Punching above your weight – aim for the head first

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Fame, creativity, emotional resonance, salient signposting… these are all well established, well documented routes to driving long-term brand growth.

The IPA Databank is full of great examples to prove the point, and we’re not here to argue. That said, this doesn’t paint the whole picture. As some contemporary marketing theory highlights, there are also some more underlying ways in which the brain works. This new theory shows there is an opportunity for all brands, but especially for smaller ones, newer to the sector, to punch above their weight.

By definition, many challenger brands will lack heritage and familiarity, and the means to compete on a level playing field with established major players in terms of spend and share of voice. Looking at the bigger picture - specifically all the factors which have an influence on how easily a brand comes to mind (its mental availability) - gives us an opportunity for more precise creative focus and a chance for brands to punch above their weight.

We can say this with certainty because we have seen and measured it with our headspace programme, which gives real world application to some of this contemporary theory around mental availability and provides brands with the opportunity to direct their creative efforts more effectively. It does this by looking at both the more traditionally analysed metrics of brand attributes and barriers, and the category cues – the reasons categories are brought to mind in the first place, and then measuring brands’ association with them. From this data, areas of strength, weakness and opportunities can be defined.

Cues can be both emotional and rational. For example, in the home audio category we see ‘to uplift myself’ alongside ‘when I’m having a party’. The brain doesn’t create a complete list of all the brands in a sector each time a decision is to be made, allowing us to make a considered evaluation of all the choices open to us. Instead our need state determines a shorter list to which the brain automatically jumps, based on the nature of the occasion or need – the category cue. The strength of a brand’s connection to a particular cue will determine if it’s even in play at the start of the race, which is why a strong connection with key category cues is a major component in helping build mental availability.

We looked at a number of varied sectors with regard to headspace and unsurprisingly, size does matter. The mental availability of brands typically increases with market share, as you would expect with heavier usage, better physical availability, stronger advertising etc. In black tea for example, PG Tips sits at the top with 19% total mental market share. But big isn’t always beautiful, and often we see share of spend exceeding share of mind, implying creative work could be underperforming. With this however comes potential. If creative can underperform it can also overperform. Indeed, brands can punch above their weight if they tap into the right cues, making the most of the spend they have.

The key to accelerating growth is to identify the cue that holds the best opportunity for you, and focus on it. Building a consistent clear association with a priority cue can help you to improve mental availability over time. Bang and Olufsen is a good example of this as they rank well on the cue of ‘to express myself and who I am’ - an area on which they have placed a lot of emphasis in recent years.

To punch above your weight, pick one potent cue and communicate it for long enough and interestingly enough for it to stick – don’t make campaigns that touch on lots of different ones. Cues can be reinforced and headspace built through the full range of touchpoints by which consumers experience a brand. Brands should assess their comms mix and identify where headspace building channels might lie. ‘Enhancing the match day experience’ is a priority cue for online betting but how often do you see this leveraged within the comms channels in and around a football stadium, where logos and straplines usually take centre stage?

By acknowledging the importance of the reasons that bring a category to mind, and making a concerted effort to move these from an insight manager’s drawer to a creative director’s desk, brands can take the first step to building effectiveness by driving stronger mental availability as a result of their comms. It’s of course essential that creativity is not diminished in an attempt to build associations with important cues, but looking beyond brand positioning can help brands of all sizes punch above their weight, and, in some cases, get that first round knockout.

Nick Ward is head of planning at Cubo.

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