Marginal gains: it's not about the bike

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Marginal gains: it's not all about the bike

Sir Dave Brailsford from Team Sky once said: "The whole principle of marginal gains came from the idea that if you broke down everything that could impact on a cycling performance — absolutely everything you could think of — and then you improved everything little thing by 1%, when you clump it all together, you're going to get quite a significant increase in performance. So we set about looking at everything we could."

Team Sky famously went to extreme lengths to identify and leverage opportunities for aggregating marginal gains. They looked at all the obvious things like fitness, nutrition and aerodynamics, and identified small areas of weakness in order to discover solutions and improvements unique to Team Sky that would give them an aggregated advantage over the competition. Memorably, in one instance this resulted in the team taking their own pillows with them to the Tour De France. Seemingly insignificant, but what value can you place on getting a good night’s sleep in an unfamiliar hotel when you’ve just cycled 200 km and have to do the same again the next day?

But why would we still be talking about this? Isn’t it a bit discredited now considering recent events? Even Wiggo unsurprisingly is a bit down on it now, “I think it’s a load of rubbish, if I’m honest. A lot of people made a lot of money out of it and David Brailsford used it constantly as his calling card. But I always thought it was a load of rubbish.”

All that being said, results talk and Team Sky and British Cycling, under the guidance of Sir Dave Brailsford, have been incredibly successful, reversing the trend seen in the previous 76 years with only one medal for British cycling and no British winner of the Tour De France.

So, what has this got to do with marketing? Well the principles of aggregated marginal gains are not just relevant to bike races. The idea of looking to find small improvements with the aim of continually optimising a job already well done, is well established in many industries. The BBC reported that Google apparently carry out 12,000 data tests each year in order to identify weaknesses, and a similar attention to detail can be found in many other sectors such as aviation and medical science to name a few.

In the world of marketing, the traditional rules of engagement are well documented; build a long-term brand through fame, creativity, salience and an emotional connection. In addition, the IPA, can categorically prove this theory via their Effectiveness Databank – it’s a job well done, but is there room for improvement?

Neuroscience, behavioural science and marketing science, championed by the likes of Susan Greenfield, Daniel Kahneman and Byron Sharp, have all started to uncover different ways in which the brain works, ultimately discovering ways in which brands can be brought to mind. Neuroscience is evolving all the time, with the concept of neuroplasticity highlighting how the brain continually reprograms itself based on experiences, including those driven by brands.

Behavioural science is a hot topic brought to the attention of the general public in part by The Behavioural Insights Team, A.K.A. Nudge Unit, established by the government and now in partnership with the Cabinet Office. And marketing science is now also hugely popular, with Byron Sharp’s theories being heard in many a blue chip boardroom. Recognising these new theories as to how the brain works, and crucially identifying ways that they can be activated in the real world, provides great opportunities for brands keen to leverage them.

We developed our Headspace programme to better incorporate some of this new thinking into our strategic development, increasing the effectiveness of the creative work we do for our clients’ brands. We recognised that most marketers are already doing a good job building their brands – but this was one possible way to find the next 1% gain beyond that.

At the root of our programme lay some of Byron Sharp’s work into mental availability and Stephen Holden’s paper ‘Ask not what the brand can evoke; Ask what can evoke the brand?’. Headspace allows us to acknowledge and respect the importance of this thinking, while introducing alongside it some of the newer insights into how the brain works.

We suggest ‘Don’t just talk about your brand, focus on what brings your brand to mind as well’ – the latter providing a critical marginal gain for those brands leveraging it in a creative way. Category cues – the reason a category is brought to mind – and brands’ connections to them is key to this thinking. In tea for example, cues range from the more emotional ‘personal reward’ to the practical ‘to have with breakfast’.

Twinings ‘Gets you back to you’ campaign over recent years illustrates this well. It applies a single-minded focus on one potent cue – ‘to relax and have some me time’ – which is the main reason people drink tea. The campaign ran for a sustained period building a strong association between the brand and the cue, allowing them to dominate this cue v the competition despite spending less. Twinings also built in important long-term brand positioning alongside this, through illustration and music, which gave the ads a modern, charming, feminine feel. Its decision to focus on one cue, gave the brand a better chance to drive behaviour, which significantly enhanced their mental availability according to our data.

As an agency, this leaves us with an interesting equation for developing creative comms that are effective at getting brands into people’s heads. By staying vigilant for new opportunities, while still ensuring we don’t lose sight of the proven routes to long term brand growth, we believe brands have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Team Sky, and steal a march on the competition by exploiting the principle of marginal gains.

Nick Ward is head of planning at Cubo.

Nick Ward

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