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Brand positioning in the era of disruption, brand purpose and evidence-based marketing

Even though 50 years have passed since it was introduced, many marketers still view the concept of positioning as the basis for brand strategy. First coined by Jack Trout in 1969, positioning was what “advertising does to the product in the prospect’s mind.”

The meaning then expanded beyond advertising and revolutionized branding after Trout, along with Al Reis, published their classic book “Positioning: The Battle of Your Mind” in 1981. 50 years on, and against the backdrop of fast-changing marketplace dynamics, is brand positioning still relevant?

Let’s go back to some basics. Simply put, positioning is about owning a unique position in the mind of the target consumer. It is established relative to your competition in a way that signals differentiation.

As we shall see later, while many marketers still pursue differentiation as a key branding objective, modern marketing paradigms have come to challenge this central tenet.

To some extent, positioning, at least as described by Trout and Reis, can be seen as an art. But there is a lot more to positioning than merely reflecting a position in the minds of consumers.

Fundamentally, brand positioning stands at the heart of marketing strategy. It provides the direction for strategic and tactical activities that will help an organization’s products and services stand out amid the many alternatives consumers could choose.

As such, positioning should always follow other key aspects of brand strategy, namely, market diagnosis, segmentation and targeting. Only then should marketers seek to position the brand most effectively.

Crafting your brand positioning statement

Creating a brand position generally implies crafting what is known as ‘the positioning statement,’ a short strategic document that synthesizes the value that the brand would bring to a particular market segment.

Unlike slogans, positioning statements are developed for internal purposes and aim to reflect the competitive advantage sought.

While the overall statement should be aspirational, it can’t be so far removed from the reality of the current situation as to lose credibility in the minds of consumers.

In order to articulate the brand position, you need to consider the three Cs:

  • Consumers: It’s all about who you have chosen to serve, and being relevant to them, i.e. focusing on value claims that will resonate, and in turn, make your brand desirable to those consumers. From features, attributes and special ingredients (the ‘what’) to benefits consumers receive (the ‘what’s in it for me’) or deep-seated needs & values your consumers aspire to (the ‘why’).
  • Competitors: Focusing attention on your competition within a chosen frame of reference will help zero-in on specific claims that are believed to distinguish the brand from its competitors. Managers may use perceptual mapping (see Fig. 1) as a way of identifying how people perceive the various brands in the market, and what favorable position may exist.

Perceptual Map - Qualtrics

Fig 1: Example of a perceptual map (correspondence mapping) generated in Qualtrics

  • Company: This point is about ensuring the positioning statement is realistic, and can be delivered reliably at every interaction with customers. Some brand positions will be easier to infuse into all aspects of operations than others, which in turn will result in more value being created.

By focusing on who to serve, where to play, where to win, and why consumers should believe you, the main guiding principle for crafting a positioning statement can simply be expressed as:

“For [target market], Brand X is the only brand amongst [competitive set/category] that [unique claim/benefit] because [reason to believe/support points].”

Keep it short, simple, and tight to ensure it’s easily conveyed across the organization. In terms of communicating the essence of your positioning, various strategies can be used.

A popular approach is to promote features and attributes you believe competitors can’t match (e.g. Westin’s heavenly beds) which suggests other options are sub-optimal.

Another popular approach is to directly positioning the brand against your main rival. This is the case of Avis’ 1962 “so we try harder” campaign that targeted Hertz and cleverly turned its weakness into a benefit.

Did brand positioning stand the test of time?

While the central tenets of brand positioning are often taken for granted by many marketers today, some of its core principles have been challenged over the past 50 years.

The evidence-based marketing view

Evidence gathered across a number of different categories and markets would suggest the central importance of differentiation to brand strategy may have been exaggerated.

According to this evidence, aiming for distinctiveness (when the brand looks like itself) and creating salience may in fact be better branding objectives for success.

While it’s certainly true that brands often appear to be more similar than different in traditional brand imagery studies, it’s important to remember that surveys typically fail to capture deeper expressions of brand difference (e.g. implicit measures of brand image, feelings, etc.).

The cognitive sciences view

I personally like to say that it is less about what people buy, and more about what they ‘buy into.’

So while the power of differentiation may have been overplayed, it is the differential value that a brand has acquired in someone’s mind that matters, and it likely stems from multiple dimensions that surveys mostly miss.

Recent findings from the field of neuroscience come to reinforce this idea : the more positive associations a brand has in someone’s brain, the greater its growth potential and differentiation (M. Platt, 2019).  In other words, contrary to Trout and Reis’ original thinking, pursuing a single brand attribute or association to own might actually be detrimental to success.

The rise of Dollar Shave Club and its success against legacy brands like Gillette might serve to illustrate these findings that being more than one thing to consumers can be disruptive.

The purpose-driven view

50 years ago, it was rare to see a brand with a purpose-driven mission. But today, taking a stance and leading the charge on important societal issues is a role many brands look to assume.

From diversity to sustainability, equal opportunities and many more, doing good is on every marketer’s lips- and while it may be paying off for some brands, others might quickly lose sight of what they stand for in the process and end up wrong footed.

I took the picture below at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival during a presentation by LVMH’s Global Brand Officer, Mathilde Delhoume. The slide introduced “the creative brief” singer Rihanna had written as a guideline to launching her new Fenty Beauty line (a joint venture with the French luxury group).

While not a positioning statement per se, the short note helps illustrate the bigger role that brands wish to play in society today. It also highlights a common element found in purpose-driven messaging today: the lack of reference to competitors and a very broad target.

While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of such approaches to power brand growth, social purpose looks like it’s here to stay - good or bad. The real danger seems to be "fake purpose", i.e. brands not backing up their messaging with real purpose-driven action (e.g. green washing).

For others aligning on purpose would appear to bring positive business outcomes, e.g. on June 11th 2019, Unilever announced that  its purpose-led Brands are growing 69% faster than the rest of the business and delivering 75% of the company’s growth. As a result, Unilever’s CEO announced that the firm will dispose of brands that are not able to stand for something more important than making your hair shinier, your skin softer, your clothes whiter or your food tastier,”

As more brands seek to define their roles more broadly, it’s important to align  that messaging with the underlying brand positioning in order to reinforce it. If you’re not careful, the brand could end up standing for nothing.

While the intention of standing behind a social cause is honorable, it goes hand in hand with brand positioning and an analysis of the competition, or the segment that one wishes to serve.

Nike’s “dream crazy” campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick is the perfect illustration of how good positioning ("just do it") and purpose-driven messages work together.

While many considered the ad as risky given the criticism that it drew, the campaign was credited with a 31% sales increase.  I believe its success stems from aligning message (believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything) and purpose (protesting police violence) with the brand’s DNA and positioning: "Just do it."

While I’m sure it infuriated many viewers, Nike knew it would strike a chord with its target customers.

Long live brand positioning!


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Franck Sarrazit

Franck Sarrazit, PhD is a contributor to the Qualtrics blog.

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