Time to Turn Up the Volume

The Brand Positioning Revolution

Almost all agencies worth their salt include it as one of their core competencies. Almost every client of any sophistication acknowledges its importance. And yet, it seems to me, as an avid brand follower, that the topic of brand positioning and the accompanying benefit to the end user of meaningful difference, is totally absent from the everyday debate and chatter about brands.

Big question:  If brand positioning is that important and if it is so widely practiced, why the silence?

In my view, there are a number of reasons:

  1. The business of positioning is a fundamentally strategic exercise and over the past 10 years at least, the marketing community has become more and more interested and focused on the executional aspects of branding. Strategy, while appreciated, just doesn’t have the same sex appeal.
  2. This point has been further exacerbated by what I call the “manliness factor” that still pervades many agencies today. A typical response would be along the following lines– “of course we can do positioning…I mean it’s strategic. That’s what we are, that’s what we do, isn’t it?”
  3. More recently, we’ve all become (understandably) obsessed by digital and social media and these two together have turned up the volume so loud that almost every other topic in the marketing arena has suffered.
  4. The topic of positioning has been further diluted by the absence of a champion. Many of us still remember the Ries & Trout book on positioning that was published in 1981, yes 1981. That’s 30 years ago. And the book is still in print and still being read. For a few years in the ‘90’s, Tom Peters took up the cause but since then, nobody has become famous talking about positioning.

What makes this situation even stranger is that consumers really value the importance of difference in a brand and in a 2010 research study that we undertook at Sterling Brands among 4000 US consumers, many were able to articulate the nuances between brands. They saw Pixar, Wii, Apple, Lego and Google as being very different. At the other extreme, they saw Citi, Bank of America, Capitol One and Chase as being almost totally interchangeable. The point here is that difference (aka positioning) continues to be important to every audience, whether it be agency, brand owner or end-user.

With no common standards and no agreed definition of what it means, everyone has set up their own version of positioning. And the result is exactly what one would expect…chaos! It is common in our work with clients to be handed historical or current positioning documents and this is where the problem can be seen more clearly. For example:

  • on many occasions, positioning work authored by advertising agencies is not so much brand positioning but more communications positioning and yet it is referred to as ‘brand’ positioning
  • when we see the work of digital agencies, positioning is often focused on just the digital opportunity, not the broader brand opportunity
  • when we see the work from some other agencies, we sometimes see tag lines presented as positioning
  • and sometimes clients conduct their own positioning and guess what, it’s often done by committee and the 300 words that go to make up the final prose often end up in inactionable jargon

Now please do not take this ranting as criticism of any of our competitors or any of our clients. That’s not the point. The real issue here is that positioning is a critical step in building successful brands and yet there is no single agreed approach that is contemporary and relevant to the times in which we live. With so much lack of consistency, we feel it’s time to bring some rigor and some discipline and some innovative thinking to positioning development. This would be good for everyone involved because it would level the playing field and the real leaders in positioning would emerge naturally from the marketplace and the faux ‘positioners’ would also naturally disappear.

It will take some sort of revolution to make this happen and it may not happen anytime soon but we’re ready, willing and able to be at the forefront of this positioning revolution. Anybody else like to join us?

Simon Williams

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