Michael Sussman

30 years of making smart decisions for brands

We speak to Michael Sussman of WPP's BAV on the 30th anniversary of the BAV product

No two brands are the same – and their needs and expectations are different too. “Even start-ups have expectations,” says Sussman. “And they have competitors from the start. Every brand needs to define its own clear role and voice so it can stand out.”

So BAV benchmarks brands to understand where they currently sit in culture to determine where they can go. “A brand might be well-known and respected, even loved by many, but its lack of ‘specialness’ results in ‘commodity brand’ perceptions, softer customer loyalty and weak pricing power. On the other hand, a brand might be distinct, although its audience does not appreciate how the brand fits into their lives,” says Sussman. 

“Without this understanding of what a brand's challenges are, and the dynamics of the landscape it operates in, it's difficult to make a smart decision about how to market it. We, at BAV, can isolate a brand’s innate potential and drive it forward.” 

And that is why, for 30 years, WPP has invested in BAV. It gives WPP the tools it needs to understand any brand, diagnose where it stands in culture, where it needs to go next to achieve its ambitions and how to do that. It was well ahead of its time. 

“Clients don't have an unlimited marketing budget,” Sussman reminds us. “So everything we do has to be efficient, effective and in line with what that brand stands for. But that is not to say that we squander the equity already built up in a brand over time. BAV is about understanding where a brand has come from, and what it looks like at its best.” 

30 years of investigation 

The first test studies – that eventually fed into the BAV product – were fielded in 1992-1993. “First, a survey was designed – which took two hours to complete. Now we have it down to 15 minutes. Originally, data was collected on what was considered meaningful about branding based on existing expertise (and in support of academic research). The researchers resolved to uncover the models within the data once there was critical mass,” says Sussman.  

Today, BAV’s model still revolves around measuring key brand attributes. And the questions posed to consumers relate to the original 24 attributes BAV has been measuring since the very beginning. “Those don't change. And it's important that they don't change because they're fundamental to our key constructs,” says Sussman.  

“They've been continually tested over the years. And, if I want to look at how brands evolved over time, consistency of measurement is essential. However, we have gone from 24 attributes to 48 to capture greater depth and texture of brand meaning. As consumer motivations change, we must be able to capture what is relevant today.” 

The team at BAV makes sure that what BAV measures drive the business metrics that matter to WPP’s clients. Brand differentiation matters because that’s what attracts consumers and enables greater pricing power. “The longevity of our BAV study, modelled against business KPIs, enables us to derive what success looks like,” he says.

BAV looks for both correlations and for signals in the data that disrupt these correlations. “The model is built on understanding the relationships between brand impact and business success. It’s our job to find the right brand motivations and trigger points beyond the obvious. For example, everybody knows that trust drives relevance, but will that differentiate a brand? While we must know and understand these traditional brand expectations, with the right data, we can find that special whitespace to do it better. These are the places in which nobody's playing,” he says. 

Without BAV, markets are often forced to evaluate a brand in a tiny microcosm – usually the brand in question versus its direct competitors in that category. “BAV lets us look at a brand beyond the confines of its category, helps it transcend the current state, even disrupting expectations,” he says. “What’s missing – without BAV – is cultural understanding.” 

Next on the agenda

The next step in the evolution of BAV is data linkage. As we gain access to more and more ‘big data’, BAV provides a proven north star to help us interpret these addition data streams. Sussman is emphatic that the cultural perspective is powerful and must not get lost as the BAV product and all its innovations become more assimilated into the tools used across WPP companies. 

But the increasing value of BAV is clear from the staggering increase in users. “We went from 35 users to more than 9,000 across WPP in a year or two,” says Sussman. “Now we’re training people to use BAV all over the world.”

Michael Sussman


published on

18 August 2023



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