Byron Sharp's How Brands Grow

This book was given to me as a gift from a very senior leader in marketing. I was told that the book would cover things that are not taught in MBA programs. After reading the book, I must say that I agree. In my marketing classes, I was intrigued by why established brands still spent so heavily on advertising and how brands actually measured advertising effects, while not controlling for confounding variables. This book looks at empirical evidence and proposes the laws of marketing.

Empirical Evidence & the Laws

According to Sharp, much of current marketing strategy is based on theory, not empirical evidence. Upon reflection, I realized that this was true. In MBA classes, we are taught mostly from case studies. While this approach helps trains decision making for managers, we did not go into the details of the empirical evidence that supported those decisions. Success was typically attributed to strategy and tactical execution, usually alongside customer-focused product innovation. We are taught to position a brand well in the market and communicate its value proposition to drive market share.

The book starts out by disputing the assumptions that marketers currently use, using the history of medicine to illustrate its point. It's quite persuasive, as the lack of empirical evidence was something that bothered me about the standard approaches to marketing, especially as someone coming from a science background. Sharp proposes a scientific approach to marketing, one that resonated with me and drew me in.

Sections of the book

The first portion of the book explains the false assumptions that lead to a misunderstanding of our customers. It uses evidence to explain why customers are very similar across brands, and why large brands do so well. According to Sharp, the majority of a brand's customers are people who buy infrequently and are "promiscuous" buyers. However, they also contribute the most to a brand's market share and potential growth. Sharp also presents evidence that shows despite positioning, customers are relatively similar. One quote I particularly like, was "simply naming a segment does not mean it exists" (p75).

Sharp continues to dispute the way brands target brand loyalty, and why the most loyal customers are worth least to the company. Examples used were Harley Davidson and Apple. It's interesting because we had a Harley Davidson case in our marketing class and Sharp's recommendation was opposite of our approach. Sharp then discusses the importance of distinction over differentiation, showing evidence that customers actually did not consider brands to be differentiated, regardless of the intent of the individual brand strategies.

Finally, Sharp discusses advertising, price promotions, and distribution, and what they really accomplish. These sections provided a framework of analyzing the ways brands can grow (and not grow) through these tactics. It was thought provoking, as misuse of these tactics could counter any strategic goals that the brand is trying to accomplish. It's interesting to analyze advertising tactics after reading this book, for example the recent Coca-Cola advertising "flop" for the 2014 Brazil World Cup.

Final Points

Here are some quick points on what I thought about the book:

1) Great use of visuals, such as charts and graphs. They really helped to understand the counter-intuitive findings in the book, and weren't overly complex. While all this "empirical" talk makes the book sounds very academic, the figures were actually not much more complicated than what you would expect from the Wall Street Journal.

2) Easy to read. The book was very evidence based, but you can tell that it targets a consumer audience with how easy it was to read. There was a good flow to the book that unfolded very much like a story. One thing I appreciated was the constant re-caps at the end of chapters to emphasize what the book has explained so far.

3) The advertising and price promotion sections were based less on the author's original findings, and more on citations from other works. There were also quite a few statements that relied on assumptions from previous parts of the book. I would've preferred more evidence and facts in order to keep it consistent with the evidence-heavy and, as a result, more believable first half.

4) You need to have been in traditional marketing or gotten some education in marketing to appreciate the value of this book. If I had read this book prior to my MBA education, I would not have been able to fully understand how important the book's findings were.

Overall, this is a fantastic read and I highly recommend picking up a copy if you are on the commercial side of a business. Visit the book's official site here.


  1. Nice review. I've picked up a copy of the book on Amazon. This should be used at all business schools!

  2. Great! I'm glad my review helped. Enjoy the book.

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