Hunting Byron Sharp in the wild

Two of the most useful and practical of all the ideas in Byron Sharp & co.’s masterful marketing oeuvre are the twinned concepts of mental availability and category entry points.

And, as an abject loser who really needs to get out more, I like nothing better than to look at the latest campaigns and try to identify those which draw on Sharp’s theories, to see how they might translate to real life.*

As it happens, two of the best brand campaigns running right now in the UK are, I am pretty sure, direct inheritors of this aspect of Sharp’s work, consciously or subconsciously. To wit: the new Deliveroo (DesignStudio) and Spotify (in-house) campaigns.

But let’s backtrack a bit before we look at these case studies so I can explain just why I love those twin concepts so much.

As (brand) strategists and marketers, we regularly find ourselves having conversations that start something like “What do people think of when they think of our brand?”, before wondering how to make people think whatever we’ve decided the right thing is. (These days, pretty much every brand wants the answers to be “quality”, “innovation”, “value” and oh, God, you know the rest, kill me now.)

Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute argue that if we want to grow our brands, the primary question we should be addressing when we plan our marketing comms (especially our advertising) is actually: “On what occasions / at what moments in their lives could our brand come to mind for consumers?” — then working hard to get ourselves there by identifying the memory structures associated with those moments. These moments the Institute call category entry points (CEPs), and the more of them your brand can get involved with, the more “mental availability” you have, and the more stuff you are likely to sell.

To take one example: Coca-Cola originally tended to come to mind only when people thought “What can I get from the drugstore to revive low energy,” because it was sold as a tonic, via soda fountains, with vaguely medicinal promises. Now, thanks to decades of advertising and marketing, Coke comes to mind when people think a huge range of other things, including “What could I get for the kids’ party”, “What could I order at the bar if I’m the designated driver”, “What shall I mix this booze with”, “What can I do to perk myself up this tedious office-based afternoon”, “What might increase my slender chances of surviving this hangover” and so on and so on.

I find CEPs and mental availability a fascinating and incredibly useful concept for brand strategy — to the point where, once you’ve started to think in this way it becomes very hard to go back to start your strategy “the other way around”.

This seems to be a hard concept for marketers to get their head around, though, because we tend to be very solipsistic. We like to think that consumers care about our brands and give them careful thought. But if you consider the reality of what is going on inside your head at any one time, unless you’re being paid to do it (like we are), it’s extremely rare that you’d ever wander the streets spontaneously weighing up your views on this or that brand, but highly likely that you spend your life wondering what to have for dinner/what to buy your loved ones for Christmas/how to curb your sugar cravings/how precisely to obliterate yourself that Friday night. And if we don’t think about how to appeal to consumers based on a realistic understanding of how people’s minds work, we’re screwed.

So — how do the Deliveroo and Spotify campaigns put this theory into practice?

Well — both focus on moments that can easily be understood as category entry points. Deliveroo’s campaign is explicitly about calling out fond, identifiable moments in our lives linked to food — “When you ask for a bite then eat the whole thing” / “When ‘smart casual’ means your favourite pyjamas” / “When setting the table means making the bed”.

Next time you’re vegging out and can’t be bothered to cook / leave the house, the intention is that Deliveroo will come to mind (over both Uber Eats and Just Eat, but also over and above “I’ll defrost that pizza” or “Oh, but I’m on a diet”. (One of the other great things about CEP as a strategic tool is that it reminds you of how wide a range of categories you are competing with — not just your own product category as the market usually defines it.)

Spotify’s task is harder, since music is basically applicable to every moment ever, in some way, which means their challenge is to become integral to our experience of life, however mundane or glorious. (No biggie!) The creative here does a great job of making that vast and amorphous task very specific, relatable, personal and above all, funny. Whether you’re looking for consolation, celebration, love, energy etc. etc., Spotify are proposing themselves as the ideal accompaniment to those moments.

These campaigns are, in my humble opinion, both excellent — creatively, strategically and in their strong and effective use of consistent, recognisable, brand assets — but they are a pretty literal translation of the concept of category entry points. If we start to see too many campaigns of this kind, then what currently feels playfully bold and straight-up will start to become the norm, and may lose the distinctiveness that Sharp also tells us is vital to being remembered and recalled.

It’s worth stopping here to think about what role the more traditional view of brand positioning (the “what” not the “when”) still has — because we absolutely can’t afford to dismiss it entirely. Sharp discourages us from focusing on what brands mean to us (brand attributes), so strong is his focus on when brands come to mind. He describes the role of brands as creating “meaningless distinctiveness”, rather than the accepted branding god of “meaningful differentiation”.

This is a vital and necessary corrective to a great deal of wanky brand positioning work, but it is not the whole story, because, of course, if your brand comes to mind in a CEP but brings with it a whole load of negative associations (it’s bad for me, the service is terrible, it’s overpriced — or in Deliveroo’s case, they don’t treat their drivers properly…) then you’re really not going to get very far.

This is where brand attributes like “trustworthiness”, “innovation” and “value” really do matter, a great deal, as do good product propositions. Arguably, however, these attributes are more powerfully created and reinforced by customer experience and interaction with the brand than by marketing and advertising comms, along with that other powerful driver of brand perception — PR. (Indeed, if your marketing comms talk about, say, great service while the actual customer experience is excruciating, you’re only going to make things worse.) That isn’t to say that comms don’t have a huge role to play in creating a great customer experience — comms are integral to consumer experience, and the best comms jobs are integrative ones that take full account of this, rather than just making glossy ads — but this really is where the traditional understanding of a brand as the sum total of all the things it does is still extremely valuable.

(To be fair, Sharp does highlight the importance of removing “reasons not to buy”, and how bafflingly rarely marketers focus on that — which is pretty close to the same thing, just phrased in a way that keeps us from getting caught up in poncy reflections about brand love and other fairytales.)

The meanings we ascribe to brands matter immensely - but not if we don’t think of the brand in the first place. That’s why we need both approaches: they’re more compatible than we’re often encouraged to think.

As a brand strategist, this means that the questions we need to ask are, in this order:

  • On what occasions in our consumers’ lives do we want our brand to come to mind? What chances are we currently missing? Where are our competitors beating us in the battle for mental availability? Do we have competitors in those moments from products in other market categories that we hadn’t realised we were in direct competition with?
  • What are the memory structures associated with those moments? (This is the lovely traditionally planner-y human insight part.)
  • How can our comms create links to those? — through memorable, distinctive, consistently branded creative that creates powerfully embedded conscious and unconscious connections that play out even after a considerable time-lag.
  • How does the way we (inter)act — and are seen to act – combined with the reality of the products we create – give people a good reason to choose us once they’ve thought of us? (This is the traditional brand positioning work, combined with a focus on customer experience.)

Make consumers remember you exist at as many relevant moments as you can.

And, at the same time, give them a reason to be glad they remembered.

*Disclaimer time! I am not arguing that these two campaigns actually involved a direct and conscious application of the theories put forward by the Ehrenburg-Bass Institute. I half-expect to get someone telling me that I have entirely misinterpreted the strategy behind these campaigns. It would be nice, really, if only to know someone was reading this. But we can often implement strategies in a roundabout way, which is why a lot of advertising works without people really knowing why — and whatever the reasons behind these campaigns looking the way they are, they absolutely nail a lot of the the things the Institute argues are fundamental.

Branding & comms | Strategist at

Branding & comms | Strategist at