In the high-octane world of Formula 1 racing, the world’s best drivers hurl themselves and their machines around a treacherous circuit in a bid to post the fastest qualifying time. They know that from the vaunted pole position, they have the best chance of winning the race.
In the high-stakes world of business, positioning is just as critical. It is not a ‘nice-to-have’—it can mean the difference between becoming the market leader and crashing out of contention.
Brand positioning is essentially an articulation of why your audience would want to buy your brand in preference to others. When done well, it:
- Drives differentiation for your brand
- Brings clarity and gives unambiguous direction to the marketing activities that will build brand equity
- Maintains consistency of brand image across geographies and communication channels
- Inspires great execution which enhances the customer experience
But how do you go about defining a winning brand position? Let’s go through BrandID (right, click the image to enlarge), a brand positioning framework that EffectiveBrands uses:
1. The Market & Target are two of the most critical building blocks you need to get right in order to have a firm foundation for positioning your brand. The Market refers to the competitive landscape—and more specifically, to the direct and indirect alternatives your target audience would consider as a substitute for your product or service. For instance, is the competitive set for Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream merely other brands of premium ice-cream? Would you include yoghurt and sorbets? Or all kinds of sweet treats? How you choose to define the market will greatly influence your choices elsewhere in the BrandID triangle. As for the Target, this refers to the consumer segment to whom your brand promise is most relevant and important. This should be a long-term choice of who you will focus on, and be large enough to achieve your objectives. For instance, Puma’s recent brand campaign targets a segment no one had considered before: The ‘after-hours athlete’, people with energy to burn, hunched over foosball and billiards tables at bars and pubs all over town, competing the night away.
2. The Brand DNA highlights the unique attribute(s) of the brand that set(s) it apart. An example from Guinness, is the fact that it is a two-pour drink: The bartender first pours two-thirds of a pint, then lets it settle before topping it off. This takes time. But the geniuses at Guinness took a potentially negative trait and flipped it around, making it clear that “good things come to those who wait”.
3. The Insight is that penetrating blaze of discernment born of a deep-seated, universal consumer or category truth providing the best foundation on which to build your brand. For IKEA, it’s the realization that there are people out there who don't want to pay the earth for well-designed furniture. Who takes pride in finding a smarter, better way to make a statement about themselves and their taste. Who understands that you don’t have to be rich to be clever.
4. The Personality of a brand refers to its instinctive character—a predictor of how it will act and express itself in response to future events. This is why you will never see a sad cast member in Disneyland. For a brand that is synonymous with happiness, that would simply be out of character.
5. Benefits, as the name implies, are the most important functional and emotional benefits that help deliver the brand’s discriminator. They can be functional (what does the brand or product provide for me?) or emotional (how does it make me feel?). But a combination of both is best. For instance, Whole Foods provides its customers high-quality organic food products plus the knowledge that they are making the right choices for a sustainable future.
6. Proof is the evidence that substantiates the brand promise. This may be intrinsic (tied directly to the product) or extrinsic (borrowed from the outside). The proof of the Harley-Davidson experience includes the trademarked growl of its signature V-twin engine with a single crankpin; as well as the Harley Owners’ Group (HOG) which unites Harley owners in a passionate and authentic community.
7. The Discriminator is the key difference that sets your brand apart from its competitors. For Apple, it’s the immersive, intuitive and individualized user experience, a lifestyle that has gained a cult following the world over.
8. The Belief defines your brand’s point of view about the category and the brand’s role within it. The more sharply defined you hone your belief, the easier it’ll be for your brand to stand out. The belief behind AXE deodorant is that it “gives guys the edge in the mating game”.
9. Finally, a brand’s Purpose goes beyond the transactional aspect of its existence, to the cause or rallying cry that imbues the brand—and all who work to bring it to market—with a sense of mission. For Google, that mission is “to organize and make accessible the world’s information”.
Applied with rigour, these elements of the BrandID can help you carve out a winning position for your brand in the competitive landscape. But how can you ensure that people who are removed from the core brand team by role, distance or time, don’t interpret the brand through a different lens?
EffectiveBrands has developed Guardrails, a tool to help you keep your brand honest as you steer it into the future. Essentially a template with three columns, the tool prompts you to validate a customizable list of vectors (such as brand values and attributes, the target audience and their needs) by articulating (i) what it always is; (ii) what it could be; and (iii) what it would never be. Applying this mental construct will guide you to new areas of opportunity beyond your current domain; it will also reveal the OB (out-of-bounds) markers beyond which you proceed at your brand’s peril.
With so much conventional wisdom out there, you’d think every brand should have a distinctive positioning by now—and consistently maintain it over time. Yet the reverse is true. So the question is: Why do so many brand positionings keep changing? Why don’t they have a longer life?
Part of the answer is that the market has moved on. So the core assumptions that underpinned your original brand positioning have to be re-examined. But equally, the answer lies in the human condition—or more specifically, the need to make a mark in your new role. We’ve been taught and trained to be wave-makers, not flow monitors. So the default mode, when a new brand manager assumes control of a brand, is to challenge the status quo and change its positioning.
Challenging is fine; it's changing for change’s sake that is the problem. It takes a good marketer to review a brand positioning (or develop one if none previously existed), then hone and refine it for future market success. It takes an even better one to recognize when not to change it.
May we all strive to know the difference.
Cyrex Li is a consultant with EffectiveBrands, a global marketing consulting firm dedicated to unleashing global brand potential.