One thing becomes clear when you google “brand positioning”: there’s a lot of confusion—even among marketers—about what it means and how (and by whom) it’s done. Do companies decide how their brands are positioned? Or do consumers do that? The short answer is both; but the more thoughtful you are about positioning your brand, the more likely consumers will be to embrace it. To understand why, a little history is helpful.
The idea of positioning came from Al Ries, an ad agency owner in the 1960s, who, along with one of his account executives, Jack Trout, went on to author the definitive book on the concept, called Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. As the marketplace of the late 60’s and 70’s grew ever more crowded, Ries saw what happened when a new product attempted to compete head-to-head with an established leader: it couldn’t. No amount of exposure—or creativity—was enough to knock the top brand from its “category leader” pedestal in people’s minds. To be memorable (and marketable), a brand had to carve out a new position—one that no competitor had claimed.
To help illustrate the power of positioning, imagine your mind as a filing cabinet containing a folder for every brand you know. In my mind, Baskin Robbins has a folder, Haagen-Dazs has a folder, and Ben & Jerry’s has a folder—and they’re all filed in a drawer under Ice Cream. My ability to name those brands and associate each one with a distinct set of attributes is thanks in part to their strong positioning. Baskin Robbins is an American classic, known for 31 flavors. When I was growing up it was the only ice cream store in my hometown. That is, until Haagen-Dazs came along and opened a shop right next door. This was extremely rude, in my 9-year-old opinion. But Haagen-Dazs was able to do that because they’d positioned their brand as something different: a decadent European (sounding) luxury for grownups, made with just a handful of high-quality ingredients. If Baskin Robbins was an affordable weekly tradition, Haagen-Dazs was a special occasion treat. Because the two brands weren’t going head-to-head, both shops enjoyed a loyal audience and were able to thrive. When Ben and Jerry’s came on the scene, they also had a premium product with high quality ingredients. But they didn’t go head-to-head with Haagen-Dazs, competing for the “premium/luxury” position. Instead, they positioned themselves as a quirky grassroots brand, with a passion for popular culture and social justice. Now, I can name plenty of other ice cream brands off the top of my head—Mayfield, Purity, Breyers, Turkey Hill, Edy’s—but I can’t tell you much about them—or how they’re different from each other, because my brain has them all filed in one folder labeled “unremarkable supermarket brands.” Their positionings in my mind are weaker than those of the other three.
So, How Do You Position Your Brand?
Before you can position your brand in the minds of your target audience, you have to know exactly what you’re positioning. It sounds obvious, but knowing who you are and having the words to talk about it can be two different things, and a lot of our clients struggle with the latter. That’s why we advise taking a written inventory of your brand’s strengths and weaknesses, features and benefits, personality traits, values and purpose, with the aim of finding something unique that only your brand can claim. At Phase 3 we call this a Brand DNA map, and it serves as the foundation of every positioning and marketing strategy we write. We walk clients through a variety of creative exercises to help uncover the key attributes of their brand, so that every stakeholder is in agreement about what the brand is before we position and market it. Ideally, during this process you’ll uncover something unique about your brand that will stand out to your target audience and allow you to carve out your position.
Another part of positioning is deciding who your brand is for. Your target audience owns the brain space you’re trying to occupy, so understanding what makes them tick is essential. Baskin Robbins (to return to my ice cream example) is positioned as a classic family brand. Because they knew their audience well, they sold a variety of kid flavors like Chocolate Ribbon and Pink Bubble Gum (two desserts in one, baby). Meanwhile, next door at Haagen-Dazs, adults were losing their minds over Vanilla and Rum Raisin. Knowing their audiences, both brands developed flavors that further solidified their brand positions.
Unless you’re a first-to-market category creator, you also have to factor in your competition and how they’re positioned. What space are they trying to claim—and how well are they succeeding? When we do a competitive analysis, we try to identify each competitor’s position, based on how they go to market (their look, their language, their customers, their footprint). We don’t know for sure what they had in mind—but we can make an educated guess. One might claim the luxury or premium brand position. While another will offer the best value. One might offer the best customer service, while another touts greater variety. What we’re looking for is unclaimed territory, a quality, feature, benefit, or service that no one is offering. Sometimes you’ll hear a brand strategist refer to this unclaimed territory as “the white space.” And the more crowded the market gets, the less white space there is. That’s when you must get creative and tout something your competition hasn’t marketed or thought of yet. Remember Michelob Ultra, the “first” low-carb beer? When that launched, all light beers were already pretty low in carbs, but none of the brands were talking about it. By productizing that benefit, Michelob Ultra carved out a new position (not to mention an entirely new category of beers) that distinguished it from everything else on the market.
Positioning is all about differentiation, so your audience can associate your brand—and only your brand—with something they value.
Identifying Your Positioning Strategy is Just the Beginning
Once you’ve identified your positioning strategy, you’ll want to write it down and get everyone on your team to sign off. Your statement should articulate your target audience, the need they have, and how your brand is uniquely equipped to satisfy it. And it will become a kind of north star guiding future decisions about how you bring your brand to life.
For example, at Phase 3 we might articulate our brand position this way.
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That’s the foundation. To further solidify our positioning, we have a full brand expression—with targeted messaging and a look and feel that resonates with busy marketers. We introduced the tagline “ideation to execution” and we use it on our website, in our presentations and proposals, and when talking to our clients about the value of integrated marketing. Every element of our brand—from our name to our website, to our proposals, advertising, activations, and interactions with clients is intended to reinforce and strengthen that brand position.
The key is to be thoughtful and methodical and to base your positioning on what is true about your brand, your audience, and the competitive landscape. From there you can activate your brand in countless ways that help to solidify that unique position in peoples’ minds.
If you need help finding your unique position—or have one and need help activating your brand to reinforce it—our team is here to help.