With the rise of ecommerce and flood of direct-to-consumer companies, brands across industries are facing increasing competition. Getting and keeping consumers’ attention is more of a challenge than ever, with endless distractions available at the swipe of a finger. In this environment, brands are competing not just for consumers’ wallets, but for their minds. So how do brands stay top of mind with consumers so they don’t get left behind?
In his book How Brands Grow¹, Byron Sharp presents the concept of mental and physical availability. Sharp argues that a key aspect of a brand’s success, particularly in increasingly competitive spaces, is a brand’s ability to be mentally and physically available for consumers.
What is mental and physical availability?
So what is mental and physical availability, and why is it an important component for a brand’s success? A brand achieves high availability when it is easy for consumers to purchase. Because consumers spend little of their precious attention thinking about brands (a truth that often goes unacknowledged by marketers), brands must be easily accessible to capitalize on the moment when a consumer is interested in purchasing the type of product they offer. Consumers shop largely based on convenience, so brands that come to mind (mental availability) and are readily available in the specific purchasing channel (physical availability) on the occasion a consumer is shopping are likely to be more competitive than others.
Mental availability is largely tied to branding. Sharp outlines two key components that are key to achieving mental availability: distinctiveness and clear branding. A brand must be tied to certain distinct assets that set it apart from the competition. Think Coke’s red color or the Nike swoosh. Distinctive assets can include things like jingles, colors, logos, symbols, and the like. Whichever of these assets are used, they must be clear and consistent to lodge themselves in the minds of consumers. Through marketing and advertising, brands create for themselves a distinctive image that consumers reference when they think of the brand. Brands achieve success when they can link these brand assets to different purchase occasions so consumers automatically think about the brand when making a purchase (e.g., I want fast food, I see the color yellow, I think of McDonald’s).
Physical availability comes down to a brand’s breadth and depth of distribution in both space and time. Consumers can’t purchase what isn’t physically available to them, so making your products available when and where consumers are shopping is key to success. With the rise of online shopping, physical availability may appear to be easier than ever to achieve, but if consumers must scroll through endless pages of Amazon search results to find your product, is it really easily available? Physical availability is ultimately about removing barriers along the purchase journey. To make this idea more specific, you can think about three components of physical availability: presence, relevance, and prominence. Presence is about where your brand is placed, both in terms of channels and specific retailers. Relevance speaks to offering products that consumers want to buy, usually by optimizing a line of projects so there is a relevant option for most situations. And prominence is all about ensuring that your brand is easy to find within the given shopping environment. When your brand has great presence, relevance, and prominence, you can be sure that you’ve optimized your physical availability.
How market research can increase your brand’s availability
Knowing that mental and physical availability are integral to a brand’s success, how can your brand go about increasing its availability to drive growth? For most, starting by understanding your audience is a great first step. Your target audience may have wildly different habits and expectations than the general population, so it is important to understand their needs, unique personalities, and shopping behaviors, along with their perceptions and interactions with your brand to inform your brand strategy.
When it comes to mental availability, you’ll need to start by understanding what assets your brand already “owns” in consumers’ minds. Is it a color? A logo? A tagline? Even an emotion or scent can be tied with your brand. Start by talking to consumers and understanding how they see your brand right now. From there, you can decide what distinctive assets your brand wants to own, and how you may be able to incorporate these assets into your marketing to continually reinforce them in the minds of consumers. Pay attention to situational factors that call your brand to mind when your audience is purchasing within your category. Does your brand come to mind as an impulse purchase? Or perhaps for a specific special occasion? Or maybe it happens when a consumer is in a specific location or with specific people.
Remember that your brand may be trying to own some assets that overlap with your competition, which could inadvertently mean that your marketing efforts cause consumers to purchase your competitor over you. Market research can help you identify opportunities to enhance the distinctiveness and cohesiveness of your brand and messaging with customers by providing you with an understanding of the relationships between consumers and your brand versus the competition.
Understanding how to increase your brand’s physical availability all comes down to getting a deeper understanding of how consumers see your category and go about shopping for products. Where and when do they shop? Where do they look for information about your category? How do they search and ultimately choose a product? How do variables like shelf position and search keywords help guide consumers to the right product? How do their needs and personalities play a part? Using market research to answer these questions will help your brand create a targeted, effective strategy for getting your product into consumers’ minds and into their hands.
In our experience, attitudes and usage (A&U) studies can help you uncover these types of insights to ensure your brand is highly available (both mentally and physically) for consumers. All the clever campaigns and product innovation in the world won’t be able to overcome a lack of mental and physical availability. After all, consumers have endless options and with online shopping channels, consumers have put a world of products at their fingertips. But with the right understanding of both your own brand and your target consumers, you can create a strategy to ensure your brand is easy for consumers to choose again and again.
To see a full example of the types of insights you can gain from an A&U study, take a look at the report below, which covers the topic of smart home device adoption among a targeted group of consumers.
¹ Sharp, Byron. How Brands Grow. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press, 2010