Own goals

NICK SHANAGHER reveals how you can tell if your suppliers’ latest proposition will sell

The magazine buyer for WH Smith, John Chapman, was famous for offering a piece of advice to would-be publishers wanting to know if he would list their titles.

Tell me who your reader is, give me a photograph of them and then write everything for them,” he would say. The latest marketing theories seem to back him up, according to Decoded: the Science Behind Why We Buy.

Written by Phil Barden, whose CV includes stints at Unilever, Diageo and T-Mobile, this entertaining book is a must-read for every wholesale buyer. Why? It will help you to push back when big suppliers push their latest innovations.

For example, consider these questions: if there was only one brand in the category, what goal would it fulfil? If the product did not exist, what would people buy instead?

Barden uses plenty of examples to show that people buy the category first and then the brand. For example, when writing shopping lists, we write ‘coffee’, ‘soup’ or ‘margarine’, rather than ‘Nescafé’, ‘Heinz’ or ‘Flora’.

“Serving the elementary, explicit goals is therefore vital,” he writes. “Interestingly, the brand that owns the explicit goal is market leader. In our own work, we have seen this principle working in all the categories we have analysed, be it detergents, cosmetics or telecommunications. As a consequence, in non-mature markets, it is key to focus on the explicit goal and own it.”

Monkey business?

What brings this to life is his dissection of the famous Cadbury gorilla advertisement and why it worked – and why the follow-up trucks ad failed. Similarly, two ads for Mercedes perfectly illustrated the safety of its braking system but only one captured the brand.

Throughout the book, Barden, who today heads up the Decode agency, neatly sells his own company’s solution to getting marketing right.

The ‘decode goal’ map identifies the human needs that a product matches. Using it could have saved PepsiCo a fortune, for example, when it disastrously relaunched Tropicana. Tropicana’s goal is summarised by Barden as “the simple way to take care of the family by giving them tasty, fresh orange juice”.

In contrast, the new design sent out a message about coolness and modernity, positioning the brand as exclusive and for special occasions – which was not what parents were looking for.

How was the mistake made? Barden suggests it is common when companies’ internal objectives take over, and they lose focus on consumers and their goals.

But what to do in mature markets where the brand leader is already well established? “We can accomplish innovation mainly by being different and not by being better,” he writes.

I have summarised some of Barden’s conclusions, but the book offers much more, including a quick tour through the behavioural economics that explain why people shop in the way they do and reveal just how short a time most of us spend on reading signals like ads – say, 1.5 seconds!

Highly readable, on almost every page this book throws out ideas that will improve the way you run your business. It will also help you to understand when the big manufacturers have got their propositions correct for your customers – and when they should think again.

But remember: marketing rules, like all business rules, always work better with the advantage of hindsight.

(photo credit: Rex Features)

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As managing director of Newtrade Publishing Nick has over 20 years’ experience of covering retail markets, Nick helps shopkeepers and wholesalers of all sizes to think about what questions are important for themselves and their businesses, and to find answers that work in their shops.


  1. Another angle a wholesaler could take is: “Do you have any product test information to back up your claims for your product?” We’re always ready to work with suppliers to do product / price / packaging tests in real retail environments.


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