BEST OF 2017 OPINION: The rumble in the jungle, it wasn’t. Nor was it the Thrilla in Manila. It was billed as a title fight: two silverbacks of the marketing profession mano-a-mano at the Festival of Marketing to debate the influence of Professor Byron Sharp’s book, How Brands Grow. It was a spectacle, though it played to a niche - some may say ‘target’ - audience.

Sharp’s contribution to the theory and practice of marketing is unquestionable. Mark Ritson thought as much as he opened his round with a float-like-a-butterfly tickle of the great man’s ego. A towering figure in the history of 21st century marketing, Ritson declared, Sharp’s legacy would far overshadow his own “small, albeit fruity contribution.”

Among Sharp’s achievements was to draw the industry away from hollow theories surrounding communications and back toward strategy, with emphasis on an evidence based approach: “an anchor back to empiricism.”

“But you came here for blood,” Ritson said. And we had. With a cheeky hook, Ritson took apart what he saw as Sharp’s “childlike focus on science”, noting the distinction between true science and the social science of marketing. “We don’t study rocks, we study people; we don’t study mountains, we study organisations.” Science looks for laws applicable to all members of a group. But brands are no group, he said, “brands are anything but generic.”

The social sciences, he continued, are complicated things that have a way of eluding hard and fast laws. In the book, Sharp talks about the problem of only targeting brand loyal consumers, but there are myriad reasons for targeting, said Ritson, not just going after brand loyal customers.

“We target because we’re small, and we don’t have the funds to go after everyone; we target because we’re entering the market. We want to go into a small segment to open doors to others. We target because we’ve already done sophisticated mass marketing.”

Mass marketing is crucial to long term growth as Binet and Field have pointed out, but for the short term, Ritson noted, “you can do both”. As far as Sharp is concerned, he argued, it’s one or the other; you either target or you don’t. Similarly, the rejection of positioning and differentiation is flawed. “You believe in salience and distinctiveness, because that’s all you really can stand for if you go after everyone.” While he agrees that these are important, he asks, why not supplement it with some elements of differentiation?

“It’s not gin vs. tonic, it’s gin and tonic. Professor Sharp is just tonic.”

That’s important because marketing is about different things coming together, he added. Digital and traditional research work best together; qualitative and quantitative work best together. “Marketing works best with open mindedness, with reflexivity, with context, with diversity and discussion. Not the cold, hard restrictive laws of science that aren’t actually true.” Even Sharp’s clients, he observed, including many big brands who follow the professor’s advice, still use targeting and positioning and differentiation.

“There is a more contextual world, where targeting and positioning are indeed relevant much of the time,” Ritson continued as he raised a book, How Brands Grow. “The growth of this book has been astonishing, and if you look at the companies that took it up first, of all the companies in the world: large, multinational fast moving consumer goods clients. That almost sounds like a segment being targeted.”

Sharp’s turn. Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to have the second shot? “You tell everyone what Byron Sharp says, I have the advantage in that I am Byron Sharp.”

“I’m not a marketing guru, I’m a humble scientist.” And scientists don’t claim to know everything. Ritson called the obsession with science “childlike” and Sharp said he was right. “Scientists are people who have a sense of wonder, who go out into the real world and are humble enough to say we don’t know everything about the world.” Simply, he said, you go out, gather data and look for regularities.

Marketing, notably, is part of the real world, and can be studied just like any other science that goes out and measures it. “Andrew Ehrenberg [founder of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute] used to have a lovely line when he met academics who said there could be no laws in marketing and he would say, ‘have you looked?’”

What’s more, there are reasons for understanding the regularities, namely the ability to move onto the creativity. “There was a very famous Australian winemaker who pointed out that only very recently winemakers understood how wine actually is made – they’d been making wine for thousands of years … and because they had no idea of the basic chemistry, there’s no room for creativity.”

However, when it comes to targeting, in a textbook sense, that suggests that there are people you don’t want to talk to, Sharp contended. This reduction would amaze people on the streets: “marketers writing plans where they don’t want to talk to everyone?” Surely, they would say, you want to talk to everyone.

As smaller brands become bigger brands, he suggested, “if you are to grow, you nudge propensities across the entire market.” But further to that, if Sharp’s observed regularities are to be followed, a lot of brands worry about everybody being the same. “It’d be a bit like a hospital going, ‘this medical science stuff, if every hospital follows it, we’d all be the same’.” Fundamentally, he argued, you can’t do anything new without understanding the underlying trends that inform the industry.

The final bone of contention arose when the conversation turned to Apple, a notable exception to the rules of brand growth, Ritson countered. How is it that a brand with just 13% market share can command a 91% repurchase rate, he asked. “It seems to me like there’s a brand that is smaller by market share and has significantly better loyalty [than Samsung].” What’s more, despite 13% market share, it has a 91% share of profits.

“When you play the science game,” Ritson mocked, “once you disprove it once, it’s over.” But that view doesn’t quite work, Sharp retorted, pointing out that Apple has always occupied the upper end of the market. Among the audience assembled, he noted, it’s a pretty big brand.

“You did hear Byron say that they have gone after the upper end of the market,” Ritson replied. “That sounds an awful lot like targeting.”

No KO, perhaps, but as the final audience vote revealed, a win on points for Mark Ritson.