We need to talk about Byron Sharps availability issue

Yes, that is a little bit click-baity and this could be a blog post about how we should call out unpleasant behaviour, views and general rudeness (having a different opinion is fine though) from those in positions of influence but; its not (well that bit was, just a little). Its more about his contribution to the world of marketing science and that is a point that is inarguable. Yes there are elements in HBG that were originally discovered by Andrew S Ehrenberg but Mr Sharp reminded us of them after the industry seemed to forget it all for 20 years.

The other thing that Sharp did was create the simple heuristic couplet of Mental and Physical availability to sum up How Brands Grow. Every Tom, Dick and Planner throws these words around with aplomb and as much as i’m sure many would prefer these concepts to just fade into the background they are here to stay and a good thing too, in my humble opinion.

But (there is always a but), whilst Sharp “hates” behavioural economics and is highly scornful of the work of Khanaman and Tversky and Thaler and Sunstein its worth applying some BE thinking to these two (very) broad categorisations because they can be problematic to those who don’t truly understand what is meant by them.

That’s what this blog post is all about. The unintended consequences of their general labelling for the vast majority of people who could and should be using them to help grow their businesses and brands. What this post aims to do is add an element of nuance and easy directional language to improve these concepts and their understanding and consequentially their application.

I am well aware that Mr Sharp would hate this and dismiss it as pandering to the ignorant. He may even point such individuals to his book and suggest they read it because if we look at the precise definitions, there is NOT MUCH WRONG.

First lets start with those definitions –

They are pretty precise and all encompassing, so far so good. But, in my opinion it’s the Physical Availability categorisation that i believe has a Framing problem and its the use of the word “Physical”. It conjures up physical stuff, like stores and retail and bricks and mortar but; it means so much more and this is a problem because this is where confusion can potentially start.

Think about PPC (generic terms) or Affiliates. Both are often considered advertising and for the uninitiated they could be classed as driving “Mental Availability” (clue: they’re not) but if you consider that you, the marketer are using Googles shop or Awins network of affiliates to sell your product for you, what is the difference between them and Tesco? The phrase “digital shelf” is bandied around and whilst it has specific relevance to e-commerce listings and SEO optimisation its worth considering what we’re saying when we use that term. PPC and Affiliates aren’t about improving the probability of a consumer remembering your brand, they’re about breadth and depth of distribution. As a marketer you’re putting your product up for sale in more places, they just happen to be digital.

At this point you can see where i am going. These are Physical Availability channels but aren’t always considered as such because of the Framing of that word Physical. I propose a build and the build is an additional categorisation called “Digital Availability”. Some (including Byron, probably) will rail against this as admittedly the original definition is broad enough to include digital distribution but; we’re in the communications industry and words are powerful. By adding a subset and finessing the definitions themselves we become more precise and its easier to understand.

So what is Digital Availability? Well its the obvious things such as an e-commerce website, its media channels such as PPC (generic) and Affiliates (as previously stated), its SEO and online supermarkets, its anywhere digital where you are placing your product for sale. Its distinct from Physical Availability because of the framing effect and its more directional and precise. It helps us communicate with clients and ultimately the best way to Help Their Brands Grow is to make our recommendations crystal clear.

One BIG implication is on budgets and structural issues. Physical/Digital Availability has much more in common with Merchandising. Thats a different skill with different outcomes and requirements. Would you take budget from Physical store merchandising to invest in TV? The same with Digital Availability. You cannot compare a Google Shopping link or an Amazon listing with a TV advertisement. Whilst both under the auspices of Marketing (in the 4 P’s sense) they’re not even in the same ballpark. This isn’t Long vs Short even , its discipline and specialism vs discipline and specialism.

As to proof of concept I’ve been using this for a couple of years with clients and it helps them distinguish what they’re doing and manage stakeholders effectively internally. Its also helped with budget management and ring fencing. It does work, even if some may prefer it not too. Its worth remembering that we’re trying to make these concepts understandable and useable in the real world not just in “planner world”.


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