The most important graph you’ll ever see.*

Here it is…


A couple of our planners at Cummins&Partners returned from an IPA strategic planning course recently, where they were lucky enough to hear from effectiveness guru Peter Field. Simply put, in the Advertising world he’s kinda a big deal. Peter Field has done a mountain of research in the area of the long-term effectiveness of brand advertising, which is reported in his paper ‘The Long and the Short of it’.

The above chart is absolutely key and to me summarises the contention of his work. What it shows is that two different tactics of advertising have very different outcomes in sales uplift over time. The red line shows the typical pattern of bursts of sales activity or undifferentiated product feature messaging. The blue line shows brand advertising designed to build favourability and consumer connection. What’s clear is that while sales promotions are effective in the short term, sustained investment in brand building ultimately drives stronger sales results.

A couple of observations from me.

  • We’re talking about sales, not marketing metrics. I like that this chart measures effectiveness in terms of sales – the metric that a CFO would be interested in, not just the CMO. When the rubber hits the road and you’re pressured to justify your marketing activity, it’s much easier to point to sales results than it is to awareness, brand favourability, consideration and similar other metrics that we marketers know contribute to sales but ultimately leave a shade of grey.
  • The Kaizen principle. A personal mentor of mine explained this principle to me last year, borrowed from the 20th century Japanese industry approach of continuous incremental improvement. The brand building strategy doesn’t go backwards in sales (well, much anyway) and continues to grow and grow on itself, compounding its effectiveness. Sales pick up from a foundation of where they let off at each campaign, not starting from the start again as the short-term tactic does. And apart from compounding sales uplifts, a long-term view would save significant marketing investment and not put the business through the strain of supporting short-term sales promotion incentives (eg. discounting).
  • Tenure. Let’s assume that each spike on the x-axis represents 6 months of time. Playing this out, the intersection point of sales for both long-term and short-term strategies therefore comes after about four years of activity. Think then about how long the average marketing person is in a job for these days. Four years is a pretty decent stint, isn’t it? Therefore a marketer can look back and pretty easily justify to themselves their success in a short-term cycle of campaign activity, pointing to their results as they move on to a new role before the effort of a long-term strategy bears fruit. And their replacement picks up where they left off. This short term view of 21st century career progression pretty much encourages this type of strategic approach. The challenge then becomes staying the course to the point after four years when the brand building approach has built a foundation that leaves the short term approach in its wake.

Of course this is all very easy in theory and tricky to apply in practice. What does it even look like? Think about the poster brands of marketing case studies. Take Apple for instance. Ever since ‘1984‘ Apple has invested in big brand advertising carefully crafted to ‘zig’ against the category’s ‘zag’. With Steve Jobs at the helm and spearheading sustained brand growth and product innovation over the long term, Apple has consistently produced advertising that’s delivered on the Think Different brand platform.

Not everyone has the same access to budget that Apple has but perhaps we don’t need to. Next time you’re about to plan a marketing campaign, brief an ad or schedule a social post, maybe stop and think how you aspire your brand to behave in 10 years’ time. Is what you’re doing now consistent with what your envision for your brand?

If nothing else, your replacement will thank you for it.


*If you work in marketing.


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