One of the terms that can confuse marketers is “mental availability”. This is a really important concept that is different from brand awareness, but is often an essential part of B2B marketing.

The concept of mental availability was initially presented by Byron Sharp, Professor of Marketing Science and Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, University of South Australia in his book How Brands Grow, which was published in 2010 – over 10 years ago! In this book, he suggested that consumers buy if a product is physically and mentally available.

What is Mental Availability?

Mental availability means the buyer will notice, recognize and/or think of a brand when considering a purchase. This is really important to marketers as often the buyer is not in the market when they see marketing materials, and therefore marketing should aim to increase mental availability. As purchasers are often pressed for time, they will often choose a mentally available brand that is “good enough”, rather than fully researching all the options.

Mental Availability and B2B Marketing

This concept is particularly important in B2B marketing, when it can be very hard to ensure your marketing reaches the audience at the time they are in the market for your product or service. Consider Napier, for example. It is very difficult to know when a client is unhappy with their current agency and is looking for alternatives, as this business relationship is inherently confidential. In fact, the current agency may not even know. Bidding on search keywords such as “B2B PR agency” is one approach, but it is likely that most marketing and PR managers have a shortlist of agencies that they will approach when looking: the mentally available agencies. Bidding on the keyword will only reach a small proportion of the potential clients.

Consider the case of searching for an agency: a pitch process might take 3 months to complete, and then the client is likely to stay with the agency for a considerable amount of time. In the USA this might be two years, but in the UK client-agency relationships of a decade or more are common. If we take five years as the typical mid-point of relationship length, then the typical client company is only looking for an agency (or in-market) for 5% of the time (three months out of five years). If we accept that we need to market to the client when they are not in-market, then 95% of the time we are promoting to a client they won’t be looking for a new agency.

The same is true of many other B2B products and services. Whether it’s IT infrastructure (companies might spend a quarter choosing new laptops on a four-year refresh cycle, high-performance computing (HPC) compute or storage (again typically refreshed around once every four years) or software development tools (which may have a longer selection period but often have longer lock-in), most buyers spend the vast majority of time out-market.

Is Mental Availability the same as Brand Awareness?

No. There are obviously similarities – you need to be aware of a brand for it to be mentally available. But research shows that people will not necessarily consider all of the brands that they know when making a purchase.

How Can You Increase Mental Availability?

There are different approaches that will increase mental availability. A simple model for achieving this is RMB: reach, message, brand.

The first step is to reach the whole category you are trying to address. If you can’t know when a potential customer will be in-market, then it’s important to reach everyone. This does mean that the approach can be expensive, so be careful to define your market very precisely to ensure you don’t waste money on an audience that will not ever be your customer.

We all know messaging is important, but in terms of mental availability, we think of messaging in terms of category access points (CEPs). These are the cues that cause the potential customer to enter the market. So you need to think about the context and the events that will lead a company to consider a purchase. In the case of Napier, one option might be that a client is unhappy with the performance of their current agency who has made a mistake and are therefore looking for a “safe pair of hands”, or it could be an American startup entering the European market with a very different mindset. As an agency, we need to create messaging that is going to make Napier come to mind in the situations where we want to become the agency of record.

The final set is to differentiate your brand using distinctive brand assets (DBAs). Not surprisingly if someone sees your brand as differentiated, they are more likely to consider it when purchasing. These brand assets can be logos, colours, characters or anything else that might distinguish a brand. Just think of Nespresso, and George Clooney probably comes to mind, although with a very smart setting that feels luxurious.

A Mental Availability Case Study

There is a great case study about Salesforce that was created by LinkedIn. It’s interesting for a number of reasons: firstly Salesforce had fabulous awareness but lagged in mental availability. People knew the brand but often didn’t consider it (this is probably particularly true in the SME environment). The campaign they created focussed on what they did to help the customer around CEPs: manufacturing companies are likely to move to in-market for CRM systems when they feel they need to bring themselves closer to customers, and that’s exactly what Salesforce told manufacturers that the product did.

Finally, Salesforce decided that their cloud wasn’t sufficiently distinctive, so they hijacked cartoon characters from their training materials (you will have seen Astro, I promise!). Cynics might even suggest that they used a cute cartoon to make what is an incredibly complex product – arguably much more complex than competitors – feel more friendly.

More Information

If you are interested in mental availability and the work pioneered by Bryon Sharp, we’d recommend checking out:

How B2B Brands Grow – resource on LinkedIn, including a free downloadable report

The Salesforce Case Study on LinkedIn

How B2B Brands Grow – the original book by Bryon Sharp is available on Amazon




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