Understanding brand positioning.

Understanding brand positioning and techniques for effective brand positioning. First some clarification may be needed of what we mean by brand positioning as even within the Marketing industry there is no standard definition. Some people will call it brand architecture, brand essence, brand key/onion/house… call it what you will, what we mean is the process of setting out what a brand promises to and should stand for in the eyes of its target consumer. Brand positioning is the full view, often made up of component parts that include all of some of:

Brand proposition – what the brand stands for

Brand character – who the brand is, which in turn dictates what is should say & do and how

Brand benefits – emotional, functional and sometimes also social – what it promises to do for its consumers

Reasons to believe – its proof points, why it can promise what it is

Brand essence – the boiled down summary of what is at the heart of the brand

Consumer insight – the essential truth about the consumer that the brand reflects back to them

Brand values – what the brand stands for, the values around which it connects with its target.

Some models may also include category insights, points of differentiation vs competition, desired consumer takeout, brand history/roots… the list goes on. What matters is that a full brand positioning is essentially the ‘rules’ that drive brand strategy, that give you the means to decide what is on or off strategy for that brand.

So that’s the detail, but rewind for a second. What you need first is a good positioning territory (or platform), that resonates with the target, is differentiating, credible to the brand and future-facing. This is the broader space in which you want to position the brand e.g. positive energy. There are many different ways to get to this space, but the safest route is through a consumer, cultural or category insight. What is the insight to which the brand will respond? At this stage there could be more than one that you still want to work with and that’s fine, it’s a good opportunity to explore how far different insight routes could take you.

So as an example: a premium beer looking to target men’s ‘sit & savour’ drinking occasions could have different insights that lead to different positioning territories:

Insight: A quiet beer at the end of the working day is my ‘decompression zone’, I enter it wound up and tired, but leave it calm & relaxed.

Positioning territory: The Decompression Zone.

Insight: I drink one beer at the end of the day as my reward for a day of hard work. It’s just one beer and it’s my little treat – better make it a good beer!

Positioning territory: One Good Beer.

This is the creative part of the process where art & magic leads over science and logic. It’s the time to stretch and explore, involve different people, look around for inspiration (NEVER try and create a positioning on your own in a dark room!). It’s getting a great creative take on the territory at this stage that can make the difference between a really inspiring positioning & an average one.

Brands can use cultural Insight at this point to obtain a forward-facing view of the territory as well as understand how it looks today. Cultural insight can include techniques such as semiotics to uncover the codes at play in this space, helping you to decide which your brand must adopt to be in the game, but also which you can break to be different. Understanding the residual (out of date), dominant (contemporary) and emergent codes in a territory can help make sure that your brand positioning is built to last.

How to tell if you’ve got a good one? Other people get as excited about the positioning territory as you do. They get inspired by it and can immediately start to relate to it, or come up with ideas to bring it to life. They see it as a good fit to your brand, credible, as well as motivating. Those people may be your target consumers, but should also be your agencies. If they aren’t involved in the development process it’s a good point to check in with them before nailing the full and final positioning.

Testing brand positioning with consumers can be difficult. It may be hard for them to understand that it isn’t advertising. So setting any research up correctly is important and getting the stimuli right is vital; the response will only ever be as good as what you test. Consider using music and imagery rather than just flat words on a page, try to evoke the feeling that the brand is trying to convey. For existing brands, especially well-known ones, consumers will have a strong opinion on what the brand can and can’t be. Be informed by that, but don’t let consumers alone make the decision on how you position your brand.

Writing it all up:

Once you have the territory agreed and your brand’s take on it determined you need to craft the different specific elements of the brand positioning. This has previously been referred to as ‘adjective juggling’ and can basically go on as long as you are prepared to let it. Getting unanimous agreement to all words can be tricky. So a good tip is to bank a set of essential words that everyone agrees should sit at the heart of the brand positioning, then work these up into the different component parts.

A simple framework from which to build can be:

‘For [consumer target definition] who want to [consumer insight] brand X is the [product definition] that [core brand benefit], because [essential reasons to believe]’.

e.g. ‘For hard-working, beer-loving guys for whom an end-of-day beer is their workday decompression zone, brand X is the premium lager that relaxes and refreshes body & soul, thanks to its ultimately refreshing taste yet uplifting hoppy kick.’

Its long and it’s not beautifully crafted (yet), but it’s the elevator positioning pitch – everything you need to get across in one sentence. It sits alongside the other elements of the positioning which convey a fuller understanding of each component part. The essence can be the hardest to nail down – three or four short words that need to say so much. Tackle this last therefore, and remember that even it should be supported by other parts of the positioning and never just used on its own.

Can a brand essence be the brand’s strapline? Yes, if it really embodies everything that brand stands for. For example, Red Bull’s ‘Gives you Wings’.

But be aware that should you want to alter the strapline as a campaign changes this could limit you. It is arguably safer to have a strapline that really captures or builds off the essence (and the rest of the positioning). BMW’s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ remains at the heart of the brand whilst its strapline has flexed to include ‘The Ultimate Driving Experience’ and more latterly, and debatably, Joy.

Finally, remember brand positioning is the start, not the finish. It helps define not only what a brand is, but what it should say & do as a result. The AM:Say:Do model captures this nicely:

Techniques for a effective brand positioning:

Brand positioning statements are not consumer-facing. So it doesn’t have to be written in consumer language, but its best to translate corporate-only terminology into something a consumer would at least recognize. Instead of using consumer language try writing it in language the brand would use.

Avoid the generic & obvious. Words like ‘quality’, ‘honest’ and ‘up to date’ add little – challenge yourself, would you ever want a brand NOT to promise quality, to be dishonest or out of date? Really? Save the words for something inspiring, meaningful, differentiating and directional. Even if that is ‘of exceptional quality’, ‘transparent’ or ‘contemporary’ if you must…

Bear the competition in mind throughout. Brands don’t exist in a vacuum, so do consider who you are trying to differentiate from when developing your positioning & how to do it. Understand first who you are really trying to compete against, then analyse them & what they do well and less well. Kevin Lane Keller talks about points of parity and points of difference, which is a nice way of deciding where your brand should deliver consistently with the competition and where you can stand apart.

Be single-minded. Just because a full brand positioning comprises lots of different elements, don’t let this be an excuse to incorporate different ideas. The best positionings work together deliver a single idea from different dimensions, poor ones often read like a shopping list.

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