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What really happens when a brand stops advertising?

A woman

We all know what happens - a decline in customer's head space, a decline in brand health measures, and sooner or later a decline in sales.  

But how long does it take for the effects to be felt? How big is the risk? And is it the same for different types of brands? Dr Nicole Hartnett and her colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute have now empirically proven the effects, now published in their paper, “What happens to sales when brands stop advertising for long periods?

Talking to Dr Hartnett at a recent Marketing Disrupted event with the Marketing Association, I asked her for her take on not only what happens but why it happens - and what we can learn from this. 

Even Dr Hartnett, with all her experience in this area, was surprised by the extent of the effects of stopping advertising. All brands, whether previously growing, declining or stable, and had a long term sales decline when they stopped advertising. Smaller brands dropped off quicker than big ones.

All brands, whether previously growing, declining or stable, and had a long term sales decline when they stopped advertising. Smaller brands dropped off quicker than big ones.

Four big take-outs that we can add to our arsenal of knowledge:

1. There is never a good reason to stop advertising

I asked Dr Hartnett if there was ever a good reason to stop advertising, and she of course recognised the many challenges that marketers face. But, based on the marketing science, she hadn't heard a good reason yet! Being mindful of contextual relevance is critical, and while there might be a need to pull back on certain messages, stopping advertising is to stop recruiting new buyers. It's also about your relationships with your customers and it can be much harder to rebuild quality relationships when you've removed yourself for a period of time. Stop/start makes rebuilding difficult.  

2. If you have to cut, where possible keep a mix between the long and the short 

We also discussed whether cutting long or short term focused advertising makes a difference. It's always a balance, but of course we know that brand building makes activation work better, so cutting long term spend will have an effect even if you have short term activation going on. Mass reach campaigns reach out to light buyers who are the key to growth. Price activities may give a sales blip, but results in repertoire shuffling only, not building the brand.

3. Beware the portfolio approach to allocating spend

Human brains are tricky. Something that looks scientific because it's in a spreadsheet or has a framework, can fool us. One of the traps Dr Hartnett sees marketers falling into is taking a brand portfolio approach to spend - giving each brand it's time in the sun and not competing with others in the portfolio for share of headspace. While this can look good on a schedule, that's not how buyers see it. Her data has proven that small brands suffer from removing advertising even more than big ones do, so they too need to be always on.

Her data has proven that small brands suffer from removing advertising even more than big ones do.

4. Forward learn, and use your data to make future decisions

So how do we do better? Dr Hartnett encourages much deeper reflection of long term learnings, not just individual campaign reviews, and cited many examples of learning opportunities lost. She sees marketers not wanting to invest in understanding advertising effects on brand performance, believing that the money is already committed, and you can't therefore change anything. But you need to learn from your history of successes and failures. Build a deep body of learning and take a more meta view to what works and what doesn't, so that you don't start with a blank page every time. We call this forward learning, identifying patterns to inform the future.

To learn more about what happens when brands stop advertising, make sure to read the Ehrenberg Bass research, “What happens to sales when brands stop advertising for long periods?

Karin Glucina
Partner at TRA

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