Simply Better by Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan: A review by John Scriven, London South Bank University

Some years ago I was talking with a senior colleague about a large and successful company that nevertheless could be difficult to understand at times. “The trouble with these guys”, said my colleague, “is that they think they are good at Marketing, but in fact they are really just first class system operators”. “Well,” I reflected, “I think you’ll find that all successful corporations are first and foremost first class system operators”. I’ve been reminded of this exchange many times in the intervening years, as I was again while reading this book. Because it strikes me that it is essentially the same message here. Marketing is all very well (indeed it is crucial to the success of any business), but the most important part of marketing is not the whistles and bells, trying to find unique but usually trivial points of difference on which to base consumer targeting and brand communication strategies. Marketing is about finding what really matters to consumers (usually the core benefits of the product category), then ensuring that your company relentlessly delivers it, from reliable quality of production throughout the logistics chain to consumption. And in parallel, to create distinctive communication that makes and keeps the brand salient to the potential consumer base.

And that’s it. Simply be better at doing the fundamentals, and make sure everybody keeps being reminded that you do. Why would this work? Because, Barwise and Meehan argue, most companies are not very good at the systematic processes involved, but those that are tend to be the ones that are successful. It’s a never-ending process; no company can ever sit back and say the job is done (unlike goal oriented objectives). And it is easy to get distracted and complacent. How to do it? That’s why you should read the book.

The argument in brief goes like this.

What really matters to consumers are often generic benefits, like a mobile phone that works (e.g. can reliably make and receive calls wherever you are), or a petrol station on the road you are on. “What the consumer buys is a brand, but what he or she wants or needs is the category”. But consumers will habitually return to brands that have provided satisfaction for them in the past at a reasonable price (not necessarily the cheapest). What they value mostly is the reliability rather than any specific differential attribute of the brand. Companies must therefore obsessively monitor their performance at delivering these core benefits. Innovation can change the fundamentals, but “Innovators must take care that the brand-specific benefits they provide are not trivial, peripheral or relevant only to a small minority of customers”.

Contrary to the theories of differentiation, most brands are perceived as similar by their users, i.e. users of brand A see it pretty much as users of B see brand B, on most dimensions of how they like it, what its characteristics are and its benefits. To simplify their lives, consumers tend to spend very little time evaluating their choices; often just going straight for the brand they normally buy. If it’s not there, something else will probably do just as well. Occasionally a special price will drive the choice between otherwise similar options. Why then are the market shares of such similar brands so markedly different? Sometimes distribution is a factor, sometimes price, but rarely do they account for the five or tenfold advantage that the market leader often has over some other brand. Small differences in brand preference can lead over time to big differences in share, through the mechanism of salience: the propensity of a brand to come to mind when making a purchase choice. Big brands are salient for far more people. Salience is driven by exposure and use, through seeing the brand, experiencing it and hearing about it via advertising and word of mouth. In other words it is heavily conditioned by an individual’s history with the brand, but can be influenced by all aspects of the marketing mix.

The key to understanding and delivering what consumers want is to immerse yourself in customer contact. Not just formal market research, but direct executive contact with the customer. Do it right across the business. Keep your eye on the competitors at all times, and pay particular attention to the drivers of dissatisfaction, not just satisfaction.

Chapter 4, on the challenges of innovating to drive the market, extends the notion of the importance of core benefits to business and monitoring systems to ensure it happens. Examples of successful exponents – Tesco and Ryanair stand out – make it seem straightforward (if hard work). The chapter seems on review to be missing something. But that’s the message. Do the straightforward, with all your focus and energy and don’t get diverted. But make sure what you do evolves with the market needs.

The authors have an interesting take on marketing communications that I find quite appealing. Communication definitely comes second. No matter how good, communication will never overcome failures in delivery of the product. Nevertheless, this leaves much room for outstanding communications, consistently delivered over time, to make the difference when the product delivery is sound. Even if you are good, you still have to keep reminding everyone. And if your product doesn’t need to be much different, your advertising does!

Returning to customer focus, chapter six covers how successful companies develop a culture that is appropriately responsive to customer needs. This is perhaps the crux of the book, how to develop systems that deliver consistency, but are flexible enough to meet changing requirements, whether that is change in customer requirements or the competitive environment. It involves objective debate, tough decision-making and plenty of rigour. Experiment and risk should be tolerated, but the main prizes are reserved for being right. I find the Wild West analogy a bit odd though, I thought the prizes there went to the man with the fastest draw, right or wrong.

In conclusion, Simply Better is a well-written and well-considered view of the central role of marketing in business, with lots of supporting examples, albeit mainly through qualitative case studies and interviews. With the ultimate implication that if they can do it, so can you, if you know what you should be aiming for.

John Scriven,

Director, Ehrenberg Centre, London South Bank University.


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