Milking Brands for financial manipulation

It’s tempting to convert brand value into temporary profits or sales.

For publicly traded companies the goal is sometimes to fool the financial markets into the thinking the company is healthier than it is. Some managers even say they have to do what they do in order to maintain the share price.  The ethics, and even legality of such practice is questionable.  Of course, converting brand value into temporary sales or profits really lowers the value of a company (and so will eventually lower market capitalization).

Here are the sorts of tricks managers use to hit immediate financial targets.

1. Cut advertising spend.  For many packaged goods companies, advertising spend is equal to profits; or put another way if they didn’t advertise they could post double their normal profits for the year.  So this gives management quite a lot of room to fill profit short-falls simply by reducing advertising spend.  Of course this will depress sales, and therefore profit contribution, but the net effect will be a jump in profits.  Next year sales will be even lower however, and will require more advertising to fix, or greater cuts to advertising to hide the reduction in profit contribution.  A trick to hide reductions in advertising spend is to claim that marketing mix modelling or digital initiatives are delivering much greater efficiency so that the company can afford to cut advertising.  As a marketing professor I can say that there are very good reasons not to buy this argument – financial analysts should beware of it.

2. More price promotion.  The problem with cutting advertising is that sales revenue tends to also decline, probably not by much at first, but eventually the losses start to climb, and brands can risk being de-listed by retailers.  So another trick is to replace some of the advertising cut with price promotions.  These help fix (hide) sales declines.

3. Call discounts “marketing expenditure”.  The problem with price promotions is that while they boost volume sales they decimate profitability and can even lower sales revenue.  This can be fixed by registering sales as full price sales, not the discounted price they were really sold at, and instead booking the discount as a marketing expense (e.g. “trade marketing incentive”).  This increased marketing cost can be useful to assay  investment analysts who are worried that the company is inflating sales and profits by cutting the marketing budget (using the first two tricks above).

Few companies fully disclose and breakdown their marketing expenditure.  This makes it easier for them to use such tricks to fool shareholders and potential investors.  And ensure that management hit their performance targets.

It’s not just consumer goods companies that use such tricks.  One automotive company told me that it’s common practice for manufacturers to ring their car dealers if they are going to miss a sales target and offer them cash payments if they can sell x number of cars/trucks in the few remaining days in the quarter/year.  “Yes, no trouble” says each dealer, and then books a number of sales as they ‘sell’ these cars from one of the dealer’s registered companies to another.  Then a “demo model” sign is placed on the cars along with a new discounted price (in effect paid for by the manufacturer).  The car manufacturer hits their sales target, and books full price sales, they just register the money they paid the dealer as a marketing expense (possibly paid for out of the advertising budget).  Of course, hitting sales targets next period will be even more difficult because there are just as many unsold cars sitting on the dealers’ lots.

Digital advertising viewability – a useful guide

In online advertising there is currently much controversy about charging advertisers for ads that could never be seen by consumers. In November 2014 Google, to their credit, issued a report that showed that only around half of the ads that were served by their servers were ever able to be viewed (e.g. many viewers did not scroll down far enough for it to appear on their computer or smartphone screen). Even more extraordinary, this figure of half the ad ‘impressions’ being (potentially) viewable was based on a very generous definition of “viewable”, that is, that at least 50% of the ads pixels were onscreen for one second or more. Unsurprisingly leading advertisers are calling for higher standards of viewability, in June 2015 Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed said that only 100% viewability is acceptable, that for an online ad to count as an impression 100% of the ad needs to be onscreen not merely served by the web server to the web browser or app.

Of course Keith’s right, we don’t want to pay for vapourware, but we don’t have to, even if new standards of viewability are not agreed upon we can now easily calculate a figure closer to reality simply by halving the impression score. Or, put another way, double the CPM (cost per thousand impressions).

That gets us much closer to the truth, but not quite there though.  Another consideration for online video and display ads is the problem is that some of the impressions that are served, and paid for by advertisers, are not reaching humans. Audience impression figures are inflated by views by other computers (‘spiders’ and ‘robots’) rather than actual humans. Some of this fake traffic is even fraudulent where firms collect money for delivering referrals to web sites, inflating their ratings. Fake clicks and video views can also be generated, often by virus software running on the computers of unsuspecting consumers. Major providers of online advertising space such as Facebook and Google have anti-fraud teams devoted to detecting this activity but it remains a problem. It’s difficult to know how large a problem it is, as many of the people reporting statistics have in interest in over-stating the problem (e.g. firms who sell anti-fraud solutions) or under-stating the problem (e.g. firms who sell on-line advertising space). In November 2014 Kraft is the US reported that it rejects more than three quarters of digital ad impressions deeming them “fraudulent, unsafe or non-viewable or unknown”.

That figure sounds about right given the Google research (others report similar numbers) and the fact that some impressions are non-human.

So about one in four online ad impressions is an actual opportunity to see (OTS) for a real human viewer.  However, we can’t assume each ad impression is always actually seen, and therefore able to affect memory, we have to discount for the perceptual filters and inattention of these human beings.  This is true for any media, an OTS is an opportunity for our ads to be seen not a guarantee.  Just how much this varies by media, and by situation, is something that we are researching now in the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.  It will be some time before we have the solid empirical evidence needed to accurate compare the impact on brains of an OTS in different media.  But until then we can still make meaningful comparisons between media at least in terms of the OTS, and a good guide for digital seems to be to quadruple the cost of each impression in order to compare it to another medium.

Professor Byron Sharp
Ehrenberg-Bass Institute
University of South Australia

PS Google Ad Networks have announced that they are about to change bidding for CPM (per thousand impressions) to vCPM, which means you only pay for viewable ad impressions.  Unfortunately viewable still merely means “when 50 percent of your ad shows on screen for one second or longer for display ads, and two seconds or longer for video ads”.  So an important step in the right direction, now we have something closer to what would count as an OTS (or impression) in other media.

PPS Google suggest that you’ll need to double your old CPM bids now they are using vCPM.  This is inline with the research cited at the start of this article.

Less is known about advertising than we think

It strikes me as very odd when people say things like “we have much to learn about [insert new media], it’s not like TV that we know so well”.

Know so well?!?  How many marketers have heard of the ‘Duplication of Viewing Law’ (Goodhardt, 1966*) ?  How many can predict a repeat-viewing rate for a program, time-slot, or channel?  Even what is known isn’t well known (nor used).

There are so many unanswered questions.  Even simple questions like is an ad spot on the left hand side of a page is worth less or more than one on the right?  And how much?

Not enough is known about how we should best use media to expose category buyers to our advertising.  Let alone how these exposures reach brains.  And this is true for even ‘old media’ like TV and print.  So much that needs to be researched.  It’s extraordinary how ignorant many marketers (and marketing academics) are about our discipline’s fundamental ignorance.

Byron Sharp, July 2015.

* Published in the most cited journal in the world, Nature (and yes the date is correct, 1966).  Yet try to find a marketing textbook that covers it (not counting this one).

What causes the Double Jeopardy law?

I was recently asked for a causal explanation of marketing’s Double Jeopardy pattern.

This is discussed in How Brands Grow (e.g. table 3.3 and surrounding text). Also see page 113 of my textbook. Though the most complete explanation is in the forthcoming “How Brands Grow part 2”.

It’s worth noting that causal explanations turn out to be ‘in the eye of the beholder’… e.g. what caused that window to break?
… the speed and mass of the ball resulting in sufficient force to break the molecular bonds in the glass of that window
… Jonny playing baseball on the front lawn when his Mum told him not to
… the wind, the pitch, the sun in Jonny’s eyes
… the Smith’s skimping and not installing double glazing ignoring their builder’s advice

All are better or worse explanations, depending on your point of view.

It’s the same for Double Jeopardy.

One explanation is simply that it’s a scientific law, it describes a bit of the universe, and that’s it… it’s simply how the world is. We don’t tend to ask why is there an opposite and equal reaction for every action (Newton’s first law), there just is.

The statistical explanation of Double Jeopardy is that it is a selection effect. Because  brand share depends largely on mental and physical availability, rather than differentiated appeals of different brands.  For marketers this is pretty important, pretty insightful, we wouldn’t get Double Jeopardy if brands were highly differentiated appealing to different segments of the market.  Since we do see Double Jeopardy all over the place that suggests that real-world differentiation is pretty mild.  Mental and physical availability must be a much bigger story than differentiation.  That’s a very important insight.

Trade not boycotts helps poor people and the environment

There is far more trade between countries today than ever before.  And it has allowed countries that were terribly poor, with awful rates of childhood mortality, to transform themselves.

If you haven’t seen this superb video by Professor Hans Rosling then please do.  It shows the amazing progress that has been made.

This progress is often forgotten by people who instead give gloomy summations of the world today.  And worse, some of these people blame globalisation.  Trade is even presented as evil, forcing peasants to leave their (cold wet) rice farm to work in ugly city factories (better paid, warm, with healthcare, career prospects).  Somehow it’s thought that these dumb peasants don’t know what is good for them and their children – they are portrayed as victims of globalisation.

The statistics in Hans Rosling’s video help dispel this dystopian (patronising) fantasy.

I hope that facts like this help people to realise that trade gives people in poor countries a positive future.

If all the rich people in rich countries had agreed not to buy any goods from factories in Asia until they met our environmental and labour standards then Japan would be a poor backward country today. Child mortality in Asia would be atrocious, as it was only 50 years ago.  We must never forget this.


Conflicts in the marketing system

I do sometimes hear an ad agency people say “we don’t care about creative awards, we are totally dedicated to each client’s business objectives”, especially when in front of clients.  It makes me wonder whether they are lying (that’s bad), or that they are deluding themselves (which may even be worse), or if they are admitting that they simply aren’t good enough to win creative awards (and that’s not good either).

I think it is important to be grown-up, honest and up-front about conflicts of interest.e.g. Martin Sorrell wants to sell marketers stuff, his empire (like his competitors) will sell whatever marketers will buy that he can deliver profitably.  This matters far more to the agency than whether or not it is the best way to build their clients’ brands.

Creatives want to win awards.  And if this doesn’t sell a single extra of your product they aren’t really worried.

Media agencies want to do what they know, what’s easy, and they have to sell media space they have committed previously to buy.

Market research agencies want to sell standardised products, ideally that use automated data collection and analysis, or low-level people.  They can’t make big profits from stuff that requires in-depth analysis by expensive people.  They do far more R&D into reducing data collection costs than into better research.

Retailers want to win share from other retailers.  They don’t care if this means selling another box of your product or not.

So partners yes.  But there are conflicts in the system.  This is fine, so long as everyone understands the conflicts then they can be managed – it’s possible for everyone to win.  But pretending these don’t exist is dangerous.

Professor Byron Sharp

July 2014.

Apple could charge a lot more – but should they?

Most of the things we own are OK, but a few special few are works of great craftsmanship, things of beauty. They give us pleasure in the same way that some houses, some architecture, is beautiful to look at. It’s something about being human that just looking at a building can be pleasurable yet we aren’t benefiting in any way from its function, we don’t own it, and may never even step inside it.

Beautifully crafted things usually cost more, which is understandable. In fact they often cost a great deal more – we have to pay a lot for small increases in quality, especially at the top end.

So luxury watches, handbags, wines (even business schools) cost an awful lot more even though functionally they may be rather similar to much cheaper alternatives. Luxury watches still cost tens of thousands of dollars more than throwaway watches that now are just as accurate at timekeeping.

Apple, under the guidance of chief designer Sir Jonathan Ives, makes beautifully crafted products. No tablet comes close to the build quality and sleek lines of the iPad Air, and the new Mac Pro looks like something developed using futuristic superior alien technology.

If these products came out from a company in the LMVH empire they would be priced many times higher. So why doesn’t Apple charge more? Even just a little bit more would do little to dampen demand and would add dramatically to profits. So why not?

Firstly, because Apple is in the technology business, where product features are very important and where it’s difficult to gain much of a technological advantage, certainly not one that lasts for any time. In handbags it’s taken for granted that they can all hold stuff, so design (both looks and build) matter enormously. In technology, basic functional factors like speed and screen size really matter, and Apple will never be far ahead of competitors.

Secondly, because Apple wants to build penetration and scale. They want lots of customers for their beautiful products who will then buy music, movies, books and apps from Apple – and of course future products. Getting an Apple product into someone’s pocket or bag gives Apple a medium through which to build mental availability for other Apple products. This is the same reason Amazon massively subsidies their Kindle price.

Thirdly, because Steve Jobs hated price premiums. He always wanted a lower price. Not a discount – he understood the need for profits to fund new product development and marketing, but as low a price as possible to still be profitable. He wanted his products to change the world, which meant getting them into as many hands as possible. Like Jonathan Ives he wanted people to see his art.

Anyone can have a price premium, it isn’t necessarily a sign of strength or good strategy.

So there are arguments in both directions, Apple should lower its prices and more aggressively chase share (closer to the Amazon Kindle strategy), or Apple should increase its prices and reap enormous profits. I guess from their perspective that means their prices are where they should be.

Out-take for marketers: a price premium might be nice for profits today but it holds back reach and scale, and that increases the riskiness of future profits.

PS A related interesting question is whether they should launch a cheap, minimal feature smartphone to bring kids and ‘light users’ into their fold? But they already sell the iPod touch and still have the iPhone 4S on the market so maybe this simply wouldn’t do much for them?