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Why Be a Platypus?

The platypus is weird.

Playtpuses are egg-laying mammals with no real stomach, with a cloaca that serves as a reproduction and secretion outlet (like birds). The male has a venomous spur to immobilise its opponent, and the female produces milk that would seep out from their mammary gland ducts and collects in grooves on their skin, for their babies (called puggles) to lap up and drink.

Why do I talk about platypus when you are meant to read something about marketing? Well, let me explain.

Whether through online comments or in-person discussions, there’s often somebody who would ask a potential challenge to the Laws of Growth — the principles introduced by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute that brands would achieve their sustainable growth through penetration, by building mental availability and physical availability. The questions would start with something like, “Have you heard about Brand X? It’s a [skincare | insurance | yogurt | apparel | credit card | etc.] brand that has shaken up the industry. It has low [mental availability | physical availability] and yet, in such a short time they have managed to challenge the big brands. What do you say about that?”

I personally think it’s good to have an inquisitive and skeptical mind. Being a doubting Thomas means that by the time we reach the same conclusion, we would’ve satisfied our own personal checks and crosses – albeit more slowly. Now, with about one and a half decade of analysing and working with countless brands, categories, and markets all over the world, I have never found a market or a brand that poses a serious challenge to the law-like principles that were introduced by Andrew Ehrenberg and his colleagues in the late 1950s and beyond. When deviations are found, they can be explained through the context of the principles.

Over 60 years later, the principles continue to stand – even in the age of disruptor brands like Uber, Airbnb, and Spoty; pre- and post-pandemic; as well as the continuing popularity of online shopping. The researchers at the Institute continued to stand our ground when commentators said that the arrivals of edgy and agile smaller brands would signal the downfall of big brands — or that eCommerce would kill the brick-and-mortar stars.

Now, coming back to the question that is often directed to challenge the Laws of Growth, I would also bring it back to the key point that we would want to build a brand sustainably. We wouldn’t want to build something that would last a year and disappear. In our amazement of this one single brand, we often forget the 99 others who have done all the hard slogs to make it to the top. It’s similar to us being astonished at how somebody could lose their weight miraculously over a month rather than a commitment to good dietary habit and exercising.

The Laws of Growth framework provides an explanation why Uber now accepts phone booking, why online brands like Parker Warby are setting up physical stores to spur further growth, why some DTC brands are dying, or why platforms like Tiktok and LinkedIn also advertise on TV – despite the opinion that TV is an outdated media.

Finding something that seems to truly break all kinds of conventions – like the platypus – is hard!

Like all scientists, I also remain open-minded in preparation for the possibility of encountering a strange case from the markets and opposing hypotheses. So far, when I see something that seems to have broken the Laws of Growth, it’s usually due to a mistake I’ve done or somebody down the chain has made. Fixing the error only adds to the growing evidence supporting the Laws of Growth. When a small brand seems to outperforms the competitors by seemingly breaking all the rules, let’s see over a longer period. Chances are they will also do what the other brands have done earlier, run out of steam and die, or become an acquisition target by one of the category giants.

The brand’s not a platypus – it’s probably just another duck.

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