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Why Mark Ritson wants to talk about the inseparable link between brand and data

ADMA Global Forum

9 Aug 2023

Mini MBA of Marketing founder and former marketing professor, Mark Ritson, reveals the impetus behind his locknote presentation at this year’s ADMA Global Forum

Data might well be on the lips of every modern marketer, but using data for brand positioning and strategy remains a gap Mark Ritson sees across the industry today.

“It sounds weird, but positioning is curiously data detached: We don’t use data to feed our positioning decisions,” the highly respected former professor of marketing and founder of the Mini MBA says. “For most brands, positioning seems to be plucked from thin air. For me, the application of data to proper brand positioning, where we only pick a couple of key attributes to position on and go hard on those for a long time, and checking using data that we’re making progress, is probably the area I’m most excited about in terms of brand positioning.”

Ritson is joining a stellar line-up of speakers at this year’s ADMA Global Forum to delve into the inseparable relationship between data and brand strategy, and what marketing teams need to be doing to maximise both. His topic is prompted not just by the dearth of data decision-making he’s witnessed in brand building, but also from the belief marketers must work harder on strengthening their strategic brand muscle.

“Whenever we ask senior marketers or organisations what’s the main skill they need and aren’t necessarily best at, the recurring answer is brand management and strategy. It remains a challenge for many organisations,” Ritson says. “The link to data is to remind us that ultimately, the first step in any decent brand management process is to find out what is the brand. It isn’t up to the marketer or organisation. The cliché is true: Brand exists in the head and hearts of consumers. Data is always the first step in the brand management journey.

“It’s for those two reasons – because brand is always important and I don’t think it’s particularly done well often, and because data is the first step in this important journey – I’m going to talk about this.”

Differentiation and distinctiveness debate

Ritson is also keen to ensure attendees at this year’s Global Forum get a refresher in the art of saying no.

“We’ve forgotten that positioning, which is ultimately the intended differentiation, is really about making choices,” he continues. “If you look at most brands in Australia, almost without exception they’re trying to position on too much.

“The exciting use of data for the next few years is about a few advanced marketers being able to properly understand how the market perceives our brands and other brands in the category or market, then getting a set of coordinates for where we should and shouldn’t be focusing our positioning.”

Rather than fresh data sets providing such leverage, Ritson suggests it’s the ability to interpret data properly that’s a shortfall across marketing teams today.

“What we need is properly measured brand perceptions, which 20 per cent of the time might be there. But we also need the ability to understand those brand perceptions in a more advanced way, then make some core strategic choices. We just don’t see that at the moment,” he says.

“The common feedback I get to saying you can only position on 3-4 things is ok, how then do you sell that into the boardroom? The answer is expertise, confidence and bravery. Plus, the knowledge that trying to position your brand on 20 things is fundamentally stupid and counterproductive.”

Then there’s the ongoing balance of differentiation and distinctiveness needed to make modern marketing strategy sing Ritson wants to emphasise.

“No matter how hard I’ve tried to position what I believe to be a ‘bothist’ argument, where I want both, it’s still trotted out as A versus B,” Ritson comments. “It’s clear it’s not possible to find and maintain unique sources of difference in the market, nor is it necessary for you to be successful.

“But with the advent of Ehrenberg-Bass, who did great work to persuade the marketing community we got it wrong with differentiation – and that work was essential and very well done – we swung the marketing pendulum too far to distinctiveness. It was a wonderful thing to introduce and a very important concept – the brand coming to mind quickly and distinctively in buying situations is super important and completely missed by many marketers. But because we tend to be factual, we said right, distinctiveness replaces differentiation. That’s nonsense.

“There’s no reason you can’t have, at least in theory, a brand with strong, distinctive qualities that’s also perceived to be different on a couple of attributes or associations that have an impact on the market. The idea those are dual challenges a brand manager should focus upon isn’t rocket science. But at the moment, it’s missing from the approach.”

Facing the future

Given these views, it’s not surprising to find Ritson wants marketing teams to get better at building clear and appropriate brand strategy. It’s this skill he believes is critical for facing the future.  


“We have teams with decent empirical and data skills; we have teams that are very tactically focused… but the biggest challenge and opportunity remains the same. It’s not something new, it’s the oldest thing of all: To have a clear strategy, which is built ground-up from your data, and which directs your execution,” he says. “It’s clear very few brands are achieving the kind of strategy enabling them to optimise their impact in the market.”


Numerous reasons may sit behind it, but more often than not in Australia, Ritson sees teams sucked into tactics and execution because the strategy isn’t complete. Another stumbling block is what he describes as an obsession with advertising.


“Advertising is a very important part of marketing, branding and execution, but it’s a sub-10 per cent part of our discipline. We need to think most broadly about the strategy and how we execute it beyond just communications,” Ritson says. “The thing we should give marketing teams that would be to their greatest benefit is a clearer, braver and joined-up strategic approach. Once you have developed that in a marketer, they never lose it, and it benefits them for the rest of their career.


“I do think we have developed a better generation of marketers in Australia in the last 10 years with strategic capabilities. But I still think it’s the one deficit where not just here in Australia but everywhere, we could do with a bit more clarity.”


Elevating your marketing game

Commenting on the rest of the ADMA Global Forum speaker line-up, Ritson says he’s looking forward to hearing from NYU Stern Professor of Marketing, Scott Galloway, one of the best thinkers in marketing, brand and media today. Galloway’s keynote is titled ‘Overhyped vs Underhyped’ and will look into post-pandemic impact on businesses and the products and trends needing immediate attention.

“I’m excited about hearing what we has to say and what his perspective is. It’s always vital. You don’t know what he’s going to talk about as he has such a broad remit of experience,” Ritson says. “He’s usually – not always – but usually ahead of everyone in calling things out.”

More broadly, Ritson applauded ADMA Global Forum for its strong track record of bringing together speakers and audiences that are not only influential within the world of Australian and international marketing, but who spark “proper top-tier conversations”. 

“I’ve been experiencing ADMA events for more than a decade and they have two main attractions. First, they get very good, senior and applied speakers. Second, they attract the right level of marketer who wants to have the right level of conversation about the discipline and practical challenges of data, marketing and branding,” Ritson says. “For me, they sit at the centre point of the marketing calendar in Australia as a chance to properly get input and an orientation on where we are going. It is one of the marketing events of the year.”

Elevate your marketing game with Mark at ADMA Global Forum 2023!

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