mind. Enough people are willing to sport out two and a half times the price of a gallon of B&Q white for a can of Farrow & Ball Old White™ – and it’s not even white.

The universal truth, for all categories, is that brands grow in one of three ways. More people buy them, or people buy them more often, or they use more. There is a parallel with voting here: getting the vote out can be a winning strategy. Brands that stimulate purchase, consumption, and ultimately regular repeat purchase, will thrive. Here, lateral-thinking marketers have a huge advantage over the politicos. We can expand the market. We can even compete in different markets – not just new geographies but new sectors. A breakthrough in thinking at the Coca Cola Company was when they stopped thinking about share of the cola market or even the fizzy drinks market and started thinking about share of throat, i.e. all drinks consumption. It’s said of Colman’s mustard powder that all the profit comes from what we throw away. This is not a good place to be. Marmite is trying to stimulate consumption by teaming up with grocery and food delivery companies to be included in their recipes, a tactic used by many a condiment and now being imitated by others.

Bottom line? Don’t start with your product or even your category. Start with users, and think about all the ways your category, product and brand can fit into their lives. From there, you can build great communications campaigns, and you will find opportunities to innovate in product, packaging and distribution, just as Coke did.

Thought leadership | November 2020