Practitioners and academics have long discussed strategies for brand sales growth. A recent example is an industry debate in which different brand growth strategies were argued: https://www.mmaglobal.com/thegreatdebate (MMA Global & Neustarr, 2021). A central question in this arena is whether a brand should focus on its heavy, light, or non-buyers in its efforts to grow its sales. This study contributes to our knowledge about how sales growth can occur by investigating the potential contribution these three buyer groups can make to any sales gain. Using both, a simulation study and an empirical study of purchases of approximately 12,400 households in the UK, across different brands and categories, we show that almost any brand’s headroom growth potential lies mostly in light or non-buyers of that brand. Even for large brands with high penetration the growth potential of light brand buyers eclipses heavy brand buyers.
The degree to which marketing strategy should focus on heavy versus light buyers of a brand has generated much debate (e.g. Hallberg, 1995; Hallberg, 1999; Reilly and Deb, 2009; Smith & Blair, 2018; Taussig, 2016). At the heart of this debate is the question of how much heavy buyers of a brand (the brand’s heaviest 20% or top customers) contribute to its current sales, for example, is the contribution close to 80% (i.e., the Pareto rule). Kim et al. (2017) reported that heavy buyers contribute 73% of sales. Many authors suggest, therefore, that management attention should focus on these heavy buyers (Hallberg, 1999; Taussig, 2016). By contrast, Sharp (2010) reported that heavy buyers contribute around half the sales; therefore, concentrating on this segment should not be the only focus of marketing strategies aimed at brand growth. Similarly, Dawes et al. (2022) showed that extremely light buyers contribute 40% of total sales; as such, they should not be ignored by the brand’s management. When considering these past results, it should be noted that estimates of the sales contribution of any buyer group vary depending on the length of time period, brands and product categories, as well as the selection of buyers included in the analysis (Schmittlein et al., 1993). Additionally, none of the previous studies on this topic has investigated the growth potential of heavy brand buyers versus light brand buyers, looking beyond the current sales importance of these buyer groups to the brand to appraise the potential contribution to future sales.
Conclusions, limitations, and directions for future research
Previous studies have investigated the importance of heavy and light buyers to current brand sales. Specifically, a brand’s heaviest 20% of buyers account for 50 to 73% of its sales. While not as extreme as the 20:80 rule, there is no doubt that to maintain the current level of brand sales, heavy buyers play a significant role. However, when a brand looks for sources of growth, this study shows that the sales potential for a brand does not reside among current heavy brand buyers. Both the simulation and empirical studies in this paper support that there is vastly more ‘headroom for growth’ among light brand buyers than heavies for big brands; and by far the most headroom for growth for small brands resides among current non-brand buyers. Current heavy buyers represent a very minor source of sales potential for either big or small brands, due to two simple facts: (a) they are a minority of the brand’s customer base; and (b) the brand is already representing a large proportion of their category purchasing, so they cannot buy the brand much more than they do currently.
For marketers looking to grow their brand, this study provides evidence for the need to market beyond the brand’s heavy buyers. Brands should aim to obtain additional share of category purchasing from the large pool of households who buy the brand occasionally, as well as also recruiting consumers who are currently non-buyers.