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Are you STP or MBA?

Like politics, marketing is coming down to a stark choice.


Will you be sticking with Segmentation-Targeting-Positioning, Philip Kotler’s theory from 1969, still taught around the world through his textbook Marketing Management?


Or are you switching to Market-Based Assets, the theory brought to prominence in the last decade by Ehrenberg-Bass, particularly through Byron Sharp’s book How Brands Grow?


I still haven’t decided. 


You see, I was brought up on STP. Well, targeting and positioning, for sure. In my book you can’t not target and all brands need a positioning.


Segmentation has been around throughout, but the studies weren’t always that helpful. Either the attitudinal segment names were misleading or the chosen segments made up too little of the category.


Or it was all too intent on segmenting people, when what it should have been doing was segmenting need.


Much of the criticism of STP focuses on the idea of a discrete target leading to a unique positioning. Well, that’s what the lecture said. In the real world there were always secondary targets and even great positionings were rarely unique.


What’s more, the best insights came from exploring people’s needs, not their attitudes. And needs can be different in different situations. Health-conscious Hannah is sometimes Carefree Carrie.


When Market-Based Assets theory arrived, much of the evidence intuitively made sense.


Like the fact that many people buy repertoires of brands, so competing brands are bound to have consumers in common.


Or that brands can be hard to tell apart at a surface level, except for obvious features like names, logos and colours.


But other parts of the MBA theory jarred.


Like the conclusion that every brand in a category should target every customer in that category.


Or the provocation to seek meaningless distinctiveness over meaningful differentiation.


Or that brand positioning is the result of your advertised messages, a cart-led horse if ever I saw one.


The problem was that, despite the data, I still believed in the idea of emotional connection.


Even after learning about System 1 thinking, I could see MBA theory came down to a single heuristic, the Availability bias.


And mental availability is a probability, the likelihood of a brand coming to mind in a buying situation. But how did those memory structures get there? Why do some people have them and others don’t?


The argument goes that STP is about what the brand evokes, whereas MBA is about what evokes the brand.


But is there really no meaning to it all? Did Ehrenberg-Bass choose an owl as their brand icon at random? Come on.


I even wonder if the acronym for ‘Market-Based Assets’ is a coincidence. Looks to me like someone wants the academic highground.


Anyway, I’m down in the practicing lowlands. I understand the perils of talking too romantically about emotional connection, with its implication of strong feelings and undying loyalty.


But I continue to think all brands should make one. You can’t ignore people’s implicit goals just because the water’s too deep for you.


I also accept that most people give brand choices little or no conscious thought. The real brain action happens before then, pre-consciously.


Which is how I got to my idea of Moments Of Closeness. It’s not a rival theory. No one’s going to vote for ‘MOC’ on the ballot paper.


But it’s meant to talk as much about mental availability as emotional connection, because in the end they come down to the same two things. What are brands if not memories and we remember what we want to remember.


And as the late MP Jo Cox wisely said, we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.


Maybe the best result for marketing now would be a coalition.


Except we’re only really happy when we’re arguing, aren’t we?


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