How Mr. Ehrenberg's legacy should have been described is this:
He gave us the empirical basis to doubt deeply any number of
marketing truisms, from the importance of brand loyalty to the
relevance of market segmentation to the idea that advertising can
persuade people to buy something to the notion that mass marketing
is dead to the assumption that social media should be valued
differently from other media.
His work, doled out over decades in arid academic prose nearly
impossible for a layman to understand and in marginally more
comprehensible interpretations, makes compelling cases against many
marketing laws adhered to today. Coming under intellectual fire are
disciplines like customer-relationship management and thinkers from
Philip Kotler to Kevin Roberts and the latter's notion that great
brands have emotional connections with their buyers and, hence, are
In his Ehrenberg-influenced 2010 book, "How Brands Grow," Byron
Sharp takes aim at Mr. Roberts' book. "A more down-to-earth view is
that if buyers don't care deeply about a brand then they could
easily be lured away by another brand," he wrote. "Yet even this
supposedly common-sense statement is actually an untested empirical
assumption. It's just as possible to argue that a lack of caring is
the cornerstone of loyalty."
Central to all this is the notion of double jeopardy,
which holds that a smaller brand in market-share terms suffers from
the additional slap of having less customer loyalty. Return
business is a function, essentially, of how popular a brand is. As
such a marketing organization's mission should be to increase
market penetration at all costs.
"Popularity trumps everything," said Paul Parton, the co-founder
of Brooklyn Brothers, a New York- and London-based boutique agency,
and a fan of Mr. Ehrenberg.
"It's the only thing a brand should be concerned with," he said.
"If you're popular, it begets everything else. Greater penetration
comes with more loyalty, which is [the] surprise of his model. It's
contrary to pop theories of marketing."
Growth isn't about squeezing more money out of the most loyal
consumers but trying to grab new ones. That renders CRM less
important and puts a focus on an old-school definition of
advertising that is consistent, frequent and mass, wears the
advertised brand on its sleeve, and bashes the consumer with old
saws like taglines, logos and celebrities.
Mr. Parton was introduced to Ehrenberg theory in 1997 when he
was working in the Singapore office of DDB. A data planner there suffered from
severe dyslexia and turned to mathematical explanations for
marketing doctrine. Finding little aside from Mr. Ehrenberg, he
eventually introduced the thinker to Mr. Parton.
I asked Mr. Parton whether his agency's work was informed by his
"We try to do things that are accessible, popular, not hard to
get to insidery. We try to be populist." He also noted that while
people he meets who are interested in Ehrenberg are generally
interesting, he doesn't do a lot of client evangelizing on the
Not surprisingly, it's not easy to pinpoint just how influential
Mr. Ehrenberg has been.
Some followers are quick to argue that, because of the antipathy
to the way marketers and agencies operate on a daily basis, he's
been ignored. Yet, in his 2002 book, "Welcome to the Creative
World," Mark Earls writes that Mr. Ehrenberg's work is "widely read
and his writing heavily awarded by his peers." And there is in
Australia a research institute that bears both his name and a list
of sponsors that includes some of the marketing world's deepest
pockets, from Procter & Gamble and Unilever to Coca-Cola. Not
I asked the institute's director, Mr. Sharp, to help me
understand Mr. Ehrenberg's legacy. In an email exchange, Mr. Sharp,
who discovered Mr. Ehrenberg as a graduate student, acknowledged
that the marketing implications of his research have only recently
been explored, though some of his findings are, in "under the
bonnet" fashion, built into forecasting models used by the likes of
Nielsen, P&G and Unilever that have "had little exposure."
Some high-profile marketers have been vocal supporters. Coke CMO
Joe Tripodi blurbed Mr. Sharp's 2010 book, "How Brands Grow," as
did Mars Global CMO Bruce McColl. Mars has also sponsored a
laboratory at the institute that, Mr. Sharp said, works to
interrogate marketing assumptions.
You can see why Ehrenbergian thinking would apply to
consumer-packaged goods marketers. Candy, soap, shampoo, flavored
carbonated water are all frequent, low-involvement purchases. It's
difficult to expect consumers to be loyal to one brand or another
and, consequently, unrealistic to expect your marketing directors
to forge that sort of relationship. But Mr. Sharp extends that
thinking to other categories.
The qualitative evidence adduced by Mr. Ehrenberg and, later,
Mr. Sharp is convincing, but equally as powerful is this: their
work should have some appeal to anyone with a shred of skepticism
about touch-feely conceptions of marketing. You're in for a treat
if you blanch at all the talk about joining the conversation and
the general notion that people want anything from brands other than
products that work.
Take Apple, whose legions of fanboys who will shell out for and
evangelize anything bearing the logo, is often thought of as an
iconic case of customer loyalty. Apple's success isn't about
cultivating a small but loyal user base. It's about getting its
smartly designed devices in the hands of as many people as possible
and advertising the hell out of them. Macs were once a cult; iPods
and iPhones now constitute a global religion.
This is as much an attack on brand loyalty and the expensive
programs designed to foster it as it is a defense of mass
advertising, not a typical point of view in a world where most of
the public discourse about marketing is focused on putting brands
in dialogues with the consumer, often by taking advantage of
communities like Twitter and Facebook.
To Mr. Sharp, this is wrongheaded. Mr. Sharp allows a role for
social media as a listening tool, to be used to see what people are
saying about your brand. But even that can be misleading because so
much word-of-mouth chatter about brands goes on offline.
"Social media's value is most probably largely the same as other
media," he said. "How much reach can it offer? On this criteria
it's not terribly attractive because it is so fragmented."
Mr. Sharp ended with this, useful to any marketers scratching
their heads over why their corporate Twitter feed only has 200
"People want to talk to their friends, it seems, not to