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What Should You Spend on Advertising?

What Should You Spend on Advertising?

By Steve McKee | BusinessWeek

It’s a ticklish question for every company. See what your rivals are doing, and then think about what’s going to be effective

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is: “How much should my company spend on marketing and advertising?” It’s a conundrum that vexes many corporate leaders, from emerging entrepreneurs to seasoned CEOs. Unfortunately, instead of seeking a rational answer to the question, many of them just ignore it and hope it will go away.

As a rule, emerging companies focus most of their time and talents on meeting the needs of customers, as well they should. If they don’t take care of the customers they already have, everything else will be academic. Strangely, however, many neglect the function of winning customers in the first place. Others naively assume that if they simply provide excellent products or services, their reputation will precede them. Call it the “build a better mousetrap” syndrome. But the world has too many other things to do with its time than beat a path to your door. That means you need to structure your profit-and-loss statement in such a way that you can profitably allocate a reasonable percentage of your revenue to marketing.

The Big Question: How Much?

While there is no definitive answer as to how much any business should spend on marketing, there are general guidelines any company can use to develop a formula that works for them.

Your first step should be to try to find out what the advertising-to-sales ratio typically is in your field. Public companies in your industry may give a figure for their marketing spending in their financial statements (found in their annual reports). With a simple calculation, you can figure out what percentage of their overall revenue that represents. If you can’t find any public companies that seem similar enough to yours, you might want to start at 5% and then adjust your projected spending up or down based on the size of your market, the cost of media, what you can learn about how much your competitors are spending, and the speed at which you’d like to grow.

You’ll also need to ask yourself if your business is built to leverage volume or to leverage margin. Even within industries, there are substantial differences in the marketing spend of volume-driven companies compared with margin-driven ones. Volume-driven companies tend to spend a tiny percentage of sales on marketing, in part because their large revenues enable small contributions to add up fast, and in part because of the margin pressures they face in having to compete with other high volume companies. By contrast, margin-driven companies tend to spend a larger percentage of sales on marketing: They have room in their margins to afford it, and they’re often working from a smaller revenue base.