Brand positioning is the process of creating a distinctive offering for a brand, which differentiates the brand in the hearts and minds of the consumer, enhances its appeal and positively impacts current and future purchase potential. In essence, consistent, sustained and differentiated brand positioning results in positive brand equity, which is outcome result of all the efforts. Positioning can be for a general mass market audience or a niche demographic sub-group, it can be focused on a particular market, be regional or global in scope, and can evolve over time as the brand develops and matures.
The starting point for any successful brand positioning exercise is to have a clear and specific answer for the question: “What does my brand stand for”? The answer to this question should go beyond the reasons for manufacturing and launching the brand, and should encompass the existential aspect of the brand, which is around the reasons for the brand to exist. More often than not, brands come to life and exist because they have an emotional standing over and above the functional benefits they offer. In many instances, a brand can exist simply because of a unique functional benefit it offers. But it quickly becomes evident that the functional benefit has to be laddered with an emotional connect to counter the threat of copycats and “me-too’s”. Brands with emotional capital are harder to copy, have a longer life cycle and are more effective in handling competitive forces.
This combination of functional and emotional benefits is the primary anchor of a brand’s positioning. The emotional benefits provide differentiating capabilities for the brand along the lines of aspiration, status, prestige, power, class, luxury, premium etc. The functional benefits provide differentiation around aspects like problem solving, quality, efficiency, ease of use, time etc. A balanced combination of these aspects (or their numerous variations) can drive a brand’s positioning. In majority of the cases, the emotional positioning is more critical for a brand’s survival and growth. Most of the biggest battles in the brands space are being fought on emotional positioning. Think Apple vs. Samsung, think Facebook vs. Google, think Microsoft vs. Apple, think Xbox vs. Playstation, think Unilever vs. P&G etc. Competing on emotional positioning requires a brand to go beyond the functional advantages or superiority it offers. It requires the focus to shift to aspects of making a difference in a consumer’s life, improving the quality of life, to become a trustworthy and steadfast companion, a problem solver or a solution provider.
In other words, functional differentiation is important to ensure relevance for a brand but emotional differentiation is critical for the brand’s survival in the market. Positioning is a combination of art and science that understands the balance between these two aspects in terms of communicating it to consumers. The holistic brand experience for the consumer should be consistent and highlight the balance between functional and emotional aspects. It should not be forgotten that functional superiority is still a critical aspect for brand success. Emotional positioning builds on functional positioning and is not its substitute. Communication is only one of the many platforms that can be used to develop effective positioning. Every brand touchpoint has a critical role to play, which includes promotions, price, packaging, customer service, retail experience and post purchase experience.
Over the years markets have become more complex to navigate and are more fragmented. This has made the task of creating and implementing effective brand positioning strategies more challenging. If the S.M.A.R.T criteria are applied to measure brand positioning success, then the following challenges are identified:
Specific: It is important to have a highly differentiated positioning in the market, but it is challenging to occupy specific positioning platforms in today’s markets. This is due to high levels of competition and adjoining positioning territories that brand’s occupy. To take an example, majority of bigger automobile manufacturers have multiple brands straddling different price and utility levels.
Measurable: Positioning can be formalised through formal positioning statements, brand visions, brand guidelines and frameworks, but it is challenging to measure a brand’s performance against its positioning. There are numerous consumer feedback driven tools that can measure performance against key positioning attributes, but they have a critical underlying assumption that consumers understand a brand’s positioning and can articulate it.
Assignable: A positioning framework or territory can be assigned to a brand, but it is challenging to occupy the framework or territory alone (and in many categories and segments impossible). This is again due to competitor brands having high degree of overlap on different positioning attributes or due to a brand’s positioning being too generic by definition.
Realistic: Positioning has to be realistic for the brand to deliver against it. In many instances it is not as brands promise more than they can deliver. This is precisely where they come up short and destroy their equity in the consumer’s hearts and minds.
Time-related: This is probably the most challenging aspect to deliver against. There is arguably no such thing as a point in time when an organisation can say that its brands have an exact match on the positioning framework they had articulated for the brand in the market. Because of the inherent nature of positioning being emotional (rather than functional), it is difficult to put numbers and time frames to achieve numbers on brand positioning.
Having outlined the challenges of creating and delivering on brand positioning on specific attributes and numbers, it is important to understand the role each brand touchpoint plays. For a differentiated offering to be visible to consumers, it needs to be communicated. Not only does it need to be communicated, but needs to be done consistently, continuously and across all brand touch points. Advertising, sponsorships, promotions, any form of advocacy and experiential events and even the choice of corporate social responsibility initiatives can be used to communicate and strengthen a differentiated positioning.
All brands that have a highly differentiated offering in the market backed up by a strong emotional bond they share with their consumers, have mastered the art of communicating brand positioning consistently. Positioning is primarily about being able to maintain a consistent perception and image for the brand in the hearts and minds of the consumer.
Communication is critical to push the consumer from an “awareness-led perception” to an “experience-driven image” stage. As the consumer moves across the brand funnel, the understanding of the brand’s positioning deepens and hardens. As consumer decision-making has evolved to become more non-linear, the traditional funnel has also evolved. Brands can now enter a consumer’s consideration set much later in the purchase process and sometimes even close to the final decision. Alternatively, brands can drop off the consideration set as the consumer actively evaluates and searches for more information. Brand positioning should be strong enough to make the brand stay in a consumer’s consideration set in an increasingly non-linear decision making process.
With communication as a primary vehicle, brand positioning should have longevity as an essential trait. Any form of positioning should be able to hold strong in the medium to long term trajectory of a brand’s life, withstand competition pressure, absorb changes in market complexity and be future focused to counter disruptive changes. A positioning can evolve over a period of time but it cannot drastically change. For example, a positioning platform that highlights “superior craftsmanship” and “bespoke design” as two specific differentiating features suddenly cannot highlight “ wide range covering multiple price points” as one. Continuing on the same example, “superior craftsmanship” can evolve into “premium source of ingredients” to expand the brand’s positioning on the luxury platform.
It is for these reasons that any form of repositioning exercise is always challenging and difficult to manage. Brand repositioning requires an in-depth understanding of a brand’s legacy and positioning journey to be able to identify areas where repositioning can happen. The rules of looking for adjacencies and not completely overturning the existing positioning apply strongly to any form of repositioning exercise.
Longevity, ability to stay relevant in increasingly non-linear decision making processes and having a consistent and reliable communications vehicle are important factors that influence the success of any brand positioning exercise. It is equally important to understand the success factors for brand positioning management. Here are some best practices for managing brand positioning:
Formulate with a vision driven by aspiration: Positioning for a brand should be designed with a strong aspirational and futuristic point of view. Though positioning is equally important to get right for the present time because a differentiated offering allows the brand to compete effectively in the category, but it should still be future focused. The core premise should be about what the brand aspires or wants to be rather what it is currently. This not only helps in terms of ensuring longevity of the positioning but also allows the brand to grow into the positioning platform. Additionally, the brand custodians have an aspirational target for the brand, which ensures that the brand is continually evolving and growing, rather than becoming staid.
Allow creation of stories and experiences: A brand’s positioning in a category should allow the brand’s custodians to weave stories and create experiences around it. This is important from the point of view of being able to strengthen the emotional differentiation of the brand. As marketing and branding as practices have evolved, brand positioning has also moved on from being a traditional advertising driven model to the use of more non-traditional media. Creating immersive experiences is increasingly taking prominent stage in strategic marketing plans of organisations. Brand experiences are the most impactful mode of directly making the consumer understand the positioning and form emotional bonds.
Keep it differentiated but simple: Positioning needs to be able to put a brand on a differentiated platform vis-à-vis competition, but it should be simple. By simple we are not implying the choice of words or the number of words, but something that is easy, precise and actionable. Jargons, complex words and multi-layered themes are best avoided when working out a brand’s positioning because they make positioning management difficult. A simple and clear positioning is easier to implement at activation points, drives clearer creative briefs for advertising, help in designing of more effective marketing communications, drives sharper and more effective PR campaigns, allows discovery of more effective sponsorship avenues and enables more consistent communication around the brand’s positioning. In short, simple is actionable and manageable in the world of positioning. Let’s not also forget that simple is more easily measurable.
Formulate from a global consumer perspective: Gone are the days of local brand positioning. Positioning in today’s world for any brand that has ambitions of scaling up its presence should be ‘global’ or ‘glocal’. Global positioning is also a test of the brand’s functional and emotional differentiators to have appeal with a global set of consumers. Global positioning also ensures consistency in the brand’s marketing and communication efforts across markets. This is critical from the aspect of being able to manage the brand’s identity at a global level, without allowing too much of local level factors to dilute the brand’s equity.
Achieve balance on functional and emotional differentiators: It is important to achieve a balance between the functional and emotional differentiators so that the positioning does not look and sound “too fluffy” and nor “too mechanical”. An overtly emotional positioning can become blurry and convoluted from a consumer understanding perspective. On the other hand, a functional differentiation may come across as too mechanical in most categories and can be quickly copied by competitors. To take an example of luxury cars where the emotional bonding with the brand is of paramount importance, functional aspects of the car’s specifications and performance still strongly influence the decision making process.
Try to include at least one unique point of differentiation, if not many: Though it is quite challenging to identify and own unique differentiation points unless the brand is a result of disruptive innovation, there should still be an interest in owning one unique point. It is not necessary that the whole of the positioning revolves around the unique part, but it serves as a useful anchor and can be dialled up and down depending on category and market maturity. Unique points of differentiation also cannot be copied easily, which allows the brand’s positioning to hold firm in cluttered categories.
Make it media agnostic: Brand positioning platforms should be media agnostic and scalable in any form of traditional and non-traditional media. Essentially this means that the brand positioning can be translated into an effective television campaign, a compelling body copy for a print ad, an immersive brand experience, an interactive digital campaign and a standout outdoors campaign. This is a critical success factor in the complex, media fragmented world of today. The emergence of new and different forms of media means that the number of touch points that a brand has with the consumer has increased many folds. More the touch points, more is the need to have a consistent brand positioning across them.
Last but not the least, incorporate the consumer’s voice: Formulating a brand positioning is incomplete and dangerously inaccurate if the consumer’s perspective and viewpoints about the brand have not been taken on board. Without a consumer perspective, a positioning exercise becomes an exercise of imagination rather than one driven by facts and evidence. It is important that a credible amount of consumer feedback on what the brand stands for them, how do they feel about the brand and what the brand should do to increase its appeal has gone into the positioning design exercise. Without consumer knowledge, the intended positioning would be driven what the custodians think about the brand rather than what the consumer thinks and perceives.
Brand positioning in today’s hyper-competitive markets has become challenging and difficult to formulate. It has also become more difficult to manage. Successful positioning platforms have some common characteristics, which include allowing the brand to grow into it, longevity, aspirational and future looking.
But formulating and implementing a positioning platform is just one stage of the process. The critical aspect of managing the positioning comes next. For successful management of a brand’s positioning, there are quite a few criteria. The primary one is that the positioning platform should be simple followed by the need to have customer feedback incorporated into the design stage. Positioning is increasingly, and in majority of instances, a strategic global aspect of brand management. It has moved beyond local level positioning due to increasingly ambitious and expansionist nature of businesses.
Keeping in mind all these factors, implementing and managing a brand’s positioning requires strategic thinking, adherence to best practices, an in-depth understanding of the consumer’s needs and preferences, aspirational and future thinking and the ability to create simple but compelling positioning platforms.